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Saturday Volcano Art: Frederic Edwin Church, ‘Cotopaxi’ (1862) 4 April 2009

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Frederic Edwin Church, 'Cotopaxi' (1862)

The Ecuadorean stratovolcano Cotopaxi has a violent history of frequent explosive eruptions generating pyroclastic flows and lahars. Between 1803 and 1895 there were over thirty such eruptions, with the largest, the VEI=4 event of 1877, producing lahars which swept through adjacent valleys, destroying much of the city of Latacunga with many fatalities, and ultimately reached as far as the Pacific coast, 270 kilometres to the west.

The painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), who had been a pupil of Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole and was by the late 1840s a noted painter of American landscapes, was drawn to South America by the geological and natural history writings of Alexander von Humboldt, who had travelled through the continent from 1799 to 1804. Church visited South America twice, in 1853 and 1857, and was inspired by the mountains and volcanoes of the northern Andes to paint some of his greatest landscapes. Cotopaxi, which Humboldt had discussed at some length and which was one of the most aesthetically striking volcanoes of the region, as well as being one of the most active and formidable, was a natural subject for his art. Church’s earlier paintings of Cotopaxi depicted the volcano’s snowy cone rising placidly above a lush tropical landscape, steam rising gently from its summit, a living but benign presence. The painting shown here, executed in 1861-2, has a very different atmosphere. In this other-wordly scene we are presented with a staggering display of nature’s power, as the volcano violently erupts against a blood-red sunset, exploding upwards and spreading its dark smoke like a banner across the sky.

Church takes the volcano as a display of nature’s power and intensifies every aspect of it to suggest a cataclysmic conflict between the forces of darkness and those of light. All around are evidences of vast, incomprehensible energies: the roaring volcano, the blazing sun, the huge waterfall plunging into a rocky canyon, whose steep sides represent vast stretches of geological time. Yet the green foliage of the trees, the sparkling waters, the light of the sun penetrating the ashy gloom of the volcano’s clouds, indicate that even these awe-inspiring forces are ultimately under the control of a beneficent providence. Cotopaxi embodies the great natural energies driving the forces not only of destruction but of creation and renewal.

Frederic Edwin Church’s ‘Cotopaxi’ (1862) can be found at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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


Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002)

Frank Baron, ‘From Alexander von Humboldt to Frederic Edwin Church: Voyages of Scientific Exploration and Artistic Creativity’ (2005)

William Gerdts, ‘The worlds of Frederic Edwin Church’ (2008)

David Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church (New York: George Braziller, 1966)

David Huntington, ‘Church and Luminism: light for America’s elect’, in John Wilmerding (ed.), American Light: The Luminists Movement 1850-1875 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1980)

Katherine Manthorne, Creation and Renewal: Views of Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985)

Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (1980; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

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Saturday Volcano Art: Thórarinn B. Thorláksson, ‘Hekla from Laugurdalur’ (1922) 28 March 2009

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Thorarinn B. Thorlaksson, 'Hekla from Laugurdalur' (1922)

Hekla, the most active volcano in Iceland, has a distinctive elongated humped shape built up by repeated fissure eruptions and is a prominent feature of the southern Icelandic landscape. Its frequent eruptions and forbidding aspect have given this famous volcano a grim reputation: in local folklore Hekla was long known as one of the mouths of hell.

In Thórarinn Thorláksson’s 1922 painting ‘Hekla from Laugurdalur’, however, the volcano is depicted in a more positive light. It rises over the landscape like a guardian spirit, the evening sunlight touching its snowy slopes with a rosy light – noble and remote, but benign.

Thórarinn B. Thorláksson (1867-1924) was one of the pioneers of modern Icelandic art, concerned with exploring and expressing a distinctive Icelandic identity, particularly through the depiction of the Icelandic landscape. Thorláksson studied in Denmark and assimilated the prevailing Danish academic approach to landscape painting, which was conservative and naturalistic, but also also sought to give his work a truly Icelandic character, giving expression to the unique qualities of his homeland. He exhibited his work in Reykjavik in 1900, the first such exhibition ever held by an Icelandic painter in Iceland.

