The Stones of Venice

This review originally appeared in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society vol 50: 2 (1996).

A Calendar of the Correspondence of John Strange, FRS (1732-1799). Edited with an Introduction by Luca Ciancio. London, The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1995. Pp. 152, £8.00 (Paperback). ISBN: 085484 063 X.

This diligently researched volume, the second in the Wellcome Institute’s Occasional Publications series, sheds new light on a multi-disciplinary treasure-trove.  The result of a determined piece of scholarship which took its compiler on an inverted Grand Tour of libraries from Bologna to the Isle of Bute, the Calendar achieves far more than its stated aim of locating the entire surviving correspondence of a minor, if revealing, figure of Enlightenment scientific culture.  The book succeeds in establishing the context of some of the many intellectual and cultural impulses which drove amateur scholars to debate and construct new methodologies in the service of the nascent observational sciences.  John Strange worked in a period which was becoming ever more preoccupied with the creation of taxonomies of learning, the later fruits of which we have inherited as academic disciplines, the boundaries between them having become seemingly impermeable.  For Strange and his contemporaries, however, the works of nature and of man, although clearly distinguishable, provided the twin contemplations of an educated, modern mind.

John Strange was born in 1732, the son of a Whig MP who rose from the post of solicitor general in Walpole’s administration in 1737 to become Master of the Rolls until his death in 1754.  In keeping with his family’s political orientation, John Strange entered Clare College, Cambridge as a fellow-commoner, graduating B.A in 1753 and M.A in 1755.  For Strange, the choice of college was to become as intellectually significant as it was politically eloquent, for Clare had become one of the centres for the diffusion of Newtonian philosophy and, despite the pre-eminence of the mathematical sciences, the Newtonians had succeeded in establishing the study of natural history as part of the undergraduate curriculum by the time of Strange’s matriculation.  By the end of his first year at Cambridge, natural history ­— and the earth sciences in particular — had become Strange’s abiding pursuit.

Despite its presence on the Cambridge curriculum, however, natural history maintained a low (and often derided) position within the mid-century academic hierarchy, and it was partly this sense of marginality which created the networks of correspondents so crucial to the advancement of natural knowledge during the eighteenth century.  Besides its evident value in communicating methods, opinions and first-hand observations, the network created something like an invisible college where the observational sciences were kept high on the agenda.  It is worth recalling that the Dissenters’ academies had already placed natural philosophy (and modern languages) at the heart of their curricula, but prolonged contact with non-conforming institutions, however progressive their science, was wholly inappropriate for one such as Strange: the son of a government official, and himself a future Ambassador in Venice.  For Strange and his peers the circulated letter, already established as a central component of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, was to become their most valuable resource in the advancement of natural knowledge.

It is no accident that Italy provided many of the major nodes for the European scientific networks, particularly those which involved British correspondents.  As Marie Boas Hall has shown, the dynamics of the scientific network were complex, requiring (alongside postal services of varying reliability) the constant intervention and care of merchants, envoys, consuls, guides and equerries, many of which were roles filled by examples of that familiar figure, the Englishman abroad.[i]  Italy, with its century-old schedule of British tourism, classical yearning and delicately balanced diplomacy, exemplified the culture in which an educated Briton felt most at home, and Strange was to make it his residence for more than twenty years of his life.  In addition, Italian science was held in high esteem during the eighteenth century, and many Italians were elected to the Royal Society, and many more corresponded with its Fellows, as well as with other scientists and academicians throughout Europe.[ii]  The earth sciences in particular were well represented by Italian pioneers of field-work such as Giovanni Arduino (1713-95) and Alberto Fortis (1741-1803), contact with whom proved to be a key element in Strange’s own development as a field-worker, collector and correspondent.

Italy was also home to the most obvious feature of interest to both tourists and early earth scientists: active volcanoes.  Volcanoes had become a central issue within European earth science, providing evidence for Neptunists as well as Vulcanists, the two major schools of geological thought which were colliding vociferously during Strange’s Italian sojourns of 1757-64 and 1771-86.  One of the principal topics of their dispute was the origin of the dark rock basalt; basalt had been controversially identified as cooled lava during the 1760s by the French field-worker Nicholas Desmarest, who had been struck by the similarity between basalt outcrops in the Auvergne and lava samples which he had brought back from Naples.  Field-workers throughout Europe, meanwhile, were becoming gradually aware that the majority of base rock to be found on the continent was identifiable as basalt or basaltic; thus the nature of basalt’s origins (whether of fire or water) became the most crucial point towards which competing theries of the earth needed to be directed.  Strange himself was a follower of Vulcanist theory, and published two letters in the Philosophical Transactions in 1775 describing basaltic concretions near Venice in igneous terms.

