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Saturday Volcano Art: Hiroshige II, ‘Mount Asama’ (1859) 29 August 2009

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Hiroshige II, 'Mount Asama' (1859)

The artist known as Hiroshige II (1826-69) was a student of the great ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who has already featured in this series. He became his master’s adopted son and married his daughter, Tatsu, and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, used his name; he had previously signed himself as Shigenobu. To avoid confusion, he is generally known as Hiroshige II. There is also a Hiroshige III, who was also the first Hiroshige’s adopted son and also married to Tatsu, but let’s not get into that here.

Mount Asama, the most active volcano on Honshu, is pictured in this image from Hiroshige II’s series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in the Provinces, published 1859-61. At the time this print was made the most recent significant eruption of Asama had occurred around 30 years earlier, in 1815, while in 1783 the volcano had produced one of the largest and most destructive eruptions (VEI=4) in modern Japanese history.

The print shows the volcano viewed from the south-east: on the left is the ridge of the Korufu-yama arc, remnant of an older volcano. The summit of Asama is producing brownish-grey emissions and is covered with recent ashfall and crowned with large boulders. The reddish-purple cloud, edged with yellow, that reaches across the distant ridge to encircle the volcano gives the scene a threatening air, emphasized by the towering flanks of the mountain (their steepness exaggerated by the artist) and the tiny, fragile details of the landscape in the foreground – trees, bushes, hurrying figures. There is a pervasive sense of unease that is absent from the first Hiroshige’s landscapes: a brooding atmosphere of latent threat. In this image the volcano is a grey monster, overshadowing the landscape and stirring in its sleep.

That sense of latent threat is by no means misleading. When this print was published Asama’s half-century of quiescence was coming to an end. In 1869 a VEI=2 event marked the beginning of a pattern of frequent eruptions (over fifty between 1875 and 2008) that has continued to the present day. Asama’s most recent eruption was in February 2009.

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Saturday volcano art: Christen Købke, ‘The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the distance’ (1841) 22 August 2009

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Christen Købke, 'The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance' (1841)

The Danish painter Christen Købke (1810-1848) died young at 38, but in his short career he produced some of the most innovative and distinctive European landscape painting of the first half of the nineteenth century. He was a pupil of the celebrated landscape painter C. W. Eckersberg (1783-1853), one of the leading figures of Golden Age Danish art. Most of Købke’s landscape studies were of places near his home in Copenhagen – his father was a master baker who leased the army bakery in the city’s Citadel, and the family made their home within the fortress. Kobke produced numerous studies of scenes in and around the Citadel in which deceptively free brushwork and almost impressionistic atmospheric effects are constrained by unusual, highly structured compositions and restrained but lucid colour schemes.

Købke journeyed to Italy in 1838, visiting Venice, Florence and Naples, and upon returning to Denmark in September 1840 devoted himself largely to painting Italian subjects derived from studies he had made while Italy. The scenery around Naples proved particularly inspiring for Købke, and he painted a number of pictures of the Bay of Naples and scenes around Vesuvius. The picture illustrated here, ‘The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance’ (1841) is one of the paintings dating from this period.

In this painting Købke has chosen a typically unusual viewpoint: relatively low down, so that Vesuvius is glimpsed through a screen of classical columns and ruined walls. The long shadows being cast from the right – the east – show that the time is early morning, and the atmosphere of the still morning, with mist just rolling away from the slopes of the volcano and a flawless blue sky holding promise of heat to come, is powerfully conveyed. Although the volcano is partially obscured its low contours and dark, scored flanks dominate the scene. The simplicity of its brooding shape contrasts with the litter of ancient remnants in the foreground: shattered columns, overgrown carvings, the empty roadway leading away into a landscape of ruins. The painting is a meditation on the spirit of place, the passing of time, the transience of all man-made things.

Christen Købke’s ‘The Forum at Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance’ is in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. If you’re in London next spring you can take in the exhibition Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery (17 March-10 June 2010).

