Sir Francis Ronalds and his Family

Sir Francis Ronalds' Travel Journal: Sicily - Catania and Etna

Catania Sep 20th [1819]

"The Romans must have yawned at their theatres as much as we do I think for they always seem to have chosen spots for building them where something might be seen besides what was going forward in them"

We did not leave Messina untill the morning of the 15th and owing to a Scirocco and the delays occasioned by the rascally police arrived here only on the 18th. We should have even been another day in the passage if we have not left the Speronano at Aci and proceeded by mules or rather on foot, for we found walking preferable to riding on the Lava over which the road passes throughout the whole distance. We had not strength remaining to undertake a journey up Etna from Trezza which had formed a part of our plan. The principal object of interest on the route was of course Taorminium, the theatre of which place has been so much extolled. A part of the Proscenium, the middle arch, has however lately (that is to say within this 20 years) fallen, therefore it no longer can be reckoned the finest in respect to preservation in these parts and in other respects it does not excel that at Pompeii except in its superb position. The Romans must have yawned at their theatres as much as we do I think for they always seem to have chosen spots for building them where something might be seen besides what was going forward in them, here they had pitched upon the most advantageous point for a View of Etna; at Pompeii, Vesuvius. They tell you that this is a natural Theatre viz that it is formed out of a natural hollow or basin of the mountain or hill, certainly it has very much that appearance. The side near the town is the only part which has been built perhaps and that is the celebrated proscenium, which uniting the two opposite parts of the mountain to compleat the form must have been extreemly beautifull, it is so even now ruined from the village of Giardini below it near the sea.

Northeast coast of Sicily

I was very much amused as we coasted along from Messina to Taorminium with the numerous projecting rocks and mountains with little villages on their tops or towers which seemed as if they were destined for a roll into the sea at no very distant period.

[Addendum]
On one fine evening during this part of our route as we lay at full length in our little speronaro, the romantic scenes inspiring romantic thoughts, we shook hands upon a compact to meet in Egypt. Two of us kept our promise of going but fate would not have us meet.

But I derived my greatest pleasure from the curious basaltic formations on the shore and particularly at the Cyclops at Trezza (called by the natives the Faraglioni). I collected a few tolerably good specimens of Zeolites there at the expense of a great deal of forbearance on the parts of the General and Sir Frederick, but had only time to find that what I could do in that way was not a Tenth part of what any one pretending to collect volcanic minerals at all ought to do, and I left there with the greatest regret to proceed on our journey over the Lava to Catania. I shall not for two reasons attempt to describe these regions of unbounded desolation interspersed as they are sometimes with beautifull little patches of luxuriant vegetation. The first reason is that I am no poet and the second that I am afraid to expend too profusely my sublimity and your patience before I come to describe my journey to Etna. As we approached Catania we passed between walls so high as to exclude entirely the view of anything beyond them, such walls as I have often cursed heartily both in Sicily & Italy, but these are constructed with materials which compensated me in some measure for their height namely the Lavas of the surrounding country, & they exhibit all the varieties of composition, fractures &c &c. In fact they constitute a museum of Lavas equal at least to the collections at Catania. The General paid me off handsomely for all my quizations (for he is a poet). To stand gaping at a blank Wall with a Poet at my elbow already exasperated by my former tardy progress. Think on it. I will give you plenty of time.

Octr 4th

View near Nicolosi

We returned on Friday from our expedition to Etna. (I had some idea at taking my whig with me but it would have been a too tedious journey and not of sufficient interest, indeed I don't think I shall bring her to Catania at all for there is not much to see here). In order to take the thing coolly we hired mules and proceeded to Nicolosi on Tuesday afternoon and slept at a house there, which a Sicilian might deem very passable but which seemed to us rather over stocked with a species of insect not at all peculiar to this region, eternal fire[?] which rather troubled our repose. The Superior of the Convent was paying his annual visit of a month with the holy Brotherhood, therefore we could not obtain beds there as visitors to Etna sometimes do. Nicolosi is a very pretty little village & the scenery a little like that of the Undercliff in the Isle of Wight, that is to say it derives its beauty from a jumble of Lava's just as the undercliff derivates[?] its beauty from a jumble of rocks, both produced by a disaster, or disease, or contortion of nature. All romantic scenery owes its origins to such accidents perhaps but in these 2 Cases the accident seems too recent, too evident. I shall refer you to the Encyclopaedia or any other cyclopical book for the account of the eruption of 1669 which created the Monti Rossi at Nicolosi and for the accounts of all other eruptions and all other matters which you have any desire to be informed about concerning Etna & which I do not put myself to the trouble of repeating for you, for if you have curiosity for the subject you may easily gratify it (this is the reason why you have none perhaps). The Monti Rossi are of the same height (as nearly as I can ascertain) as Vesuvius but they form no standard of comparison between Vesuvius and Etna. They as well as many other such mountains formed in a similar manner are mere red pimples on the cheek bone of Etna, that is to say if the extension of Etna is to be limited only by the confines of its Lava (a most improper mode of fixing the extension I think, for on the same principal you may say that Vesuvius extends to Torre del Greco and even to Herculaneum & god knows where). However this method is the customary method and certainly there would be some difficulty in fixing its limits otherwise unless Geologists would come to an agreement to settle the meaning of the term Mountain by some fixed mode of comparison, as Chemists have settled the meaning to their terms and Mineralogists theirs for instance, by a certain inclination of its sides with the plain of the horizon &c &c. -

