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The Daily Volcano Quote: Vesuvius insufficiently sublime 23 September 2010

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One who had never seen a volcano, might conceive of its fires bursting up from their fountains, amidst ponderous rocks and boundless chasms, lurid in the hues of Phlegethon: and the sublime might there rejoice in the semblance of hell and chaos. But Vesuvius has little of this. A dull monotonous mantle covers all, as the waters of the ocean fill its bed: a colourless pall of ashes, or ashy lava, chokes the whole mountain from topmost ridge almost to its utmost base, where Spartacus and his gladiators entrenched in caverns once held their foes at bay, so that on a near approach the sublimity of the volcano, when it is not in conflagaration, vanishes. Yet Nature at her work for man as in the earth’s infancy she wrought ere man was, or human eye could witness her genial labors – this constrains our thoughts to primordial themes, and they may be sublime though the mountain be not.

An anonymous author tries not to be disappointed by Vesuvius in ‘Leaves from the journal of a traveller’, The Metropolitan Magazine, October 1837, p. 226.

The Daily Volcano Quote: from Monday to Friday, a new eruption of volcanic verbiage each day.

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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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A look at Vesuvius: closely-watched volcano 22 April 2009

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Naples and Vesuvius, August 2003

Under the headline ‘the world’s most closely watched volcano’, AFP have published an interesting article, with pictures, about the monitoring of Vesuvius.

The article describes how sensors continuously watch various aspects of the volcano’s activity, and that information is passed to the Vesuvius Observatory in Naples (the world’s oldest volcanological observatory), where it is constantly monitored and assessed. If a major eruption appears to be in prospect, the current emergency plan calls for 600,000 people from the 18 towns and cities within the 15-kilometre-radius ‘red zone’ around Vesuvius to be evacuated.

This would take about two weeks.

Vesuvius, the world’s most closely watched volcano – AFP, 22 April 2009

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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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Mount Vesuvius at Geology.com 17 December 2008

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Jessica Ball of Magma Cum Laude has written a fine article profiling Mount Vesuvius for Geology.com, clearly and concisesly discussing its geological context, eruption history, hazard potential and more. Excellent use of illustrations as well.

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Vesuvius, AD79 – something fishy? 29 September 2008

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How does fish sauce enable us to get a more precise fix on the date of the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius? Archaeological researchers at Pompeii have the answer. At the Eruptions blog, Dr Erik Klemetti reports on the latest from the archaeology/volcanology/gastronomy interface.

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The ups and downs of Vesuvius 17 September 2008

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Naples and Vesuvius, August 2003

A new study of Vesuvius suggests that the magma source involved in the eruptions of the last 20,000 years or so has been rising within the volcano, so that the more recent the eruption, the shallower the depth from which its magmas have come. Does this mean, looking to the future, that Vesuvius is more or less dangerous than we thought? Well, that depends…

The research in question was done by a Franco-Italian team of scientists and the results have been published as a letter in the 11 September 2008 issue of Nature under the title ‘Upward migration of Vesuvius magma chamber over the past 20,000 years’ (link is to abstract only). Analysis of samples of material from four of Vesuvius’s main explosive events between 5800BC and 472AD indicates that the pressure to which magmas have been subjected before each event has progressively reduced with each successive eruption: the scientists’ conclusion is that the magma chamber has been moving upward within the volcano, from 7-8km to 3-4km depth between 79AD and 472AD. If data from the Pomici di Base event of 18.5kyr ago and the most recent major eruption of 1944 is taken into account, the total upward migration of the magma chamber is around 9-11km.

The significance of this is explained by Dr Erik Klemetti in his crystal-clear discussion of this research at Eruptions: magma at shallower depths is subject to lower pressure, which means less chance of the explosive degassing that produces violent eruptions. However, he goes on to point out that this research, focused as it is on this ascending and recently tapped magma source, has nothing to say about future eruptions that might be rooted deeper in the system, produced by the influx of fresh magma at depth.

