1 March, 2010Issue 11.4HistoryScience

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Tales from Italy’s Land of Fire

Scott Moore

foerAlwyn Scarth
Vesuvius: A Biography
Terra Publishing, 2009
342 Pages
ISBN 978-1903544259

It is an intriguing irony that many of the world’s most beautiful landscapes are also its most deadly. The same geologic forces that gave rise to Japan’s Mount Fuji, America’s Yellowstone, and India’s Deccan Plateau also unleash catastrophic volcanic eruptions. And although many volcanic hotspots are located on distant continents, some powerful volcanic landscapes also lurk on the fringes of Europe.

Alwyn Scarth explores one of these, Italy’s Campi Flegrei (the “burning lands”), and its vital core, Mount Vesuvius, in Vesuvius: A Biography. Refreshingly, Scarth’s lens is the landscape itself; his project aims not merely to give readers a geology or history lesson, but rather to show how the region’s human and natural histories are deeply intertwined. He provides perhaps the best statement of this intention at the end of his preface: “I wrote [Vesuvius] for all those who would welcome a thorough study of the changing relationships between Europe’s most violent volcano and the people living around it.”

This is indeed a worthy aim. While the geologic and ecological characteristics of landscapes, more than almost anything else, inform the human stories that play out on them, few chroniclers possess the vision and breadth of knowledge to attempt a simultaneous human and natural history of a region. But Scarth’s is an exhaustive history of volcanism in the Campi Flegrei, and a compelling account of its impact on human lifestyles in the region. All in all, it is an excellent exercise in geography, blending human and natural histories.

Though it has few true practitioners, geography in its truest form attempts to understand human phenomena (societies, economies, etc.) as spatially distinct—people and the things they build differ from place to place, and they differ because places themselves are diverse. It’s a simple point, but one rarely taken seriously by practitioners in a field of increasingly specialized scholarship.

The modern discipline of geography is divided into human and physical geography; the former sits distinctly within the social sciences, the latter in the earth sciences. As a result of this division, few authors attempt to tell the story of a place in terms of both people and landscapes, ordinarily choosing one lens and neglecting the other.

Scarth deploys an expansive intellectual arsenal to attempt to bridge this divide, combining detailed descriptions of the geologic record with meticulously researched first-hand human accounts of the region’s volcanic activity. Particularly impressive are his own translations of a number of Roman sources, and his description of the impact of the Pompeii disaster on Roman history. One of the most vivid accounts of this disaster comes from the Roman historian Dio Cassius:

Suddenly, a portentous crash was heard, as if the mountains were falling down in ruins. First, huge stones were hurled aloft, rising as high as the highest mountains. Then came a great quantity of fire and endless smoke, so that the whole atmosphere was obscured and the Sun was entirely hidden, as if it had been eclipsed. Thus, day was turned into night and light into darkness.

Yet, for all its value as a work of scholarly synthesis, Vesuvius is also something of a cautionary tale for those who might undertake projects with such a broad scope. While Scarth displays an impressive command of the geological processes below Vesuvius and the human history above it, the book itself has a ponderous feel, as if unsure of its true character. Vesuvius awkwardly tests the boundaries of genre, oscillating between textbook and popular history. The former character is suggested both by the “Further Reading” section which concludes each chapter, and by the numerous text boxes that seem chiefly of academic interest, such as “The Spanish Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” and “Alfred Lacroix observes a lava flow at its source in 1905.” In navigating between the academic and the popular, Scarth seems most determined to cobble together a historical narrative.

This would not present any problems, of course, but for Scarth’s intensive focus on constructing an observational record of volcanic activity rather than relating his material to broader historical trends. While Scarth’s broad perspective—both scientific and humanistic—is illuminating, the point of this perspective remains to construct a narrative larger than the sum of its parts. A geologist might produce an exhaustive account of Vesuvian volcanology; an historian, a rich tale of the peoples who live in its shadow. United, the geologist-historian is able to tell us not only about Vesuvius, but also about why it looms so large in the European imagination, and how it resonates far beyond Italy’s Campania.

This, however, Scarth fails to do. In his chapter on William Hamilton, who made important contributions to the field of volcanology during his tenure as British envoy in Naples, Scarth repeats Hamilton’s observations of Vesuvius in great detail, but gives short shrift to his influence on the natural sciences in the Age of Enlightenment. Though Scarth displays an awareness of his subjects’ relation to such broader historical trends, he seems unnecessarily intent on relating these to Vesuvius, rather than the other way around. Though Scarth’s geologic-historical perspective may be sound, his literary handling of this admittedly difficult synthesis is far from deft.

The promise that connections will be made to broader themes is suggested by the book’s final chapter, “The Future: the Eruption to be Avoided.” Here, Scarth takes stock of Vesuvius’s impact on the psychology of Campanian people, and how it has affected their preparations for future eruptions. From his exhaustive history Scarth is able to draw some interesting lessons for such preparations. Based on past experience, he says, “The Campanians would probably place more trust in ministers of religion than in ministers of government.” Better, then, to enlist the region’s priests in making plans for evacuation and emergency management than the famously factious provincial and central governments.

It is to be hoped that we will see more works of a scope and ambition similar to Vesuvius. So much of modernity would have us believe that we are masters of the natural environment, that it is merely a sort of chessboard on which we impose our own designs. But this could not be further from the truth: human history is shaped by, and in many cases at the mercy of, natural forces. Vesuvius is a powerful testimony to this fact, and a warning to take greater heed. If its substance is flawed, its form is not: an integration of the anthropological and the ecological, places and the people who live there.

Scott Moore is reading for an MSc in Environmental Change and Management at Merton College, Oxford.