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Saturday volcano art – Xavier Della Gatta, ‘Eruption of Vesuvius’ (1794) 7 February 2009

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Xavier Della Gatta, 'Eruption of Vesuvius' (1794).
Xavier Della Gatta, ‘Eruption of Vesuvius’ (1794). Watercolour.

Xavier Della Gatta (1758-1828) was one of many Neapolitan artists of the latter part of the eighteenth century who specialized in painting local scenes for visitors who came to Naples on the ‘Grand Tour’ to see the city, the antiquities, the landscape, and, not least, the volcano. Mount Vesuvius was highly active during this period and Della Gatta produced many paintings of spectacular volcanic activity for his wealthy and cultured clientele.

The picture above depicts the eruption of June 1794 and is perhaps most notable for its detailed depiction of the volcano’s plinian eruption column – indeed, it could be said that the eruption column rather than the volcano producing it is the true subject of the picture, dominating the canvas and dividing the scene sharply into light and dark. Della Gatta has distinguished the darker, denser clouds of ash in the lower part of the column from the lighter, more vaporous plume that blows away to the north-east in the upper left of the canvas. The column twists as the winds play upon it, lightning flickers within it, and ashfall can be seen on the landward side of the volcano.

Della Gatta’s blend of careful observation and crisp, precise depiction of detail recommended him to Sir William Hamilton, who commissioned him to illustrate some of the reports on Vesuvius’s activity which he compiled for the Royal Society following the death of his earlier collaborator (and Della Gatta’s teacher) Pietro Fabris in 1792. Hamilton’s description of the June 1794 eruption column was published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions the following year:

… the black smoke and ashes issuing continually from so many new mouths, or craters, formed an enormous and dense body of clouds over the whole mountain, and which began to give signs of being replete with the electrical fluid, by exhibiting flashes of that sort of zig-zag lightning, which in the volcanic language of this country is called ferilli, and which is the constant attendant on the most violent eruptions. From what I have read and seen, it appears to me, that the truest judgment that can be formed of the degree of force of the fermentation within the bowels of a volcano during its eruption, would be from observing the size, and the greater or less elevation of those piles of smoky clouds, which rise out of the craters, and form a gigantic mass over it, usually in the form of a pine tree, and from the greater or less quantity of the ferilli, or volcanic electricity, with which those clouds appear to be charged.*

The June 1794 eruption was very destructive. Lava flows from lateral fractures on the south-west flank of the volcano reached the sea, completely destroying the town of Torre del Greco on the way, and Naples was seriously affected by earthquakes and heavy ashfall. Della Gatta painted several pictures of the eruption, but none conveys the power, drama and grandeur of the event quite as effectively as the one reproduced here.

* Sir William Hamilton, ‘An account of the late eruption of Mount Vesuvius’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 85 (1795), pp. 73-116, here pp. 80-81.

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Comments

1. Tim Stone - 7 February 2009

Thank you so much for these history and art lessons. I, for one, appreciate your research and efforts.

2. volcanism - 8 February 2009

Thank you! There will be more on this pattern – as the title suggests, this is intended to be the first of a series.

3. Paul Magnaterra - 17 March 2009

Dear Sir:

Thank you forthis great information, my Mother was a Della Gatta, her Father was Andrew Della Gatta, left Naples and settled in NY, but very close to his family.

My wife was an artist and she just passed away, she would have loved the work you have done, KEEP UP THE GREAT JOB.

Paul Magnaterra


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