The authors of the Nature study, as is the way of such things, conclude very circumspectly by saying that the apparent upward migration of the magma chamber needs to be incorporated into the predictive models used to forecast the future behaviour of the volcano, and that more research is needed. They don’t make any predictions about the future. Reporters writing up their research are not so coy, so we have stories apparently using the same facts to draw diametrically opposed conclusions: ‘Mount Vesuvius’ destructive power may be diminishing’, ‘Vesuvius magma chamber rising; may mean milder eruption’, and ‘Mount Vesuvius may be less dangerous than predicted’ on the one hand, and ‘Pompeii-style eruption of Vesuvius can’t be ruled out’, ‘Vesuvius still an eruption risk’, on the other. How apocalyptic are you feeling at the moment? Take your pick accordingly.

  • B. Scaillet, M. Pichavant & R. Cioni, ‘Upward migration of Vesuvius magma chamber over the past 20,000 years’, Nature, no. 455 (11 September 2008). Link to abstract.

Image: Naples and Vesuvius, August 2003 (source).

Vesuvius magma chamber rising; may mean milder eruptionNational Geographic, 10 September 2008
Mount Vesuvius may be less dangerous than predictedScientific American, 10 September 2008
Pompeii-style eruption of Vesuvius can’t be ruled out – AFP, 11 September 2008
Mount Vesuvius’ destructive power may be diminishingDiscover Magazine, 11 September 2008
Vesuvius still an eruption risk – ABC Science, 11 September 2008

Global Volcanism Program: Vesuvius – summary information for Vesuvius (0101-02=)
Vesuvius Observatory – home page in English

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Vesuvius and the lost library 11 August 2008

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A reminder that the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius was a cultural as well as a geological event, and that its cultural impact continues today: ‘In search of Western civilisation’s lost classics’.

Lying to the northwest of ancient Herculaneum, [the Villa of the Papyri] was buried beneath 30m of petrified volcanic mud during the catastrophic eruption of Mt Vesuvius on August 24, AD79. Antiquities hunters in the mid-18th century sunk shafts and dug tunnels around Herculaneum and found the villa, surfacing with a magnificent booty of bronzes and marbles. Most of these, including a svelte seated Hermes modelled in the manner of Lyssipus, now grace the National Archeological Museum in Naples.

The excavators also found what they took to be chunks of coal deep inside the villa, and set them alight to illuminate their passage underground. Only when they noticed how many torches had solidified around an umbilicus — a core of wood or bone to which the roll was attached — did the true nature of the find become apparent. Here was a trove of ancient texts, carbonised by the heat surge of the eruption. About 1800 were eventually retrieved.

Using modern technology, many of these rolls can now be read much more easily than was previously the case, and scholars are calling for those that remain buried to be retrieved. This would mean extensive excavations beneath the modern towns of Ercolano and Portici. ‘Digging at the villa, that’s a huge undertaking’, says the regional archaeological supervisor, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo. ‘We would have to change streets, demolish houses and change the lives of thousands of people in Ercolano and Portici. It is a problem for the mayors. It is a political decision in the true sense of the word’.

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The actress and the volcano: Sarah Bernhardt ascends Vesuvius, 1898 23 May 2008

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The famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), passionate and unpredictable, was somewhat volcanic herself. During 1898 she made a theatrical tour of Italy, performing her celebrated star turn as Margeurite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, and while staying in Naples took the opportunity to climb Vesuvius. She made her climb on foot and at night and, in a typically self-dramatizing episode, insisted on approaching the edge of the crater, getting her hair and eyebrows scorched as a result. From The Pall Mall Gazette, 28 December 1898, p. 6:





ROME, Monday. — Theatre-goers in the Eternal City have this year had the unusual pleasure of seeing three great artists: Eleanor Duse, Maria Guerrero, and now Sarah Bernhardt — the three shining stars of those three Latin nations which produced Goldini, Lope de Vega, and Moliére, who are such magnificent exponents of the master’s work. The French diva is now at the Theatre Valle, whither I wended my way after receiving an invitation which read: “Come and see me this evening at the theatre.” So between the acts of the “Dame aux Camélias” I found myself kissing her hand and admiring the big Newfoundland dog which lay at her feet, having taken the place of the tiger, bear, and serpents of other days.

