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Saturday Volcano Art: Joseph Wright of Derby, ‘Vesuvius from Portici’ (c.1774-6) 3 October 2009

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Joseph Wright of Derby, 'Vesuvius from Portici' (c.1774-6)

The English painter Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) visited Italy in 1773-5, and was in Naples from early October to early November of 1774. As it happens, this was a quiet interlude in Vesuvius’s eruptive history and Wright did not witness the volcano in eruption, but for an artist drawn to the dramatic interplay of light and darkness, and fascinated by the physical processes that governed the working of the universe, the erupting volcano was an obvious choice of subject, and Wright returned to it more than thirty times in the course of his career.

The picture illustrated here, ‘Vesuvius from Portici’, was painted between 1774 and 1776 and is perhaps Wright’s single most dramatic visual homage to the power and majesty of the volcano in eruption. Portici is at the western foot of the volcano on the shore of the Bay of Naples, so we are looking due east towards the summit of Vesuvius, which is about 8 km away. On the left is the remains of Monte Somma; on the right lava flows descend the flanks of the volcano towards the sea, setting vegetation ablaze.

Wright’s pictures are commonly organized around a single dramatic source of light, and here the volcano itself blazes like a huge furnace, roaring into the sky amid a swirling mass of cloud that draws the viewer’s eye inexorably towards the focus of the eruption – we seem to be looking down a tunnel of fire and fumes. The little bright flecks visible on the painting are not flaws in the reproduction, but representations of glowing fragments of ash falling to earth. On the left the moon rises, casting a paler glow upon the clouds and reminding us that everything we see in the picture – the volcano with its fires, the fertile landscape, the turbulent sky – is part of the same never-ending natural cycle of destruction and renewal.

As with paintings of Vesuvius by other artists, Wright has exaggerated the steepness of the volcano’s slopes (compare this modern photograph, taken from the approximate viewpoint of the painting), but in other ways he has been at pains to use a realistic mode of representation, with the landscape of rock formations, foliage, farms and houses modelled in lucid detail. Wright’s work engages in complex ways with scientific enquiry, and here he shows the volcano in the landscape as something awe-inspiring for itself, not as a mystical vision or an expression of divine power: his concern is with nature as something that moves the human spirit, but is also open to human understanding.

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Further reading

Joseph Wright of Derby at Revolutionary Players.
Vesuvius from Portici = Awesome Volcano Painting by Marshall Astor

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Saturday Volcano Art: J. M. W. Turner, ‘Vesuvius in Eruption’ (1817) 26 September 2009

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J. M. W. Turner, 'Vesuvius in Eruption (1817) - detailThe English artist J. M. W Turner (1775-1851) exhibited this watercolour of Vesuvius in 1817. It was one of a pair: its companion depicted ‘Vesuvius in Repose’. At the time of painting these pictures Turner, who did not visit Naples until 1819, had not seen Vesuvius for himself and worked from studies made by other artists. He had already painted a dramatic image of ‘The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains’ (1815), depicting the major 1812 eruption of Soufrière volcano on St Vincent. Volcanoes offered the sublime spectacle of a natural phenomenon both beautiful and destructive, and appealed to Turner’s sense of the dynamic cycles of destruction and renewal that governed both natural processes and the workings of human history.

J. M. W. Turner, 'Vesuvius in Eruption (1817)

The dramatic light effects of this picture vividly evoke the power of the eruption as it roars across the sky and bathes the land and sea in its red glare. The dazzling brightness of the heart of the eruption is created by Turner scraping away layers of paint to the white canvas beneath: the same technique is used to create the jagged lightning that flickers through the eruption cloud. Elsewhere, thickly applied repeated watercolour and gum washes give the picture a depth and intensity of a kind more usually associated with oils. The characteristically Turnerian compositional device of a vortex draws the eye in from the outer edges of the picture to the fiery summit of the volcano, almost swallowed up in swirling contrasts of light and dark. In the foreground, emphasizing the vast scale of the natural forces unleashed by the eruption, the tiny shapes of people can be seen gazing up at the spectacle.

Turner’s expressionistic vision of the volcano can be interestingly compared with the more rationalized classical vision represented by Xavier Della Gatta’s ‘Eruption of Vesuvius’ of 1794. Della Gatta seeks to represent the spectacle of the volcanic eruption, Turner to transcend representation and engage directly with the onlooker’s emotional response.

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25 August 79AD 25 August 2009

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Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 'Eruption of Vesuvius' (1813)

My dear Tacitus: You say that the letter I wrote for you about my uncle’s death made you want to know about my fearful ordeal at Misenum (this was where I broke off). ‘The mind shudders to remember … but here is the tale’.

After my uncle’s departure I finished up my studies, as I had planned. Then I had a bath, then dinner and a short and unsatisfactory night. There had been tremors for many days previously, a common occurrence in Campania and no cause for panic. But that night the shaking grew much stronger; people thought it was an upheaval, not just a tremor. My mother burst into my room and I got up. I said she should rest, and I would rouse her if need be. We sat out on a small terrace between the house and the sea. I sent for a volume of Livy; I read and even took notes from where I had left off, as if it were a moment of free time; I hardly know whether to call it bravery, or foolhardiness (I was seventeen at the time). Up comes a friend of my uncle’s, recently arrived from Spain. When he sees my mother and me sitting there, and me even reading a book, he scolds her for her calm and me for my lack of concern. But I kept on with my book.

Now the day begins, with a still hesitant and almost lazy dawn. All around us buildings are shaken. We are in the open, but it is only a small area and we are afraid, nay certain, that there will be a collapse. We decided to leave the town finally; a dazed crowd follows us, preferring our plan to their own (this is what passes for wisdom in a panic). Their numbers are so large that they slow our departure, and then sweep us along. We stopped once we had left the buildings behind us. Many strange things happened to us there, and we had much to fear.

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24 August 79AD 24 August 2009

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Angelica Kauffmann, 'Pliny the Younger and his mother at Misenum' (1785)

My dear Tacitus: You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible. I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you treat it. He perished in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him. Although he wrote a great number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings will add a great deal to his survival. Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself the task you have set me.

He was at Misenum in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August, when between two and three in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon. The cloud was rising from a mountain – at such a distance we couldn’t tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches’. I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.

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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: 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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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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