Why is Mount Vesuvius so famous?
Mount Vesuvius forms an iconic backdrop to the Bay of Naples, Italy, and is one of Europe’s most active volcanoes. It is best known for an eruption in AD 79 that buried the Roman settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum under metres of ash. Vesuvius has not erupted since 1944, but from the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries frequent eruptions sent incandescent plumes of ash into the sky and rivers of lava rolling down the mountain side.
In 1631, Vesuvius burst violently back to life with a tremendous eruption that could be heard for miles around. For the next three centuries, activity oscillated between vigorous pulses of eruption, with fire fountains, ash columns and lava flows, and short periods of quiet steaming.
The Grand Tour
In the late seventeenth century, Vesuvius became a prominent destination for visitors on the Grand Tour.
In 1688, William Bromley, later MP for Oxford and speaker of the House of Commons, waded for miles through knee-deep ash to reach the active cone. ‘The mountain is always on fire, and near it are huge stones…of incredible lightness’ he wrote.
The discovery of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century added to interest in Vesuvius, and the steady flow of wealthy tourists created a demand for paintings of the Bay of Naples and of Vesuvius erupting.
An early volcanologist
William Hamilton was appointed Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples in 1764, and rented a villa at the foot of Vesuvius. He took a close interest in the volcano, which he climbed many times.
His letters describing the great eruption of 1766 were published by the Royal Society to great acclaim, and encouraged him to continue his work. In 1776 he published a lavishly illustrated book on ‘observations of the volcanoes of the two Sicilies’, which is one of the earliest monographs in volcanology.
Nineteenth century eruptions of Vesuvius attracted scientists eager to test theories of volcanic action, and the world’s first volcano observatory was built on Vesuvius in 1841.
In 1880, a funicular railway opened, inspiring the song ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’, and conveying hundreds of tourists up the mountain every day. Violent eruptions in 1906 and 1944 put an end to the railway.
The next eruption of Vesuvius?
Today, Vesuvius lies dormant. It last erupted in 1944, and it will erupt again – only nobody knows when.
Images of past eruptions offer glimpses of how future eruptions might appear; while samples of lava, collected as souvenirs, contain the rocky clues to this episode in Vesuvius’ history.