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The Lure of Volcanoes

James Hamilton looks at how volcanic activity in Iceland in 1783 and elsewhere elicited strange reactions, and stimulated the creative powers of artists and scientists.

Iceland's Laki fissure by Chmee2/Valtameri. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsIn June 1801 Sir William Hamilton, the retired diplomat who had represented British interests in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies for 36 years, offered a set of important diaries to the Royal Society. These had been kept, at Hamilton’s expense, by Father Antonio Piaggio, who had recorded in words and drawings the day-to-day activities of Vesuvius between 1779 and 1794. Piaggio, who lived at the foot of Vesuvius, ‘always rose at daybreak, and took his observations several times in the day’. In a letter inserted into the first volume of the diaries, Hamilton wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society: ‘No man was ever more ready with his pencil as his masterly sketches testify nor no man was ever more attached to truth.’

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