Further reading
Christen Købke, 1810-1848 (exhibition catalogue, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen)
Torsten Gunnarsson, Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998)
Catherine Johnston et al, Baltic Light: Early Open-Air Painting in Denmark and North Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999)
Sanford Schwartz, Christen Købke (New York: Timken, 1992)

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Saturday Volcano Art: Giovanni Battista Lusieri, ‘Vesuvius from Posillipo by Night’ (1797) 18 July 2009

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Giovanni Battista Lusieri, 'Vesuvius from Posillipo by Night, during the Eruption of 1787' (1797)

Although this picture was painted in 1797, it depicts an eruption that took place some ten years earlier, in the summer of 1787. The painter was Giovanni Battista Lusieri, who was born in Rome around 1755 and from around 1782 worked as a painter of local views in Naples, producing pictures of the city and its picturesque surroundings – including Mount Vesuvius, then very active – for travellers visiting Naples on the ‘Grand Tour’. Demand for Lusieri’s work was such that he produced multiple copies of some of his most popular images by printing outline etchings of them which he then coloured by hand.

This view of Vesuvius in eruption was painted using Lusieri’s characteristic technique of watercolour washes, with ink used for outlines and some detailed modelling, producing an image of precision and delicacy. He was dedicated to accuracy, spending long hours perfecting his images, and insisted on the primacy of nature over the artist’s imagination in art: ‘one should faithfully imitate nature’. This view of the volcano erupting in the moonlight, its orange lava contrasting with the silver sky and the tranquil waters of the bay, nonetheless has a powerfully romantic atmosphere.

Giovanni Battista Lusieri, 'Vesuvius from Posillipo by Night, during the Eruption of 1787' (1797) - detail

From 1799 Lusieri worked as an agent for Lord Elgin, overseeing Elgin’s programme of acquisitions of art and antiquities in Greece from 1801 onwards, including the removal of the Parthenon sculptures now known as the Elgin Marbles. Lusieri died in Athens in 1821, lamenting that his work for Elgin had prevented him from devoting himself to his art. Further disappointment was in store, had he lived to see it: a ship carrying the majority of his watercolours sank in 1828, leaving little of his work for the appreciation of posterity.

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Further reading

Giovanni Battista Lusieri – biography from the Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Giovanni Battista Lusieri – another biography, from the National Galleries of Scotland.
Vedutismo e Grand Tour – complete text in Italian of Fabrizia Lucilla Spirito, Vedutismo e Grand Tour: Giovan Battista Lusieri e i suoi contemporanei (doctoral thesis, Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, 2006); link is to a page from which the PDF can be downloaded.
Vesuvius on the Grand Tour – volcanic tourism in the eighteenth century, from the Georgian Index.

[Thanks to the Volcanism Blog reader who sent in this picture and suggested it as a subject for 'Saturday Volcano Art'.]

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Saturday volcano art: matchbox volcanoes 20 June 2009

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A slightly unusual dose of Saturday Volcano Art this week: volcanoes on matchbox labels. A Volcanism Blog reader sent in these images of matchboxes featuring illustrations of volcanoes, and I thought they were too nice not to share.

Volcano matchbox label: 'Izalco' Volcano matchbox label: 'Volcanoa'

Volcano matchbox label: 'Keppel Szoval'

Volcano matchbox label: 'Vesuvius'

The choice of Izalco for matches imported into El Salvador is an obvious one: the volcano depicted doesn’t look terribly much like Izalco, but doesn’t look terribly much unlike it either. The volcano on the Indian ‘Volcanoa’ matchbox sits quite nicely in its stylized landscape, and the artist has made an effort to depict ashfall. The Hungarian box depicts a vigorously erupting volcanic island, or submarine volcano breaking surface – the ship seems rather dangerously close. The ‘Vesuvius‘ illustration looks to be based on a photograph, perhaps from a postcard, although the depiction of the volcano’s shape is rather wayward.

Volcanoes would seem an appropriate subject for matchbox illustrations, so presumably there are more examples like the ones reproduced above. These humble articles are examples of a genuine popular art form, and an attractive and interesting instance of the presence of volcano imagery in popular culture.