Hekla and the landscapes around it were favourite subjects for Icelandic artists. Thorláksson painted Hekla many times, giving the volcano an almost iconic status as a symbol of Icelandic identity. His ‘Hekla from Laugurdalur’ is a view of the volcano from the north-west, and shows Hekla rising above a green-blue landscape in which stunted vegetation and bare soil convey the ever-present tension in Iceland between barrenness and fertility. There is a sense of intimacy in the enclosed valley in the foreground, contrasting with the indeterminate spaces of the wide valley that opens beyond. Distant dark blue uplands rise like ramparts, with the volcano looming above, its form picked out with lightness and clarity. Hekla, the agent of destruction and violence, here slumbers peacefully in the light of the long Northern evening.

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


Julian Freeman, Landscapes from a High Latitude: Icelandic Art 1909-1989 (London: Lund Humphries, 1989)

Neil Kent, The Soul of the North: A Social, Architectural and Cultural History of the Nordic Countries, 1700-1940 (London: Reaktion, 2000)

Ólafur Kvaran (ed.), Þórarinn B. Þorláksson: Pioneer at the Dawn of a Century (Reykjavik: Listasafn Íslands/National Gallery of Iceland, 2000)

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Saturday Volcano Art: Thomas Cole, ‘Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily’ (1843) 21 March 2009

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Thomas Cole, 'Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily' (1843)

‘What a magnificent site! Etna with its eternal snows towering in the heavens — the ranges of nearer mountains — the deep romantic valley … I have never seen anything like it’. So wrote the American artist Thomas Cole (1801-48) of Taormina in Sicily, which he visited in April 1842. While staying at Taormina he climbed Mount Etna, and made many sketches of the landscape and the Greek and Roman remains that were to be found there. When he returned to the United States he produced several large paintings based on his time in Sicily, of which ‘Mount Etna from Taormina’ is one of the most notable.

Cole is perhaps chiefly known and celebrated today as an artist of the American landscape, and particularly of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains. He sought in his art to represent the American landscape as an unspoilt Eden, steeped in natural rather than cultural antiquity, yet the spirit of the Italian landscape, shaped by the hand of man and haunted by history, is always present in his work. He was an artist with a deep sense of the past and a moralizing vision: he was profoundly attracted by the tranquility and harmony of the Italian landscapes he saw and painted during his two visits to Italy in 1830-32 and 1841-2, and which he continued to recreate throughout his career, but just as his American landscape views are haunted by the cycle of natural destruction and renewal, so his Italian views are deeply imbued with the presence of antiquity and the lessons of human pride and folly.

Cole’s view of Etna is structured into three zones, following established classical landscape tradition: foreground, middle ground and distance. The foreground represents the past, in the form of the ancient Teatro Greco, the Greek theatre (although most of the presently visible structure is Roman), one of the celebrated sights of Taormina. Beyond the ruined arches and broken columns of the theatre lies the present, in the form of the cultivated valley in which man and nature exist in pastoral harmony. Still further beyond, and dominating the canvas, is Mount Etna, representing the eternal. Cole thus imbues his landscape with a narrative meaning, reflecting on the long history of human civilization and yet its relative insigificance and fragility compared with the eternal forces of divinely-ordered nature.

Two versions of ‘Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily’ exist: one (1843) in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, and the other (1844) at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London.


