February 8, 2012 8:09:00 AM
There are plenty of volcanoes around the world to thrill and frighten us. None of them have caught the literary, artistic, historical, or scientific imagination like Mount Vesuvius. Part of its attraction is that it is the only active volcano on the European mainland (there's Etna, but it is in Sicily). Part is that it sits majestically over the picturesque Bay of Naples. Part is its role in destroying, and preserving, Pompeii and Herculaneum. Part is that at irregular and unpredictable intervals it endangers an area which people have otherwise found attractive and livable. Vesuvius has been written about for millennia, but now in Harvard University Press's "Wonders of the World Series" is a handy summary volume, Vesuvius by Gillian Darley. Darley has written a scholarly view with a fine bibliography, but the subject is inherently fascinating, and her lively account looks at all the different and important facets of the irrepressible mountain.
Vesuvius has been dormant since its last big eruption of 1944. Recent excavations have found that there was a huge eruption around 1600 BCE with a pyroclastic surge (the forceful flow of lethally superheated gases and volcanic matter) that would have reached where Naples is now. The great problem with Vesuvius, one that Darley explores here, is that when it is not killing everything around it, it provides wonderfully fertile soil for anyone willing to risk making a farm that might be burned to a crisp someday. That milder role of the volcano is often forgotten; the destructive side is far more dramatically impressive. Since ancient times, the eruptions have been thought to be the work of supernatural beings, even though Epicurus and Lucretius long ago taught that the eruptions (and everything else) had natural causes and could be explained by laws of science. The supernatural still hovers over the mountain. Christian believers thought that a dramatic eruption had to have some meaning, and why should it not be a direct message from God? San Gennaro was a bishop who lived in the late third century and is the patron saint of Naples. When he was beheaded, a prescient Christian saved a bottle of his blood, which miraculously turned from dried sludge to liquid and back again. It still does this, signifying somehow that San Gennaro is still in charge. The eruption of 1631 caused the religious orders to bring out their relics, including the saint's blood and his preserved head, but this was not enough. Long files of penitents marched toward the volcano, whipping themselves as blood marked their procession. Depictions of the event show angels dumping buckets of water from the clouds as a celestial fire brigade. "Those with the means had already fled the area," writes Darley, "and others were given negligible practical help, merely the placebo of spurious devotional proceedings, generally orchestrated to take place when the worst was over - to prove their efficacy. Even the astrological charts were adjusted to show their prescience, after the event."
The saint was held to have succeeded, as the lava destruction didn't spread to everywhere, and annually there is a celebration for San Gennaro, with fireworks (of course) and processions of his relics: "... these diverting rituals with their thick Christian varnish coating the slight atavistic remnants, served the authorities well as distraction from harsh reality and incipient disorder." The celebrations have continued to bemuse Protestants and nonbelievers. Mark Twain found it "one of the wretchedest of all the religious impostures one can find in Italy," and thought it merely a way of replenishing the coffers of the church. San Gennaro was once again thought to have kept the 1944 eruption from being worse than it was (though why he allowed as much destruction as he did is not clear), and presumably he is given credit for the volcano's most recent torpor.
One of the most important personalities in this history is Sir William Hamilton, who is much less famous for his association with Vesuvius than he is for being cuckolded by Admiral Nelson. Darley does not give details of the dalliance between Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton whose story has little to do directly with Vesuvius, although the two were "often caricatured against the suggestive image of an ejaculating volcano." Sir William was the British ambassador, and he saw a small eruption in 1765. He was smitten. "Vesuvius," says Darley, "was the making of the man; and he was the man who made Vesuvius." He was to climb the volcano countless times, escorting important visitors, artists, and scientists to the site and writing reports of the volcano's activities back to the Royal Society. He took risks; in 1797 a surprise "fountain of liquid fire" sprang up in his direction, and he took off, running nonstop for three miles.
The most popular fiction work to come from the volcano is Bulwer Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, an entertaining and silly potboiler injecting Victorian family values into the ancient forums and courtyards. He wrote it in Naples "over the winter of 1833 - 34, where he and his wife had gone to repair his health (successfully) and their marriage (unsuccessfully)." The author drew upon Pliny the Younger's famous account of the eruption. The volcano obligingly had a big eruption when the book was published, and the sensation meant that the book was quickly adapted for the stage. It was first made into a movie in 1908, and the 1935 American production included Basil Rathbone playing Pontius Pilate, even though Pilate had been long dead at the time Pompeii was being buried. Vesuvius played an important role in the scientific controversies of the nineteenth century, and Charles Lyell visited it. He used his findings there as part of his monumental Principles of Geology which helped overturn the religious timeline of the history of the Earth. Geologists had been of two schools, the Neptunists, who thought that the Earth was sculpted by the gradual action of the seas and the Plutonists, who held that it was a process fired by crystallizing magma drawn from below. (These views can be seen as roughly comparable to the "catastrophist" view of volcanoes and other ruptures playing the biggest role in Earth history versus the "uniformitarian" view of a huge timescale and a continuous process.) Darley is superb at showing how Vesuvius has influenced literature, including that in Faust Mephistopheles was regarded as representing the Plutonists, and Faust the Neptunists.
The scientific understanding of the volcano, begun by Pliny and advanced by Hamilton proves to be an entertaining process. Frank Perret, an American electrical engineer who had worked with Edison, visited the volcano in 1906, and while in his room "was disturbed by 'a continuous buzzing sound which seemed to come from below'. Gripping the iron bedstead with his teeth, he found he could now experience the noise more clearly." Perret was not only to advance the idea that microphones (as well as seismographs) might give better ideas of what Vesuvius was doing, but also he emphasized how important photography was, and he had his pocket Kodak with him at all times. The geological view is just one of the many facets of the volcano to which Darley introduces us. Who knew, for instance, that the bouncy tune Funicolý FunicolÓ, covered by all the famous Italian singers from Mario Lanza to Luciano Pavarotti, was written to celebrate the 1880 opening of the funicular railway up the mountain?
The story of Vesuvius interpreted here by many academic, literary, and artistic visions is entertaining and often funny, but the mountain looms over all the proceedings as an ominous presence. It has been quiet for over sixty years now, and that quiet ought to disturb everyone in the vicinity, but it does not: "...the population creeps ever higher and nearer to the old lava fields, seeming to tempt Vesuvius not to turn without warning and devour everything in its path." There is now a dense concentration of illegal buildings around the slopes, houses and shops and even civic buildings, and a hospital and an oil refinery. Hamilton had been shocked that people were building at the foot of the volcano, and yet it all continues. It isn't impossible that Vesuvius might send out another huge pyroclastic disaster, not just some lava headed toward Naples. We will hear from Vesuvius again; we always do.