Breath-pipes of Nature

June 6, 2008

Athanasius Kircher’s book on volcanoes, Mundus Subterraneus (1665), was a big hit in England. Kircher had explored volcanoes first-hand, lowering himself into the crater of Vesuvius in the 1630s, shortly after an eruption.

For Kircher, the volcanoes were ‘nothing but the vent-holes, or breath-pipes of Nature, to give vent to the superfluous choaking fumes and smoaky vapours, which fly upwards, ‘fueled by ‘Sulphur, and Salt, Nitre, Bitumen.’

He recognised that Etna’s sulphureous outpourings made ‘Sicily one of the most fertile Islands in the world’

The Soyl is incredibly fruitful in the best Wine, in Oyl, Hony, Saffron; Minerals also of Gold, Silver, and Allom; together with plenty of Salt and Sugar. There are also Gems of Agats and Emeralds. Quarries of Porphyre, and Serpentine. It yieldeth also great store of the richest Silks… Variety of most excellent and delicious fruits, both for taste and colour; with abundance of all sorts of Grain, that it was called in old times Horreum Romani Populi, or the Granary of the Roman Empire.

The fantasy extends from the fertile soil to the efficient maintenance of the militia, as we are told that Tully wrote that it was able to ‘cloath, maintain and furnish the greatest Army’ without state assistance. Diodorus Siculus wrote that ‘wheat did grow of it self without any labour of the Husbandman.’


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