Brigitte Bailey, ‘The panoptic sublime and the formation of the American citizen in Cooper’s Wing-and-Wing and Vole’s Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily‘ (1997) [online here]

Cedar Grove: The Thomas Cole National Historic Site

Louis L. Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, N.A. (New York, 1853)

Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience (1980; 3rd edn., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Thomas Cole Online (Artcyclopedia)

Wilderness Art of the 1800s (Idaho State University)

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Saturday volcano art: Charles Blomfield, ‘Rotomahana after the eruption’ (1887) 14 March 2009

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Charles Blomfield 'Rotomahana after the eruption' (1887)

In the early hours of 10 June 1886 Mount Tarawera volcano in New Zealand erupted in a major explosive event that devastated the surrounding landscape, buried local villages and killed over a hundred people. Before the Tarawera eruption the hydrothermal area around nearby Lake Rotomahana was one of the most celebrated scenic sites in New Zealand, with beautiful pools, springs, geysers, and the renowned pink and white terraces. These were two sets of stepped siliceous sinter deposits formed by the water of geysers cascading down hill slopes towards the lake. They were among New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions, and were known as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. They were utterly destroyed in the eruption.

The pink and white terraces were favourite subjects for photographers and artists, and among those who fell under their spell was Charles Blomfield (1848-1926), a self-taught painter born in London who came to New Zealand with his mother and family in 1863. He first painted the terraces in 1875, and returned in 1884, camping on site and producing many views of the terraces and the surrounding landscape. The eruption of Tarawera and the destruction of the terraces was a great blow to Blomfield. He returned to the scene in October 1886, four months after the eruption, and painted several views of the devastated landscape, one of which is reproduced above.


Saturday volcano art: an Aztec volcanic vision 7 March 2009

Posted by admin in Mexico, Popocatépetl, Saturday volcano art, volcano art, volcano culture, volcano images, volcanoes.
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Codex Telleriano Remensis

This image comes from the Codex Telleriano Remensis, a copy made in Mexico in the 1560s of a contemporary Aztec manuscript consisting of calendars and registers of historical events. It is part of the page covering events in the years 1507 to 1509. There is an accompanying text in Spanish referring to 1509 that describes ‘a brightness in the night’ that was ‘very great and very resplendent’ and which ‘rose from the earth and reached the sky’. This phenomenon lasted for ‘more than forty days’ and was visible ‘from all New Spain’.

It is not clear what this ‘brightness’ may have been, but the image looks very like an erupting volcano. This has led to suggestions of an eruption at Popocatépetl, and a 1509 event is accordingly listed – usually with caveats about its uncertainty – in various reference sources. It has also been suggested that another volcano in the east of Mexico may have been responsible, such as Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl) or San Martín, or that the cause may have been non-volcanic, such as a forest fire or a celestial phenomenon such as the zodiacal light. This latter explanation seems unlikely, however, given that both the text and the image are so clear about the brightness rising from the earth towards the sky. It is also notable that the depiction of the volcanic plume (if that is what it is) is similar to representations of steam/smoke elsewhere in the codex, as on the subsequent page with its illustration of ‘steaming stones’ which produced smoke or steam that ‘reached to the sky’ in 1512.

Codex Telleriano Remensis

The 1509 phenomenon is annotated as mexpanitli, which means ‘banner of cloud’ or ‘banner of smoke’. In the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, a later collection of the histories of the indigenous people of New Spain, it is described as ‘a great brightness that rose from the eastern horizon and reached the heavens; it was shaped like a pyramid, and it flamed’, a description not inconsistent with a volcanic eruption. In a 2001 publication on Las Cenizas Volcánicas del Popocatépetl y sus Efectos para la Aeronavegación e Infraestructura Aeroportuaria, the Instituto de Geofísica of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México suggested that ‘The large plume or eruption column in the codex, which reaches to the stars, with ash or sand falling like rain, could be indicative of plinian activity’. Overall there is no doubt that the illustration in the codex looks more like an erupting volcano than anything else.

Whatever the 1509 phenomenon may have been, it was regarded with awe and wonder, and subsequent historians (such as Ixtilxochitl) interpreted it as one of the omens which presaged the landing of Hernán Cortés in 1519 and the ultimate fall of the Aztec empire.

