William Hamilton (diplomat)  

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Sir William Hamilton (12 January 1731 – 6 April 1803) was a Scottish diplomat, antiquarian, erotomaniac, archaeologist and vulcanologist. A a Fellow of the Royal Society and member of the Society of Dilettanti he is known for his interest in ancient erotica and his marriage to Emma Lyon.


Hamilton was the fourth son of Lord Archibald Hamilton, governor of Jamaica. He was commissioned into the 3rd Foot Guards in 1747 and was promoted Lieutenant in 1753. He left the Army after his marriage to Catherine Barlow, daughter of MP Hugh Barlow, on 25 January 1758. Catherine died on 25 August 1782. The couple had no children.

Hamilton was Britain's ambassador to the court of Naples from 1764 - 1800. During this time he studied local volcanic activity and earthquakes, and wrote a book on the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. He collected Greek vases and other antiquities, selling part of his collection to the British Museum in 1772. A small part of his second collection went down with HMS Colossus while being transported to Britain in 1798. The surviving part of the second collection was catalogued for sale at auction at Christie's when at the eleventh hour Thomas Hope stepped in and purchased the remains of Hamilton's second collection of mostly South Italian vases. His other books include Antiquités étrusques, grecques et romaines (1766–67), Observations on Mount Vesuvius (1772).

In 1786, a stunning young lady was sent to Sir William by his nephew, Charles Greville, in exchange for him settling Greville's debts. Like most of the men who wandered into her orbit, Sir William was smitten with Emma Lyon, who performed dances inspired by classical elements for himself and his guests, including Goethe, while wearing no undergarments. However, he made no advances until she was ready to accept him. They married on 6 September 1791 at St Marylebone Church, London. He was 60; she was 26. She later became the lover of Horatio Nelson, a man Sir William admired greatly, and whose liaison he reportedly encouraged.


Hamilton's life was fictionalized by Susan Sontag in her novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance.

In the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm there is an island in a lake atop which is a model of Mount Vesuvius. The Duke would stage fireworks that seemed to issue from an erupting volcano to entertain his guests. At the foot of the mountain on the island is a building intended to suggest William Hamilton's home "Villa Emma" in Naples (Posillipo). It is a highly unusual tribute to a great scholar.

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