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History, Culture and the Arts--
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Vesuvius in Eruption, J.M.W. Turner, 1817
On August 24, 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius, the conical-shaped
mountain that looms above Naples, Italy, exploded with ash,
molten rock and poisonous gases that poured down its sides,
swallowing the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The volcano is the theme of two books that I have
enjoyed--Pompeii by Robert Harris (2003) and The Volcano
Lover: A Romance, by Susan Sontag (1992). Both are works of
fiction, but each includes historical characters.
Pompeii is the story of a young engineer, Marcus Attilius, who is
seeking to repair the Aqua Augusta, a huge aqueduct that carries
water to the cities surrounding the Bay of Naples. The signs of the
impending eruption begin with the smell of sulfur and a drop in
pressure in the water pipes.
To get around the bay faster, Attilius seeks a ship from the
admiral, Pliny the Elder, the author of the Natural History, a
compilation of "every known fact about Mother Nature in
Pliny, a scholar, spends most of the book attempting to record the
phenomenon for posterity, searching for the words to describe
something no one has ever seen before--"a gigantic umbrella pine
made of smoke growing over the coast. A thick brown trunk,
with black-and-white blotches . . . rolling miles into the air,
sprouting at its crown a clump of feathery branches. These broad
leaves seemed in turn to be dissolving along their lower edges,
beginning to rain a fine, sand-colored mist back down to earth,"
according to Harris.
His nephew, Pliny the Younger, used the description in a letter to
a friend who wrote asking for details of his uncle's death.
The mist was made up of light-weight pumice stones which
gradually became larger and darker and heavier and built up
around people and ships, on roofs and on water, destroying
houses and making movement almost impossible. Pliny, a
corpulent old man, dies in the eruption while trying to rescue a
friend and his family.
The Volcano Lover is the tale of Sir William Hamilton, the
Scottish diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist
who served as British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples
from 1764-1800. He made more than 65 ascents of Vesuvius
and also wrote a book about Pompeii.
A collector of beautiful things, Hamilton married the stunningly
beautiful and much younger Emma Lyon. She later became the
lover of the great British naval admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of the
1798 Battle of the Nile. Their menage a trois became the
subject of scandal from Italy to Great Britain.
The science of vulcanology, the study of volcanoes, was named
for Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking. The early
Romans believed that, when volcanoes sprang to life, Vulcan was
working inside them, crafting jewelry, weapons and thunderbolts
Legend has it that Vulcan was such an ugly baby that his mother
Juno, the queen of the gods, threw him off Mount Olympus. He
fell a day and a night to the sea, where one of his legs was broken
when he struck the water. It never healed properly, but the
sea-nymph Thetis found him and raised him as her son.
Finding the remains of a fisherman's fire on the beach, Vulcan
took a glowing coal home in a clam shell and studied its
is the patron god of the steel-making city of Sheffield, England,
and in Birmingham, Alabama, subject of the largest cast iron
statue in the world.
Volcanoes are among the most destructive and the most creative
of natural forces, destroying everything in their paths while
carpeting the ground with nitrogen-rich soil that increases its
productivity. That is why so many people return, risking their
lives, to farm on the flanks of volcanoes.
This month's website includes the story of one of history's greatest
eruptions at Krakatoa; the excavation of Pompeii and modern
re-creations of its architecture and art; and a Victorian writer's
judgment on Pompeii. Let me know your thoughts on volcanoes
or anything else at email@example.com.
Pliny the Elder died in the 79
William Hamilton was the
Emma Hamilton was painted by
Admiral Horatio Nelson, the
British war hero, by George
The Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius at center right, Pompeii on the slope below and
Herculaneum on the coast above, with Naples (Neapolis) up the coast from that.