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Athanasius Kircher’s ‘Mundus Subterraneus’ (1664) 13 June 2009

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Between mid-December 1631 and the end of January 1632 Mount Vesuvius produced its most violent eruption since that of AD79, a VEI=5 event that included central vent and radial fissure eruptions, pyroclastic flows, lahars and volcanic tsunamis. The eruption killed perhaps 4000 people, sweeping away the villages at the foot of the volcano and severely damaging a number of larger towns including Torre del Greco, which was perhaps two-thirds destroyed and where most of the fatalities occurred. This eruption had a major impact on contemporaries throughout Europe, giving rise to an upsurge of interest in the study of volcanoes. Among those drawn to the close scrutiny of Vesuvius was the Jesuit priest and polymath Athanasius Kircher (1609-1680).

Despite having had his youth in his German homeland disrupted by the Thirty Years War, Kircher had shown early promise in the sciences and by the early 1630s he was known for his work in mathematics, mechanics and magnetism. From 1633 he worked in Rome as a scholar and teacher, and in 1637-8 he travelled in the south of Italy investigating earthquakes and volcanic phenomena including Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius. While visiting Vesuvius he climbed all over the mountain making observations, even having himself lowered by rope into the crater. From 1638 onwards he devoted himself to research and writing at the Jesuit Collegio Romano, one of the intellectual powerhouses of early modern science, producing a vast number of publications on subjects including music, astronomy, linguistics, archaeology, magnetism, mechanics and geology.

Kircher’s interest in geology, and particularly in volcanoes and earthquakes, bore magnificent fruit in his Mundus Subterraneus, published in twelve volumes between 1664 and 1678. Kircher postulated a central source of heat at the centre of the globe, and produced a stunning cross-section of the Earth (included in volume III of his work) showing a central mass of flame feeding heat to the surface through a complex network of channels and fissures and subsidiary bodies of fire distributed through the interior. Volcanoes were created where the Earth’s internal fires escaped at the surface, and also served to draw in air to sustain those subterranean fires. The source of the combustion was the combining of salt, sulphur, bitumen and other inflammable and explosive materials within the Earth. The idea of subterranean fire innate to the Earth developed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a means of accounting for the presence and distribution of hot springs; its application to the problem of volcanoes was a natural development, significant for reflecting an awareness of volcanoes as a global phenomenon produced by a global process, rather than the purely localized product of wind action upon deposits of combustible materials. Kircher’s very influential work can be seen as playing an important part in the dissemination of this notion.

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Saturday Volcano Art: John Martin, ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (c.1821) 6 June 2009

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John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c.1821), detailFrom the moment of their recovery in the mid-eighteenth century, the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum became the centre not only of an archaeological but a moral narrative. These flourishing centres of Roman life – exemplars of a great civilization at the height of its power – could do nothing to protect themselves against the natural calamity that destroyed them. Johann Joachim Winckelmann reflected in his Critical Account of the Situation and Destruction by the First Eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabia (1764) that the remains of these cities ‘afford the most striking moral reflections’, showing ‘that Empires, however firmly founded, and that cities, however embellished, are like man, subject to mortality, and liable to dissolution’ (pp. iv-v).

For some the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum afforded matter not only for moral reflection, but for moral judgement: these ancient centres of luxury, decadence, arrogance, paganism and vice had been swept away, and perhaps it was a case of serve them right. Such views became particularly prominent during the nineteenth century, when Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s phenomenally popular novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) described the city as ‘the miniature of the civilization of that age’, containing within its walls ‘a specimen which every gift which luxury offered to power … in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice, of its people, you beheld a model of the whole empire’ (p. 17). The destruction of the Roman cities, argued the American writer Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter in 1827, was not merely a fluke of nature but an act of well-deserved divine retribution: ‘Sodom and Gomorrah, when like Herculaneum and Pompeii, they were deluged in fire and overwhelmed in ruin, could not have sunk to greater depths of depravity, or have presented vice under more brutal and disgusting forms’ (Letters From Europe, vol. II, p. 232). Both Pompeii and Herculaneum, observed John Kennedy in his Volcanoes: Their History, Phenomena, and Causes (1852), ‘were prosperous and luxurious. The excavations of Pompeii reveal Roman life in all its grandeur and meanness, and, alas! in all its frivolity and licentiousness’ (p. 66). Kennedy’s book, it should be pointed out, was published by the Religious Tract Society, and for some religious writers the lesson taught by the fate of the Roman cities was clear. In 1872 the British Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon, perhaps the most celebrated and influential Christian preacher of modern times, paid a visit to Pompeii and referred to it in a subsequent sermon, ‘Voices from Pompeii’, as ‘that fair abode of luxury and vice’. Pompeii is held up, not only as an instance of the vulnerability of man to natural catastrophe but of the inevitability of divine judgement upon immorality, luxury and vice.

