Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 Oct. 2009    image update Aug 2015

ir William Hamilton

William and Catherine Hamilton, by David Allan *   
Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was born in Scotland as the fourth son of Archibald Hamilton, the third Duke of Hamilton as well as the British governor of Jamaica. Because of his parents’ relations with the royal family, William grew up in close friendship with the future king, George III. William served in the military before getting married in 1758. (His wife, Catherine Barlow, died in 1782.) In 1764 Hamilton was appointed to the Bourbon court of Naples as Britain's Envoy Extraordinary (and eventually Minister Plenipotentiary, but never "ambassador" although that's what everyone called him) and served in that capacity until 1800.

Hamilton was typical of the “gentleman scholar” of his day — diplomat (or whatever) by profession, but propelled by an avid interest in history, art, and the natural sciences and by keen powers of observation. He was eventually made member of the Royal Society of London; his output of publications in various fields was considerable and valuable. He was knighted in 1772.

Hamilton was an ardent antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist. He collected Greek vases and other artifacts that eventually formed the nucleus of the Roman and Greek section of the British Museum* (see note 1, below); as an archaeologist he actively participated in the early excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum (note 2); and he studied local volcanic and seismic activity. He was definitely not an arm-chair geologist —witness this passage from his Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and Other Volcanos (pub. T. Cadell, London, 1774):

“…I passed the whole day and the night of the twelfth upon the mountain, and followed the course of the lava to its very source: it burst out of the side of the mountain, within about half a mile of the mouth of the Volcano, like a torrent, attended with violent explosions, which threw up inflamed matter to a considerable height…”

As well, Hamilton published Campi Phlegraei. Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies, as they have been communicated to the Royal Society of London (Naples 1776-79). He also published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 73, (1783) the first English-language account of the devastating Calabrian earthquake of that year; his report was his translation of a letter he had received from Count Francesco Ippolito detailing the effects of the disaster.

Diplomatically, Hamilton was instrumental in bringing about the alliance between Britain and the Kingdom of Naples through a treaty signed on July 12, 1793. According to the terms of the treaty, Naples provided 6,000 men for service in Britain’s war against France. The troops served in Toulon where the British had occupied the city against the French Republican Army. (The British and Neapolitans were finally expelled by a Republican force led by a young and soon-to-be-promoted artillery captain, Napoleon Bonaparte.) The British were permitted to use the port of Naples as a base and later were instrumental in shepherding the Bourbon royal family to safety in Sicily and sheltering them there during both the period of the Neapolitan Republic (1799) and, shortly thereafter, the decade-long French rule of Naples under Murat.

In his long tenure as ambassador, Hamilton was a friend to many of the great names on the Grand Tour, including Mozart and Goethe, the latter of whom stayed in Hamilton’s residence, the villa Sessa (photo, above left, at what is now the Piazza dei Martiri). (German sources claim that Hamilton deserves, by virtue of sharing his knowledge of Italy with Goethe and others, some credit in the development of what is called the Weimarer Klassik in German literature.)

Hamilton’s name is associated with that of his young lover and then wife, Emma Lyon (Lady Hamilton) and admiral Horatio Nelson, with whom Lady Hamilton conducted an infamous love affair —apparently with the encouragement of her husband, William, and much to the delight of generations of novelists and scandal lovers.

Sir William finally applied to be recalled in 1796, but did not receive news that his request had been accepted until late 1799. That was after the Bourbon royalist forces had retaken the kingdom from the revolutionary Republic and Hamilton had had a chance to reenter and again see Naples, the city where he had played such an active role. He returned to London and died shortly thereafter.

This red-figured water jar is considered the finest
in the first Hamilton collection of Greek vases.

* 1. Hamilton became quite the antiquities dealer early in his tenure as ambassador. Within a few years he had bought entire private collections of vases, marbles, sculpture, etc. Hamilton exported and sold many of these items abroad in spite of the fact that it was illegal to do so. He sold his first collection to the British museum in 1772. The collection then formed the nucleus of the museum's department of antiquities. Illustrations with commentary of the first collection were published between 1766-76 in Naples in 4 volumes as A Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Hon. W. Hamilton. The first collection influenced artists of the day such as Angelika Kauffmann and Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous British pottery firm. Some of the second collection (1798), however, was lost at sea when the ship transporting the collection, HMS Colossus, went down off the Isles of Scilly in December 1798; recent salvage has managed to recover some of the items. The first collection was vast and included (as cited in Ramage, below) hundreds of vases, terracottas, bronzes, bas-reliefs, gems, coins and miscellaneous sacrificial, agricultural and domestic items.  Details on the second collection may be found in McPhee and Morris (below).   (Back up to main text.)

* 2. In the days before careful archaeology, Hamilton may be regarded as somewhat of a pioneer. He was not at all in favor of the helter-skelter approach of the day: uncover the ruins, walk off with what you can, and cover up the holes again, all without taking notes. He favored drawing the ruins in situ and keeping objects together that had been found together for purposes of putting them on display.

(Back up to main text.)

*note on image at top (Aug 2015): Earlier versions of this page had a photo incorrectly identified as William Hamilton. My thanks to Chris Witney-Lagen for calling my attention to that error. The complete title of the photo now at the top of the page is "William and Catherine Hamilton in the Villa at Posillipo".


Excluding all the fictional and non-fictional ink spilled on Hamilton’s membership in the juicy William/Emma/Nelson love triangle, there is considerable literature about William Hamilton’s life, in general. Recent bibliography includes:
—Fothergill, Brian. Sir William Hamilton: Envoy Extraordinary, (Nonsuch Publishing, 2005);
—Constantine, David.  Fields of Fire: A Life of Sir William Hamilton, (Phoenix Press, 2002);
—Davis, John A. (ed.) and 
Giovanni Capuano (ed. ). The Hamilton Letters: The Naples Dispatches of Sir William Hamilton, (I.B. Tauris, 2008).

Hamilton’s activities as a collector and dealer of antiquities are well-documented in

—Ramage, Nancy H. “Sir William Hamilton as Collector, Exporter, and Dealer: The Acquisition and Dispersal of His Collections”  in The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 94, No. 3  (July, 1990), 

McPhee, Ian.  Review of “Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Great Britain 20: The British Museum 10: Fragments from Sir William Hamilton's Second Collection of Vases Recovered from the Wreck of HMS Colossus by V. Smallwood and S. Woodford” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 124, (2004), pp. 212-213;

—Morris, Roland.  H.M.S. Colossus: The Story of the Salvage of the Hamilton Treasures, Periscope Publishing, Penzance, (2006).

  to history portal            to archaeology portal        to top of this page

  2002 - 2023