Witnessing Disaster: Fleuriau de Bellevue and the Writing of Seismic Histories in Italy and Guatemala, 1717–1796

Sketch of the ruins of Messina from volume 9 of Bellevue's Journals

Thursday, May 9, 2024
12:00 pm PDT – 1:00 pm PDT

Lecture by John Sullivan, Ph.D. Student in History, Northwestern University. Recipient of the 2023–24 Kenneth Karmiole Endowed Graduate Research Fellowship

Between 1788 and 1793, the Frenchman Louis-Benjamin Fleuriau de Bellevue (1761–1852) trekked the length of Italy and climbed its Alpine peaks, a long sojourn that capped his years of training as a geologist and natural historian. Toward the end of his journeys, he passed through Sicily and Calabria, in the peninsula’s far south, to observe the devastating aftermath of a series of earthquakes that had rocked the region in 1783. In this talk, John Sullivan will incorporate Bellevue’s travel notebooks into a rich body of evidence documenting the various historical methods and genres used to comprehend earthquakes and their attendant phenomena in eighteenth-century Naples and Guatemala, kingdoms then within a common Bourbon imperial sphere. Bringing together natural histories, like Bellevue’s, as well as chronology, conjectural history, exemplary history, and bureaucratic testimonies, Sullivan will reveal what historically pregnant moments earthquakes were. On one hand, he will demonstrate how different sociopolitical contexts shaped the types of seismic histories written on either side of the Atlantic. On the other, he will point up the central role of cities as a throughline uniting many of these historical narratives.

John Sullivan is a PhD candidate and Quinn Fellow in the History Department at Northwestern University. His dissertation, “Fractious Knowledge: Earthquakes and Engineering in Eighteenth-Century Naples and Guatemala,” is a comparative history of seismic disasters in the Bourbon Atlantic World. The project spans urban and environmental history, the histories of science and technology, and disaster studies. In addition to Kenneth Karmiole and UCLA’s Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies, his research has been generously supported by the New York Public Library, American Historical Association, John Carter Brown Library, Doris G. Quinn Foundation, and Chabraja Center for Historical Studies. He received his BA in History from Boston College and his MSt in Early Modern European History from the University of Oxford.

The lecture will take place via Zoom. To register to attend, please fill out the form here.

Image: Sketch of the ruins of Messina from volume 9 of Bellevue’s Journals, Clark Library MS.2013.019