Grotta delle Capre

The English House on the way up Etna

Climb of Mt Etna:
"our joy was very suddenly turned into utter dismay by the woeful countenance... of Mr Wilson's servant who informed us that the Guide had brought only about 2 Quarts of Water for the whole party which consisted of 6 Christians and 16 Mules"




"our jack ass of a guide had brought no torches either"




"ever and anon a piece of projecting lava seemed to present me its friendly aid & then mocked me by withdrawing it and leaving me to my fate which was sometimes a sprawl, sometimes a slip, sometimes a lump. Are you hurt Sir? No thankée or I don't know yet"




"we applied to the Rum Bottle now and then"




"Can you place yourselves upon a pinnacle of hot sulphur and look down into a Chasm of 2 miles circumference whose bottom is hidden in the murky, poisonous fumes of Hell?"

Leaving Nicilosi on Wednesday morning we first traversed a plain of about 2 miles diameter of the fine cinders of the Monti Rossi, then the Lava of 1780 and afterwards the woody region towards the end of which the ascent became somewhat steep for the mules and the road extreemly bad. However having rested a little at the Grotta delle Capre where visitors to Etna used formerly to sleep and having again traversed lava and cinders, the latter part of this day's journey became much more easy than the beginning and we arrived at the English house (viz a house built by the orders of [blank] in [blank]) without much fatigue or inconvenience except from a shower of very cold rain at about 5 o clock, and soon began to congratulate each other and warm ourselves over the fire which we kindled. But our joy was very suddenly turned into utter dismay by the woeful countenance and [?] of Mr Wilson's servant who informed us that the Guide had brought only about 2 Quarts of Water for the whole party which consisted of 6 Christians and 16 Mules (Mr Wilson is a gentleman whom we met with at the Inn at Catania and agreed to include in our party). What was to be done, soup was quite out of the question and we were obliged to share out our 2 quarts mixed with wine amongst the party already as thirsty as that day's journey from Nicolosi may be supposed to have made them, for nothing was to be had in the semblance of water on the way. However we dined and grumbled and quarrelled and at last dressed ourselves in our flannels and disposed ourselves to rest, but the cold was too intense to allow of sleep.

At about 3 in the morning we arose with the intention of gaining the summit in order to see the sun rise, but the passage over the lava before arriving at the foot of the cone was so extreemly difficult and even dangerous (for our jack ass of a guide had brought no torches either) that had it not been for the light of the stars (which appear certainly much more brilliant here than in the lower atmosphere) I believe we should have not succeeded. Indeed the General who is short sighted was actually obliged to return and Mr Wilson and I proceeded very cautiously and slowly but with all our caution got 2 or 3 very respectable falls. I don't know whether the same thing happens to every body else but I never can distinguish distances with smallest degree of accuracy in a feeble light, thus ever and anon a piece of projecting lava seemed to present me its friendly aid & then mocked me by withdrawing it and leaving me to my fate which was sometimes a sprawl, sometimes a slip, sometimes a lump. Are you hurt Sir? No thankée or I don't know yet & god bless us & it were the only words which passed, we had no time for conversations untill we reached the foot of the Cone. Here our danger if there was any ended but our toil began, for we had no better path than the loose cinders and scoria which receding under our feet at every step compelled us sometimes to labour a little like a dog in a turnspit for about 5 minutes. The fatigue became enormous but we applied to the Rum Bottle now and then (which we found a verry necessary article) and advanced slowly for about an hour, when poor Wilson experienced great difficulty in breathing and began to Ail[?] at a great rate. I shall not forgive myself for my cruelty on this occasion for my anxiety to reach the summit by sun rise was so great that I goaded him on by every argument and means in my power although he could not climb 5 minutes without stoping [sic]. However he got a little better when he had unloaded his stomach and we arrived at the extreem pinnacle of the eastern cone before sun rise by about 1 minute.