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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.]

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Saturday Volcano Art: Fernando Amorsolo, ‘Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano’ (1949) 9 May 2009

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Fernando Amorsolo, 'Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano' (1949)

The painter Fernando Amorsolo (1892-1972) was a dominant figure in the visual arts of the Philippines during the decades before the Second World War and into the post-war period. His oeuvre is characterized by scenes of the Filipino countryside, harmoniously composed and richly coloured, saturated with bright sunlight and populated by beautiful, happy people: it is an art of beauty, contentment, peace and plenty – which perhaps explains its enduring popularity in the Philippines to this day.

Amorsolo was committed to two fundamental ideas in his art: first, a classical notion of idealism, in which artistic truth was found through harmony, balance and beauty, and second a conservative concept of Filipino national character as rooted in rural communities and the cycles of village life. The two come together in pastoral scenes such as ‘Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano’, painted in 1949. Here, happy Filipino villagers in their bright clothes and straw hats work together amid a green and sunlit landscape of plenty. Behind them, releasing a peaceful plume of steam, rises the beautifully symmetrical cone of Mayon stratovolcano. It is the ash erupted by the volcano over its highly-active history that has made the surrounding landscape fertile, and the tranquil cone appears here to be a beneficial spirit of the earth standing guardian over the villagers and their crops. Mayon’s eruptions can be very destructive (as in the violent eruption of 1947, not long before this picture was painted, when pyroclastic flows and lahars brought widespread destruction and fatalities) but here the relationship between the volcano and the surrounding landscape is depicted as a positive, fruitful and harmonious one. Mayon is a celebrated symbol of the Philippines, and its presence in Amorsolo’s painting emphasizes his wish to represent the spirit of the nation on canvas.

‘Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano’ is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.

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Further reading

Fernando C. Amorsolo Art Foundation
Fernando Amorsolo works at Frazer Fine Arts
The National Artists of the Philippines: Fernando C. Amorsolo
Alice G. Guillermo, Image to Meaning: Essays on Philippine Art (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001)
Paul A. Rodell, Culture and Customs of the Philippines (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002)

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Saturday Volcano Art: Joseph Rebell, ‘Eruption of Vesuvius at Night’ (1822) 2 May 2009

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Joseph Rebell, 'Eruption of Vesuvius at Night' (1822)

The Austrian painter Joseph Rebell (1787-1828) spent much of his career in Italy and painted many Italian landscapes, including this dramatic image of Vesuvius erupting at night. For painters such as Rebell, interested in landscape art as an embodiment of imaginative and emotional engagement with the natural world, such events as volcanic eruptions offered the opportunity to explore the power and grandeur of nature in extreme forms. In choosing here to represent Vesuvius not only erupting, but doing so at night and during a storm, Rebell creates an image of elemental forces in conflict.

In the centre of the canvas is the volcano, spitting fire high into the sky and raining ash down onto the land from its dark eruption cloud. Vesuvius’s jet of blazing incandescence both echoes and dwarfs the lighthouse that juts up from the rocky headland beneath, symbolizing the powers of nature overpowering the works of man. A pale light reflects on the storm-tossed sea, contrasting with the fiery summit of the volcano and the dark masses of rock and earth on either side. Earth and air, water and fire are hurled against each other in a cloud-strewn, storm-tossed tumult that suggests the chaos of creation itself.