“I love this Italy,” she began. “This is my fourth visit to Rome.”

“And the public?” I queried.

“Ah! That is another pair of sleeves, as the Italian proverb has it.”

“That is to say?”

“All Latin audiences are difficult to enchain. The English, je les adore and Americans behave in the theatre as though in church. They listen in religious silence, though they are quick to catch a point and generous with applause. Italians talk more, rustle their programmes, read newspapers, making success much more difficult. But then it is their volcanic nature, I suppose. Apropos of volcanos, before leaving Naples I wished to have the strange sensation of seeing Vesuvius by night. I have been in Naples many times, and always intended to see that superb fiery despot at close quarters, but always put it off. However, I could do so no longer, for soon there will be a funicular from Naples to the crater, which will render the monster accessible to all. This railway I find barbarous. Is Vesuvius to be reduced to the proportions of a theatrical representation? I find this scheme only less ridiculous than the lighting of the Catacombs by electricity. I went up the great mountain on foot with two attendants and a trusty guide.”

“And ran a great risk,” I interrupted.

“It is dangerous enough by day, but at night wellnigh impossible for a lady, but quite well worth the trouble. We left after the theatre closed, taking the shortest route. We seemed ancient Pompeians climbing to face the inexorable father with the breast and head of fire. My emotions increased as we ascended. I have climbed many mountains of snow, but never one of fire before. As we proceeded the ground beneath my feet seemed to become gradually warmer and warmer. Then there were frequent clouds of vapour and showers of ashes. The way became more difficult, our feet leaving prints in the scarcely cold lava, while the giant sighed occasionally, sending out a hot breath of flame, and the air became heavier and heavier until breathing was difficult. I went on and on without a word to my companions, feeling in my innermost being the grandeur of the earth and the littleness of man when face to face with the forces of Nature. At last the guide said we must go no further, as the lava was liquid at the mouth of the crater. I begged for a few more paces. The man gave way to my importunities, and we went on forty or fifty steps, when the others came to a standstill. I proceeded until stopped by a cry from the guide. I seemed to be in the midst of flame, hardly able to breathe, and — but look! I lost one of my curls, and do you see my eyebrows are scorched? I felt as though the day of judgement was at hand.”

From this the conversation turned to general subjects, even the Dreyfus affair. “We French have become mad, perfectly mad, and it will end badly. We shall see the army in the streets of Paris.”

“Why? What for?” I asked.

“To slash, to strike, to kill.”

At this interesting point the call for Madame to go on the stage was heard, and she hurried away with her inimitable grace, saying over her shoulder, “Come and see me at the Grand Hotel before I leave!”

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J. Logan Lobley’s ‘Mount Vesuvius’ (1889) 1 April 2008

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A nineteenth-century volcanological work available for free and in full via the Internet Archive‘s American Libraries project: J. Logan Lobley, Mount Vesuvius. A Descriptive, Historical, and Geological Account of the Volcano and its Surroundings (London: Roper & Rowley, 1889).

Mount Vesuvius, the world-famed volcano of Southern Italy, has been for many centuries an object of great interest to the inhabitants of Europe. In ancient times, the conspicuous position of the mountain in one of the fairest and most frequented portions of the Roman dominions – the resort of the most wealthy, most famous, and most noble of the citizens of Rome – and the terrible character and dreadful results of the eruption of the year 79, combined to render Vesuvius an object of especial interest and wonder.

List of chapter headings: I: The Neapolitan volcanic region. II: The surroundings of Vesuvius. III: The mountain. IV: History to 1850. V: History: 1851-1868. VI: History: 1869-1888. VII: Geology of Vesuvius. VIII: Volcanic action. IX: Volcanic products. X: The minerals of Vesuvius. XI: The flora of Vesuvius.

The author was Professor of Physiography and Astronomy at the City of London College, and author of Geology for All (1888) among many other things.

Read Mount Vesuvius, in a choice of formats, here.

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