Now I want a dash of the sublime dreadfully. I really think I must confess my utter want of poetic fire. If I possessed but one little spark surely it would kindle whilst[?] I describe the scene which surrounded me, but no, I have not one little spark. Can you conceive of such a jumble of things belonging to the earth, or that Islands, Rivers, Lakes, aye Seas shall appear almost above your head whilst clouds shall roll at an immeasurable distance below your feet? Can you conceive of a ghost of such a mountain as Etna? That is to say of a shadow of such a mountain standing apparently erect in the air before you? Can you place yourselves upon a pinnacle of hot sulphur and look down into a Chasm of 2 miles circumference whose bottom is hidden in the murky, poisonous fumes of Hell? Perhaps you can imagine all this and much more, I could not. If I had not seen it my conception of the prospect derived from the descriptions of travellers (even of Mr Brydone who never was on the top of Etna) was certainly quite as inaccurate as is my idea of Heaven or Hell derived from Milton or Dante or the Bible. This grand spectacle was but of short duration. As the sun rose higher above the horizon, gilding first the tops of the Mountains then the smaller hills and cliffs and at last pouring a flood of light over the whole prospect, every thing changes. Clouds which before seemed before to lie in dormant masses in the Horizon received a life & motion from the Sun and began to veil the magic scene from our view and I, awaking from a Dream as it were, began to grope and burrow in the cinders and sulphurated & muriatic soil for specimens like any poor ant who never looking upward dreams of nothing beyond a successful journey homeward with its earthy treasure.

The craters of Etna

Eruption of 1780

Etna and the Philosopher's Tower, from de Gourbillon's book Travels in Sicily and to Mount Etna in 1819

We had the very worst guide in the world, it was in vain to attempt to get him into the crater so having loaded him like an ass as he was with my specimens and having made a very hasty sketch of the crater, we were returning in no very contented mood when we met the General with his guide coming up with whom altho' somewhat fatigued I could not resist the temptation of making a trial of descending the Crater. We got as low as the base of the cone of the eruption of [blank] without the least difficulty but here we were compelled after much time spent in fruitless trials to stop for the Acid Vapours of the Crater of [blank] were too dense to admit of our enveloping ourselves in them, and we mistook the place we had arrived at for the bottom of the crater which we intended to descend, so that when we had regained our position on the summit of the mountain and had discovered our mistake we were too tired to attempt a second descent. I fear you will not understand my account without the drawing and further explanation! Returned to the English house we took some refreshment and mounted our mules to go back to Nicolosi by the Philosopher's tower and the New Crater. The former cuts a very paltry figure but some marble inscriptions found by Mr Gemmellaro there seem to place the fact of its antiquity beyond doubt on one piece. The letters ERVP- are very distinct and I cannot help thinking that the intention was rather to commemorate some Eruption than for either of the other objects assigned for its construction viz a Watch Tower or an observatory. Some writer (I forget who) expressed great astonishment at the circumstance of the tower not having been buried in Cinders or destroyed by any eruption but the fact is that it is almost buried in Cinders and the only part visible above the cinders is Modern.

The new crater of the eruption of last May is situated at about half a mile east of the english house and about the same distance north east of the Torre del Filosofo. We could not approach its lips without passing over a quantity of Lava so extreemly rugged that in our state of fatigue and thirst and those of our mules we felt but a languid desire to visit it. However reflecting that I might not have another opportunity I determined to go & the General agreed to accompany me, so we reserved only 2 mules & a man to wait for us at about a third of a mile from the Crater, and were crawling & scrambling over the Lava as well as we could when I happened to make the most gratifying discovery (for the moment) that I ever expect to make viz a quantity of Snow under some cinders. Never in our lives did we enjoy a more gratefull meal. Having partaken heartily of it I could not help observing its singular form, I don't recollect whether it has been noticed by Spallanzani or not but I think it has. It seemed to be formed of grains or crystals sometimes roundish sometimes cubical but always disposed in a regular manner, that is with their angles or particular points of their circumferences only in contact and these grains were as large as a very large pins head and very compact, as much so as Ice. I don't think this snow falls in this state but is either the product of Vapour deposited like dew or acquires this state by exfiltration (if I may be allowed to coin such a word), I mean by a melting and running away of a part of it amongst the ashes and a refreezing of the remainder.

