John Brewer’s visit to CECS

Sarah Goldsmith

On the 24-25th February, CECS and the Department of History had the privilege of hosting Professor John Brewer for two days. On Tuesday night, speaking to a packed room of staff, postgrads and even some stray undergrads, John gave a paper on his latest research project: ‘Sublime Tourism, Neapolitan Science and Counter-Revolution: Vesuvius and Pompeii in the late 18th and early 19th century’.

Citing Vesuvius’s consistent, but low-level eruptions as creating the perfect sublime site, John began with his analysis of Vesuvius’ remarkable 1824 Visitors Book (kept at the Hermit’s Hut, in case you were wondering). The book contains over two thousand entries from men, women and children of numerous nationalities, including the enormously fat Duke of Chandos. John explored how these entries, written in the immediate aftermath of visiting the fiery abyss, revealed an emphatically social experience that could range from standard expressions of Sublime appreciation to resolute refusals to never venture hence again, tales of male bravura, and the stirrings of lava-fuelled romantic passion.

Outlining the conjunction between the Sublime and the scientific, John argued that the first acted as a stimulus for the second, while the second allowed for a sublime experience to remain undisturbed by ignorant terror. Building upon this, John pointed towards the two perspectives typically used in Pierre-Jacques Voltaire’s numerous depictions of an erupting Vesuvius. Commissioned by the French aristocrats, the first “close” perspective revealed these men as the Philosophical traveller, calmly admiring the Sublime spectacle of flowing lava with an Enlightened observational and aesthetic gaze. The second “long-range” perspective, with a fiery, erupting Vesuvius in the background, depicted panic-stricken Neapolitans fleeing with only Catholic superstition as their guide to understanding the terrors around them.

"Eruption of Vesuvius" by Pierre-Jacque Volaire, 1774
“Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1774
"Eruption of Vesuvius in 1771", Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1779
“Eruption of Vesuvius in 1771”, Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1779

John’s consideration of Sublime tourism formed but one strand in his wide-ranging and fascinating consideration of the shifting European and Neapolitan approaches to Vesuvius. Covered everything from the tri-yearly liquefaction of St. Januarius’ blood (videos available on Youtube for the curious) to Giovanni Pacini’s 1825 opera, L’ultimo giorno di Pompeii, he made a convincing argument for the broad psychological appeal of the volcano. Within this, in examining the relationship between Vesuvius and the excavation of Pompeii, John explored how the volcano became a historical artifact. John argued that the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century discovery of bodies in Pompeii fundamentally shifted the perception of the site and its relationship with Vesuvius to one of human tragedy. Driven by an ethos of sympathy, AD 79 became, and remained, Vesuvius’s biggest historical eruption. This almost totally supplanted the eruption of 1631, which had been the historical eruption most commonly associated with the volcano.

Shifting back and forth as a symbol of divine wrath in the early modern period and mid-nineteenth century to the focus of eighteenth-century rational Enlightenment phenomena and the pride of the nineteenth-century Neapolitan scientific community, and functioning as an important symbol of both the revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries during the French Revolution, John highlighted Vesuvius as a powerfully versatile, unpredictably obedient symbol throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The following day, John led a Master Class, ‘”Historical Distance” and Scale’, for postgraduates. Leaving the lava and eruptions of Vesuvius behind us, we instead explored concepts of distance and perception as useful tools for framing historical inquiry. Over two hours, John led us in a wide-ranging discussion, considering everything from issues of power and ethics in history (does the historian have a role, right, or even a duty, to make interventions into the present?) to the aesthetics aims of writing history, the role of veracity, problems of narration, and the theoretical possibility of using “distance” as a barometer rather than “difference” or “otherness”.

Feeling challenged by the need to avoid giving “armor-plated” papers that are so coherent that all criticism bounces off, we thanked John for his wisdom and generosity in giving two hours of his time to being pelted with post-graduate questions and retired, allowing him to (hopefully) get a very well-earned cup of tea.

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