Codex Telleriano-Remensis, at the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI)
Elizabeth Hill Boone, Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007)
David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)
Las Cenizas Volcánicas del Popocatépetl y sus Efectos para la Aeronavegación e Infraestructura Aeroportuaria (Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres & Instituto de Geofísica de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2001) [PDF]
Eloise Quiñones Keber, Codex Telleriano-Remensis: Ritual, Divination and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995)
Robert Louis Kovach, Early Earthquakes of the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Stephen A. Nelson, ‘Volcanic hazards in Mexico: a summary’, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México Instituto de Geología Revista, vol. 9, no. 1 (1990), pp. 71-81 [PDF]
Dirk R. Van Tuerenhout, The Aztecs: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005)

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Saturday volcano art – Çatalhöyük and the volcano that changed its spots 28 February 2009

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Catalhoyuk 'map'

Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey has been called the world’s oldest known city. The site consists of a town of many buildings that appears to have flourished between 8000 and 10000 years ago. Some of the buildings have surviving wall paintings, and it is one of these that is reproduced above. The orange, spotted object in the picture has since the 1960s been widely seen as the oldest surviving artistic representation of an erupting volcano.

The painting was uncovered by the British archaeologist James Mellaart, who discovered and excavated Çatalhöyük between 1958 and 1964. Mellaart interpreted the lower part of the picture as the close-packed buildings of the town of Çatalhöyük itself, and the orange shape in the upper part as the twin-peaked volcano Hasan Dagi, with an eruption in progress at the higher of its two cones. Hasan Dagi, a 3253m stratovolcano inactive since around 7500BC, lies about 140km east of the town. ‘A clearer picture of a volcano in eruption’, wrote Mellaart in his A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (1967), ‘could hardly have been painted’ (p. 176). In his ‘Excavations at Çatal Hüyük, 1963, Third Preliminary Report’, published in Anatolian Studies in 1964, Mellaart goes into detail (p. 55) about the depiction of the volcano:

This brings one to the spots on the mountain, the objects spurting out of the right-hand top, the ‘cloud’ of dots and strokes above (and to the right) of it and the lines extending from the base of the mountain. All these can be interpreted as the usual phenomena of a volcanic eruption: the rain of glowing volcanic bombs and red-hot rocks; the cloud of glowing particles above it and perhaps tongues of lava welling up from vents near the base of the mountain. It is known that the Central Anatolian volcanoes were active until the second millennium B.C. An ‘eye-witness’ painting of an early seventh millennium eruption of Hasan Dag is therefore certainly a possibility and in view of its economic importance a highly relevant subject to be recorded in a shrine.

The reference to the ‘economic importance’ of Hasan Dagi is an allusion to its role as the source of the obsidian that was traded by the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük.

Catalhoyuk 'map' detail


Saturday volcano art – Utagawa Hiroshige, ‘Miho no Matsuhara in Suruga Province’ (1858) 21 February 2009

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Utagawa Hiroshige, 'Miho no Matsubara in Suruga Province' (1858).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), whose given name was Andō Tokutarō, was one of the masters of Japanese painting and print-making in the nineteenth century, one of the last great ukiyo-e artists and a leading exponent of the art of the full-colour landscape print. The son of a minor Shogunal official, he showed early promise in drawing and painting, and studied under a number of leading artists associated with the Utagawa school of the ukiyo-e genre, from which he took his professional name. In the first part of his career he produced prints in the characteristic ukiyo-e genre depicting beautiful women and actors, book illustrations and decorative works. In the 1830s he seems to have become aware of the possibilities offered by the then neglected genre of landscape, perhaps being inspired by the works being published by Katsushika Hokusai, including the celebrated Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1830-33). Hiroshige began producing his own landscape print series, and with the publication from 1833 of Fifty-three Stages on the Tokaido he achieved success and his reputation was assured.