When we arrived at last on the Verge of this new Crater we acknowledged ourselves amply repaid for all our pain as nothing we had seen (up stairs as they say here) could compare with it. The form is that of a Pear and every part as perfect as possible but the colours of its interior produced by the action of the acids on the Scoria, Lavas &c which the rain had not yet injured were indeed beyond every thing beautifull. They graduated from a dark red or crimson, to a lighter red, an Orange, a Yellow & Green and were disposed in the most fanciful manner, sometimes resembling rain bows, sometimes lying in long regular streaks like broad ribbands & sometimes in brilliant patches of one colour relieved by another. This is the elements of a Crater and would afford materials for much study and information. Having taken a leisurely view of the bottom where it was easy to distinguish the enormous rents and fractures of the pumicite[?] rock by the explosions, we betook ourselves homewards only regretting that we could not undergo more fatigue in seeing the other little Crater. This journey was intended by me as a merely preparatory journey, I intended to go again with my barometer &c &c but I don't know whether I shall submit to the trouble of it. I have no better method of measuring height by the Barometer than others have practised and other observations are all discordant. Why should I add myself to the number of Bunglers. The Thermometer at 7 o clock in the morning on the Summit stood at 44 in the shade. The Temperature of the aqueous fumarole was 86 (a very pleasant Vapour Bath). The compass shewed no sign of extraordinary oscillation. I consider my journey to Etna a verry barren one.

Oct 9th 1819

As I am now expecting daily a letter (which will determine the course of my journey) I will conclude all I have to say of Catania which may be comprised in a very short space. There are not objects of such kind of interest as suit my whig, therefore I shall not bring her. The Gioeni Museum certainly stands foremost in importance to me. It is a most noble and elegant assemblage of all the natural productions of this most productive little island, no country can boast of greater variety of productions and no Museum of a more perfect collection I believe. I have spent much time very pleasantly in it and much more in the society of the Cavalier "Gioeni" the brother of the proprietor whose extreem kindness and amiable manners have rendered my stay at Catania the most agreeable period of my absence from home. I hope I shall never forget him. The Classification of Lavas & Productions of Etna founded surely on Dolomieu's System I shall spare you further particulars.

Ancient baths at Catania

"Every thing here is lava, nothing else can be seen, turn which way you will Lava is the material of which every thing is made which admits of it and every thing which does not is painted in imitation of it"




"But how strange it seems that Lava should in time form the best soil in the world for one of the best things in the world viz Wine"

The Biscari Museum is of more value no doubt to the generality of travellers on account of its richness in antiquities which the prince Biscari, the prince of excavations, has himself collected. I think his best exertions have been spent upon the ancient baths under the Cathedral. They are very curious on account of their great extent and the circumstance of the stream of water which supplied them in days of yore still running in its ancient channell [sic] and most probably in as large quantity. He has also discovered[?] a part of the Wall of the old Town, which wall is 60 Palms high and was compleatly buried in the flow of lava of 1669 upon which the new Town is built. How many Catanians lie below the foundation of that Wall God knows.

Every thing here is lava, nothing else can be seen, turn which way you will Lava is the material of which every thing is made which admits of it and every thing which does not is painted in imitation of it. It seems to have forced peoples' taste as it has forced every barrier which has opposed its omnipotent course. The taste for Lava slabs &c &c is like the taste for many eatables & drinkables which at first disgust the palate, Olives & Caviar for instance. Or else the poor Catanese are like the poor frogs in the Fable and the Lava like the log of wood, which Jupiter sent them for a King. Rather more like the stork which eats them up says Whig. The Amphitheatre was gobbled up by the dreadfull [sic] stork and what part of it he has been compelled to disgorge exhibits to an unlearned eye such as mine no striking marks of distinction from all the other ancient Amphitheatres in these parts & the same may be said of the Theatre.

