Mount Vesuvius

Painting showing the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Gulf of Naples, Italy (40°49N’ 14°26’E)

Description: Located just outside the Italian city of Naples, the volcano Vesuvius was one of the most spectacular instances of the ‘natural sublime’ typically visited as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Vesuvius was in a more-or-less constant state of activity throughout the Romantic period and had a least six significant eruptions between 1774 and 1822. In a letter of December 1818, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes it as ‘after the glaciers [of the Alps] the most impressive expression of the energies of the nature I ever saw’ and his response is visible in the volcanic landscapes and imagery of Prometheus Unbound (1820). (1) Influential Romantic-period travel writing, such as A Classical Tour through Italy (1812) by John Chetwode Eustace (1762-1815) and Remarks […] During an Excursion in Italy (1813) by Joseph Forsyth (1763-1815), offered extended descriptions of the volcano and its environs for the increasing numbers of tourists who visited as well as information about the latest speculations in natural philosophy. Eruptions of Vesuvius were made the subject of numerous paintings, including celebrated works by the British artists Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), by the German Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), and by the Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729-99), who died in Naples. They were often depicted in panoramic exhibitions in London and other European capitals – and, of course, they feature in countless works of fiction, poetry, and drama by authors across Europe. Arguably, Vesuvius drove the explosion (if the pun may be forgiven) in the use of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in Romantic-period cultural texts right across Europe as metaphors and similes for everything from poetic inspiration to political revolution. Hence Lord Byron (1788-1824) no doubt had Vesuvius in mind when he lamented, in the thirteenth canto of Don Juan (1823), what he saw as the clichéd ubiquity of volcanic imagery: ‘I hate to hunt down a tired Metaphor –/ So let the often-used Volcano go;/ Poor thing! how frequently be me and others/ It hath been stirred up, till its Smoke quite smothers’ (ll. 285-8).

One of the most widely-read literary responses to Vesuvius in the early nineteenth-century was the description given by the French traveller and writer Madame Germaine de Stäel (1766-1817) in her hugely popular romance novel Corinne ou l’Italie, essentially an homage to the natural and cultural wonders of that country, first published in French in May 1807 and translated into English (twice!) that same year. In his depiction of a key episode from the novel, Corinne au Cap Misène (1819-21), the French painter François Gérard (1770-1837) makes visible a connection insisted upon by the novel itself: the painting shows the inspired Corinne improvising poetry whilst Vesuvius, to which she is implicitly compared, pours forth smoke in the background. Both novel and painting illustrate, in other words, the extent to which Vesuvius was understood at the time not only as a natural but also as a cultural space, something which Corinne makes explicit by observing of the countryside around Naples that ‘it is the region of the world where volcanoes, history, and poetry have left the most traces’. (2)

Vesuvius and the adjacent volcanic landscapes of Solfatara and the Phlegraean Fields had of course been famous since classical antiquity and had many mythological associations, notably including the oracle of Apollo at Cumae, in whose supposed cavern Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) novel The Last Man (1826) begins. Hence these landscapes were prime examples of what Joseph Addison (1672-1719) in his Letter from Italy (1701) calls ‘classic ground’: landscapes entirely overwritten with cultural associations, landscapes where ‘the Muse so oft her harp has strung/ That not a mountain rears its head unsung’ (ll. 12-14). (3)

In addition to its many mythological associations, however, Vesuvius was also notorious during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for the devastating eruption of 79 AD which had destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killed at least 1500 people, including the Roman naval commander and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD). The account of this eruption given by Pliny’s nephew, Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), in two letters to Tacitus (d. 117 AD), was often reprinted in English translation and would have been well-known if only by reputation to visitors to Vesuvius. It also constitutes one of the earliest extant first-hand accounts of an eruption, and the towering column of superheated gas, ash and other debris which Pliny describes, and which collapsed into the pyroclastic flow that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum, is still known as a ‘Plinian column’. Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavations begun in the mid eighteenth-century and Romantic-period cultural texts frequently linked the volcano and the ruins, as in the painting The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance (1841) by the Danish artist Christen Købke (1810-48), or the poem ‘The Image in the Lava’ (1827), by the English poet Felicia Hemans (1793-1835).

Unsurprisingly, in addition to its status as a major tourist attraction, Vesuvius was, during the eighteenth century and Romantic period, the site of considerable study and speculation within those branches of natural philosophy which would become the modern scientific disciplines of geology and volcanology. Key contemporary studies include Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other volcanoes (1772) by the British diplomat and antiquarian William Hamilton (1730-1803), who was based at Naples, and its companion volume, Campi Phlegraei (1776), lavishly illustrated by the Italian Pietro Fabris (d. 1792).

Date: c. 25000 years ago

Creator: Uniform geological processes operating over deep time

Media: Pierre-Jacques Volaire, Vue de l’Éruption de Mont Vesuve du 14 Mai 1771 (1771)

Media rights: CCO Public Domain, The Art Institute of Chicago

Object type: Somma-stratovolcano (active); elevation: 1281m in August 2019.

Related Objects: Mount Etna

References

  1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, letter to Thomas Love Peacock of 17/18 December 1818, quoted from The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), ii, p. 62.
  2. Madame Germaine de Stäel, Corinne, or Italy, ed. and transl. Sylvia Raphael (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1994), Book 13, Ch. 4., p. 233).
  3. For a detailed consideration of the representation of Vesuvius as ‘classic ground’ in Romantic-period cultural texts, and it relation to contemporary discourses about volcanism, see Cian Duffy, The Landscapes of the Sublime, 1700-1830: ‘classic ground’ (London: Palgrave, 2013), pp. 86-101.
Share this post