Volcanoes themselves occupied a similarly disputed region of mid-century scientific thought.  For vulcanists, active volcanoes proved that fire continued to shape the earth’s crust; for Neptunists, active volcanoes had caught fire merely because of large deposits of combustible material such as coal or bitumen which happened to be present inside the cone.  Indeed, dead volcanoes seemed to provide evidence that such fires eventually always extinguished themselves, and thus that the phenomenon of volcanic activity remained marginal to the true (aqueous) force behind the formation of the earth.

The excavations of Herculaneum (from 1738) and Pompeii (from 1748), meanwhile, also served to promote enquiry into the forces which had preserved their ruins.  The destruction, or rather the preservation, of the two Vesuvian villages provided new impetus for northern European tourists to travel on to Naples rather than turn round at Rome, the conventional apex of the Grand Tour.  By the mid-eighteenth century Vesuvius had become associated not only with field-work, geological controversy and southern European turbulence, but also with an arrested moment of classical time.  For John Strange, it was such layered associations of human and natural history that gave the Italian landscape its greatest allure.

Alongside his engagement with natural history, Strange also became a skilled judge and collector of Italian art.  The interest arose partly through his friendship with Francesco Algarotti, the great connoisseur and populariser of Newton, and partly through the advantages offered by his position as Ambassador in Venice (a post secured for him by Lord Bute in 1774).  Most British Ambassadors in Italy used art collecting as a kind of enlightened pension fund, selling on their treasures upon retirement to England.  Horace Mann in Florence, William Hamiton in Naples, and most spectacularly of all, Joseph (‘Consul’) Smith in Venice, all invested heavily (and wisely) in antiquities and Old Masters as well as in the work of contemporary Italian painters.[iii]  ‘Consul’ Smith in fact became Canaletto’s sole agent and go-between, and was largely responsible for encouraging the British taste for views of Venice; a taste which was to make both men’s fortunes.  But for Strange, who bought a large part of Smith’s collection upon the Consul’s death, art, literature and the natural sciences were passions to be co-pursued among the ruins and outcrops of Italy rather than strict material investments; his London sale of 1790 recouped only half his purchase costs (the British taste for Italian art was by then in decline), although this failed to diminish his enthusiasm in building new collections of paintings, prints and objects of natural knowledge.

Like Sir William Hamilton, Strange was both a connoisseur and a virtuoso; he was someone for whom, in Walter Houghton’s phrase, ‘learning was the means to dispose of wealth and leisure in the happiest fashion’.[iv]  His career as an amateur earth scientist witnessed the transition of field-work from ‘the fugitive researches of the traveller’ to being a central element of the early method statements of newly-institutionalised disciplines.  The Geological Society of London was founded less than a decade after Strange’s death, yet the new discipline and its professors, like the new century, must have appeared to someone of Strange’s generation as a foreign country.

In the Calendar, Luca Ciancio has provided rich apparatus with which to pursue the foregoing topics.  The details of 1,743 letters to and from Strange are arranged chronologically (as far as that has been possible), covering the period 1755 to 1793, the majority of which date from his two extended stays in Italy.  Ciancio’s 20-page biographical index is an equally valuable asset, enabling us to chart both major and minor figures within Italian scientific and cultural life; one is struck by how large and how varied were the constituencies for natural knowledge in the period, and what a debt was owed to amateurs such as Strange and his correspondents by many who were beginning to consider themselves professionals.

Richard Hamblyn


[i] Marie Boas Hall, ‘The Royal Society and Italy 1667-1795’, Notes Rec. R.Soc.Lond. 37, pp. 66-67 (1982).

[ii] Marie Boas Hall, (note 1), p. 63.

[iii] This was a principal theme of the British Museum exhibition, ‘Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his Collection’, 13 March – 14 July 1996.

[iv] Walter E. Houghton, ‘The English Virtuoso in the Seventeenth Century’, Journal of the History of Ideas 3, p. 57 (1942).


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