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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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A volcano tour of Italy 16 June 2008

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John Van Hoesen’s blog Geological Musings in the Taconic Mountains…, as well as hosting the current Accretionary Wedge (for my contribution, click here), features a richly-illustrated account of his recent tour of notable Italian volcanoes: Etna, Vulcano, Stromboli … vivid descriptions and some great pictures.

Volcano Tour of Italy…

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Etna update, 28 May 2008 28 May 2008

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Things appear to be quiet at Etna right now, after some weeks of occasionally spectacular activity. The last week has seen episodes of strong tremor and strombolian activity with ash emission and small lava flows associated with the new eruptive fissures that have been the focus of the eruptions that have been taking place since April. The latest activity report (PDF) from the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia – Sezione di Catania indicate that only a single new lava flow, some 5.75km in length, could be observed from an overflight that took place this morning, and that activity at the summit craters was limited to degassing and fumaroles. Geochemical analysis (PDF) indicates that no new eruptive phase is currently under way: ‘The geochemical data acquired during the last week of observations do not give evidence of any variations in activity of particular importance … The slight decrease in helium isotopes in peripheral gas samples and the constant level of CO2 emissions from the soil would seem to indicate the absence of new phases of the recharging of deep magma (5-13 km below sea level)’. Toulouse VAAC reports indicate no current ash emissions.

Information
Global Volcanism Program: Etna – summary information for Etna (0101-06=)
Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia – Sezione di Catania – INGV-CT is the volcanological authority responsible for Etna; current activity reports are here
Toulouse Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre – volcanic ash advisories for the area that includes Etna

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Etna: May 2008 eruption pictures at Stromboli Online 27 May 2008

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Pictures of the current fissure eruption at Etna, taken over the past few days, have just been added to the already vast collection of Etna images and resources at Stromboli Online. The new pictures show spectacular views of the activity at the new fissure, and cover the period from 16 to 24 May.

16-24 May 2008: Fissure eruption in Valle de Bove

Information
Global Volcanism Program: Etna – summary information for Etna (0101-06=)
Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia – Sezione di Catania – INGV-CT is the volcanological authority responsible for Etna; current activity reports are here

The Volcanism Blog

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

Posted by admin in Italy, miscellaneous, Vesuvius, volcano culture.
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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:

SARAH BERNHARDT ASCENDS VESUVIUS.

A CURL BURNED AND EYEBROWS SCORCHED.

SHE DESCRIBES HER EMOTIONS.

[FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.]

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!”

The Volcanism Blog

Activity at Etna: an update 18 May 2008

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The ongoing eruption at Chaitén has tended to exercise a near-monopoly over the attention of volcano-watchers lately, but there has been much of volcanological interest going on elsewhere. Mount Etna, for a start, has been having an active time of it over the last few weeks.

After a quiet period of some seven months, Etna resumed activity with increased seismic activity and intermittent explosive activity of strombolian character between 21 and 28 April from a fissure on the eastern flank of the South East Crater at the summit.

From 21:00 local time on 1 May swarms of earthquakes were recorded along the north-eastern rift zone, and significant degassing took place at the South East Crater and North East Crater.

On 10 May between 13:00 and 14:00 UTC an increase in the intensity of tremors at the volcano indicated resumption of eruptive activity, although poor visibility prevented direct observation. The eruption involved strong strombolian activity at the South East Crater and lava emission (lava flows advanced about 6.4km along the western side of the Valle de Bove), and lasted to the early evening when seismic activity returned to normal background levels and the eruption ceased. Ashfall was reported from multiple locations during 10-11 May.

13 May saw powerful seismic signals and explosive activity in the early morning. Several powerful earthquakes were recorded and a significant thermal anomaly was recorded at the summit. A plume of ash was emitted around 11:30 which was blown towards the north-east of Sicily and Calabria: ashfall was reported in several villages in north-eastern Sicily. A significant eruptive fissure opened north-east of the South East Crater, between 2700 and 2900 metres above sea level. Sustained strombolian activity and the emission of a plume of ash was observed during the afternoon, although visibility remained poor. Repeated earthquakes on the north-eastern flank of the volcano indicated the migration of magma to this area.

Fumarolic activity continued into 14 May, with evidence of some effusive lava eruption from the new fissure. Visual observations on 14 May confirmed the appearance of not one but two new eruptive fissures, one just east of the summit craters and the other to the north-east of the South East Crater. From this latter opening lava flows were emerging, eventually extending for approximately 5 km.

The latest reports (17 May 2008) indicate that Etna is currently at low levels of seismicity and is producing strombolian activity and effusive lava flows from the two new fissures. Small ash-laden eruption plumes are reaching several hundred metres in altitude.

The current eruptive activity has posed no danger to life or property.

Sources for the above summary: Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia – Sezione di Catania, current activity bulletins; Global Volcanism Program, weekly volcanic activity reports for Etna; Activolcans, volcanic activity reports; news sources as listed below.

Information
Global Volcanism Program: Etna – summary information for Etna (0101-06=)
Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia – Sezione di Catania – INGV-CT is the volcanological authority responsible for Etna; current activity reports are here
Toulouse Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre – volcanic ash advisories for the area that includes Etna

News
Eruptions subside at Sicily’s Mount Etna – AFP, 11 May 2008
Etna volcano rumbles back to life in Sicily – AFP, 13 May 2008
Etna: INGV, vulcano ‘buono’ ma attenti a meccanismi inediti – AGI News, 13 May 2008 (Italian)
Mount Etna flows back to life – BBC News (video), 14 May 2008
Eruzione Etna: continua l’attività eruttiva, le colate sono ancora alimentateTempo Stretto, 15 May 2008 (Italian)

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