The beautifully symmetrical cone of Mount Fuji has long been a profoundly important symbol in Japanese culture, and images of Fuji form an ancient and rich tradition in Japanese visual art. With the development of Edo as the Shogunal capital after 1603 the ascetic religious cult of Mount Fuji became metropolitanized and absorbed into Court culture. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Fuji was also highly active, making it even more of a powerful presence in the local landscape. The volcano, with its pilgrimage routes, its ascetic holy men and its shrines, became the focus of an increasingly popular urban religious movement during the Edo period, providing a market for visual representations of the volcano in prints, books and devotional images which an entire industry of artists, printmakers and publishers sought to fulfil. When first Hokusai and then Hiroshige (and their followers and imitators) began to produce innovative new styles of landscape prints in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Fuji was a natural choice of subject.

Hiroshige produced two woodblock print series of Fuji, both entitled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, one in 1852 and another, at the very end of his life, in 1858 (although he produced many more images of the volcano throughout his career). The picture reproduced above is from the latter series and is typical of the artist’s later work in its simplicity, with the composition reduced to a limited number of motifs, and striking use of colour. Here the grey cone of the volcano stands starkly against a sky filled with a dramatic combination of yellow and black. The setting is a famous scenic location on Suruga Bay, on the Pacific coast of Honshu south-west of Tokyo, long celebrated for its views of Mount Fuji. Hiroshige emphasizes the dominance of Mount Fuji, but draws the surrounding scene of land and water, and the evidence of human activity in the boats that pass along the coast, into an overall harmony. This print represents the classic image of Fuji as the central motif of a landscape of elemental clarity and harmonious balance.

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Saturday volcano art – José María Velasco, ‘Volcán de Orizaba’ (1892) 14 February 2009

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José Maria Velasco, 'Volcán de Orizaba desde la hacienda de San Miguelito' (1892)
José María Velasco, ‘Volcán de Orizaba desde la hacienda de San Miguelito’ (1892). Oil on canvas.

José María Velasco (1840-1912) was the foremost Mexican landscape painter of the nineteenth century. He was an academically-trained artist who brought his own vision to bear on the classical European tradition of landscape painting, transforming it to give expression to the vast, dramatic, elemental landscapes of his native country. Velasco had strong scientific interests and sought to express an objective, naturalistic vision in his works, meticulously recording the details of foliage, atmospheric conditions and geology, but he also imbued his art with an intensity of vision that takes it beyond the realm of the purely objective, drawing on natural history, archaeology and topography to construct a monumental and harmonious vision of national space. He is probably best-known and most celebrated for his panoramic views of the Valley of Mexico, in which the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl feature many times.

The painting shown here, however, is of another volcano in another part of Mexico. Volcán de Orizaba desde la hacienda de San Miguelito, painted in 1892, shows the volcano Pico de Orizaba or Citlaltépetl in the south-eastern state of Veracruz, the highest peak in Mexico and the highest volcano in North America. At this time the volcano was regarded as active, having last erupted in the 1840s. In contrast to his sweeping panoramas of the Valley of Mexico, Velasco here selects a low viewpoint and a more enclosed composition. The canvas is divided into two sections: the lower is filled to overflowing with the lush vegetation typical of sub-tropical Veracruz, while the upper evokes the vast empty spaces of the arid uplands, dominated by the great sunlit peak of the volcano, soaring into the cold blue purity of the sky. The contrast between the two encapsulates the character of the Mexican landscape, both richly fertile and starkly barren, with the volcano, symbol of the eternal spirit of the nation, standing sentinel over both.

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

Posted by admin in Italy, Saturday volcano art, Vesuvius, volcano art, volcano culture, volcano images.
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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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Volcano art at Magma Cum Laude 5 January 2009

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New from Magma Cum Laude: ‘Go for the art, stay for the volcanoes’ is a post on the exhibition Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, which Jessica has been fortunate enough to visit. She reproduces some wonderful eighteenth-century paintings of Vesuvius in eruption and some of the beautiful pages from Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei (1776). A great article on what looks like a great exhibition.

[And there’s a nice link to this Volcanism Blog post. Thanks!]

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