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Saturday Volcano Art: Bacchus and Vesuvius 17 May 2009

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Vesuvius: Roman wall painting from the House of the Centenary, Pompeii (1st century BC/1st century AD)

Did Pliny the Elder, perhaps the most notable casualty of the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, know that the mountain looming over the Bay of Naples was a volcano? There is no hint of it in his Natural History, where in Book III he simply mentions in passing that Pompeii, Herculaneum and Neapolis are near Mount Vesuvius (III, 62). Later in the same book (III, 92-3) he writes of the volcanic nature of the Aeolian Islands, where sulphur was mined, but says nothing about volcanic activity in Campania.

The volcanic nature of Vesuvius was recognized by the Greek geographer Strabo who wrote in Book V, Chapter IV of his Geography (published around 7 BC) that the summit of Vesuvius ‘shows pore-like cavities in masses of rock that are soot-coloured on the surface, these masses of rock looking as though they had been eaten out by fire; and hence one might infer that in earlier times this district was on fire and had craters of fire, and then, because the fuel gave out, was quenched’. The Romans seem to have been unaware of Strabo’s work, but references to Vesuvius’s once ‘fiery’ nature also appear in Vitruvius’s De Architectura (Book II, Chapter VI), written around 25 BC, and in the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus (Book IV, Chapter I). Contemporaries did not connect the earthquakes that shook the area around the Bay of Naples in 62 and 63 with any volcanic activity. Vesuvius, for the people living around it in the first century AD, was a green, forested and vine-clad mountain, its crater silent and overgrown.

This is the Vesuvius shown in the wall-painting above, which comes from the ‘House of the Centenary’ in the southern part of Pompeii. The volcano is shown as tall, steep-sided, and green with vegetation. The figure of Bacchus, god of wine, stands before the mountain clad in grapes and holding a vine-leaf-capped staff. Wine drips from a glass in his hand, to be eagerly lapped up by an attendant panther (Bacchus is often represented with panthers having been, according to some legends, nursed by the animals when young). In the lower portion of the image is a serpent representing the agathodaemon, the spirit of fertility that inhabited the local fields and vineyards.

Roman landscape wall-paintings expressed ideas of beauty and fertility infused with sacred meaning. This image of Vesuvius thus works on several levels simultaneously, representing the natural landscape as harmoniously beautiful, richly fertile, and charged with supernatural as well as natural potency. Mount Vesuvius, guarded by the vine-god Bacchus and the agathodaemon vegetation-spirit, is here the central image in a visual and spiritual celebration of the local landscape and its fertility. The volcano is peaceful and unthreatening, its tranquil vine-clad slopes giving no hint of the destructive powers that lurk within.

The eruption of 79 AD unleashed pyroclastic flows that engulfed the House of the Centenary along with the rest of the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum — and incidentally preserved this serene wall-painting of the destroyer for posterity.

[This week’s Saturday Volcano Art has come out on Sunday. Apologies for the delay.]

For all ‘Saturday volcano art’ articles: Saturday volcano art « The Volcanism Blog.

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