But how strange it seems that Lava should in time form the best soil in the world for one of the best things in the world viz Wine. It is now the season of Vintage & in one of my rides the other day in the neighbourhood of St Giovanni la Punta I met an amazing number of their Mules, Asses &c loaded with Pigs' skins full of Wine (what a famous bloody rencontre for a Don Quixote!), and being caught in a shower of rain was about to take shelter Mule and all in one of the Casks lying by the road side which were in preparation to receive it, when I received an invitation from some people to join their party in a large Hall or Barn, which I accepted with great pleasure and was treated very hospitably by them. They soon made a large fire in the middle of Barn to dry my cloths by and we afforded each other mutual amusement for I was as great or a greater curiosity to them than they to me, as Englishmen very seldom during their residence at Catania or on the journey to Etna take the trouble to visit the neighbouring Villages. Brydone indeed mentions his rencontre with a set of Peasants and makes a very amusing account of it but I don't know how much to believe of it, certainly neither in this instance nor in any of my other opportunities of conversing with them have I perceived the slightest disposition to that kind of threatening or bullying behaviour which he describes; savages they are but they are tame savages. Mr Brydone's picture of these regions of Hell would have been incomplete unless animated by a few Devils in the foreground. If there is any difference between the peasants in Etna and those of the neighbourhood of Palermo, Messina &c I think it is in favour of the former, & there is one circumstance which more than any other makes me think that Mr B crams viz he makes his peasants speak good italian, whereas I found none but the better sort of people or the inhabitants of the larger towns capable of doing so. His story about Queen Anne is evidently put in for effect, as well as his description of the Summit of the Mountain which (according to a note in the posthumous work of his friend Recupero) he never reached.

Catania's patron saint:
"Never ever in Spain was a Saint so highly honoured and never according to my taste did a saint cut so shocking a figure. What do you think would be your impression on seeing a beautifull woman superbly [?] with her breasts cut off. Do you think you could adore such an object?... I beg your pardon for disgusting you with this subject"

In my visit to the convent of Benedictines I had an opportunity of seeing one of the richest and most luxuriant monasteries in the world. I believe none but nobles are admitted and as religion is the only thing in vogue, the only source of amusement, the sole business of the Catanese, these slack[?] monks enjoy princely respect as well as a princely habitation. Even the grand[?] flow of lava of 1669 respected their sacred walls so highly that it left them perfectly untouched altho' it approached within a very few yards of them as I was told, and I actually saw that a curve had been formed in its course round a corner somehow but I dared not to enquire whether this had been effected by Pick axes & shovels or by the interposition of S. Agatha the guardian Saint of the Town, whose images and portraits occupy every [?] conspicuous spot and who ever and anon treats the people with her grand procession through the streets amid [?] & crackers enough to resound her fame amid the angelics' legions of the third heaven. Never ever in Spain was a Saint so highly honoured and never according to my taste did a saint cut so shocking a figure. What do you think would be your impression on seeing a beautifull woman superbly [?] with her breasts cut off. Do you think you could adore such an object? And what sort of adoration do you think the most zealous catholic can bestow on it? I beg your pardon for disgusting you with this subject. I have mentioned this instance as a striking one out of the thousands which are employed in these parts to cheat the vulgar who you know cannot distinguish between the horrid & the sublime [?] religion.

Soon I shall quit these Catholics perhaps after a year's residence among them to sojourn among Mohammedans. The ruling impression which I have imbibed from the observation of their craft is that it is not a whit less ingenious than the preaching[?] of our Methodists. Indeed I think the latter might bring more "Sinners into the right path" were they to derive a few lessons in mechanics from the former, and I should not be at all surprised if in this improving age some ingenious contrivance for converting "Sinners to repentance" were to obtain a royal patent. There is nothing new under the Sun you know, if in England we had not damned the catholics for idolatry perhaps we should have long ago discovered the superiority of tangible shapes over the most boisterous rant. But I am wandering out of the right path I find. The Organ in the Church of the Benedictines is said to be equal to that of Haarlem. It appeared to me no great wonderment - but it was not well played.

I have spent some time here in cutting up Torpedos in order to fish for new information about their electric organs but quite without success, I observed what has been described by many people and can add nothing in point of fact to their remarks altho' I can deduct a great deal in point of opinions I think. The only thing I did was to confirm my discoveries made long ago viz that my knowledge of anatomy as well as of almost every Branch of Literature, Science & the Arts is far too limited to allow of my looking at what is to be seen in such a journey as I am taking.

I have been also amused now and then with old Recupero, a nephew of Brydone's friend. He has they say a[?] verry valuable collection of coins & many etcetera's belonging unto ancient times. His House [missing] nearly becoming his tomb at the last earthquake and it is supposed that in the next both antiquarian[?] and antiquities will return to dust. His brother is an Amber collector did you ever hear of such a [missing]. There is only one custom which strikes me Peter here. It is just now occurring. A Man is carrying a little dead child in a basket of flowers to the grave preceded by a band playing a lively air [?].