The eighteenth-century tradition of depicting Vesuvius had emphasized the overall harmony of the scene: even in eruption, the volcano was balanced with the elements of the human and natural landscape around it, while the onlooker was distanced, viewing the scene with detachment, from outside. The power and energy of Rebell’s erupting Vesuvius, by contrast, demands an emotional and imaginative response from the onlooker, who is encouraged to become involved with the image, to react with spontaneity and honest feeling to the elements of nature depicted, and thus to achieve a greater degree of engagement with the external world. Rebell is not particularly interested in topographical or indeed volcanological detail in this picture. His Vesuvius is a visionary reinterpretation, rather than a representation, of reality: a romanticized symbol of the power of nature, transformed through the action of the individual imaginative sensibility.

Joseph Rebell’s ‘Eruption of Vesuvius at Night’ is in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.

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Saturday Volcano Art: Poulett Scrope and Jaujac 25 April 2009

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George Poulett Scrope, view of Jaujac (1827)

This view of the town of Jaujac and its setting, in the Ardèche region of south-eastern France, was drawn by the British geologist and economist George Poulett Scrope (1797-1876) and published in the first edition of his Memoir on the Geology of Central France in 1827.

The viewpoint of the picture is towards the south. The river Lignon is in the foreground in its steep-sided gorge, with Jaujac and its bridge above it. Beyond the town the land rises, and directly ahead of us is a clearly volcanic landscape feature: a low hill with a crater, open towards the north. This is an extinct volcanic cone known as la coupe de Jaujac. The vent is thought to have been active around 16000 years ago. It produced a thick lava flow, on part of which the town now stands.

Poulett Scrope’s picture does not merely depict the physical arrangement of the town, the river and the volcano. It is also concerned with temporal relationships. Since the middle of the eighteenth century, when Jean-Étienne Guettard (1715-86) first identified lava flows and volcanic features in Massif Central (the Chaîne des Puys of Auvergne, and the volcanoes of Ardèche) and Nicolas Desmarest (1725-1815) used evidence from the same region to argue that basalt was a volcanic and not a sedimentary rock, the relationship between the volcanoes and their lava flows and the deep-cut river valleys had been a topic of great interest to geologists. The rivers had cut through some lava flows, yet in other cases lava had flowed into existing river valleys. When the English geologist Charles Daubeny (1795-1867) visited the region in 1819 he called these ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ flows respectively, reflecting his belief that they had been erupted before and after the creation of the valleys. He also used the terms ‘ante-diluvial’ and ‘post-diluvial’, suggesting that some great inundation had occurred between the two, reshaping the landscape which was then newly eroded by river valleys.

When George Poulett Scrope visited the same landscapes shortly after Daubeney he interpreted what he saw rather differently. He explicitly rejected the distinction between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ volcanic eruptions. Rather than seeing distinct epochs of volcanic activity, he saw a continual process of eruptions and erosion. His illustration shows the lava flow cut through by the deep gorge of the Lignon river, and the volcanic cone which had erupted the lava still extant and well-preserved. If a flood had reshaped the landscape between the lava being erupted and the river eroding its gorge, the cone would surely have been erased as well, yet it remains. Poulett Scrope’s explanation was that eruptions were continually happening, and erosion was continually occurring, across the vast range of geological time.

The full image from Poulett Scrope’s Memoir on the Geology of Central France (1827), from which the detail reproduced above is taken, can be found at the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

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References

Coupe de Jaujac et ruisseau des Salindres (Inventaire des Zones Naturelles d’interet Ecologique, Faunistique et Floristique, 2nd edition, 2007) [PDF].

Martin J. S. Rudwick, ‘Poulett Scrope on the volcanoes of the Auvergne: Lyellian time and political economy’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 7, no. 3 (November 1974), pp. 205-242.

Martin J. S. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Alwyn Scarth & Jean-Claude Tanguy, Volcanoes of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jeunes volcans d’Ardèche – information about Jaujac from Le volcanisme d’Ardèche.

Volcanism at Jaujac – field-trip photographs and commentary from 2006.

Volcanisme de Jaujac – field-trip notes and photographs (Académie de Grenoble)

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