We were walking up and down the room, when,
stepping aside, she opened the shutters of a window, and
displayed to view a sight such as one sees but once in his
life. Were it done intentionally to surprise me, she
completely attained her purpose. We stood at a window
of the upper story right in front of Vesuvius; the lava
streaming downwards, and, now that the sun was long set,
seen distinctly glowing and beginning to gild the enveloping smoke; the mountain in a furious rage capped by an immense steady column of vapour, whose different masses
were at each explosion sundered as if by lightning, and
illumined into various shapes; thence down towards the
sea, a stripe of blazing fire and glowing vapour; the rest,
all sea and earth, rock and vegetation, reposing witchingly,
dearly and peacefully, in the evening twilight. To see this with one glance, and, to complete the wonderful
picture, to behold the full moon rising up from behind the
ridges of the mountain - all this could not but affect one
with grateful astonishment.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Italian Journey - June 1787 - translation by Charles Nisbet
Data about Mt. Vesuvius, an active volcano that rises above the Bay of Naples (from Encyclopaedia Britannica). Its western base rests almost upon the bay. The height of the cone in 2013 was 4,203 feet (1,281 metres), but it varies considerably after each major eruption. At about 1,968 feet (about 600 metres), a high semicircular ridge, called Mount Somma, begins, girding the cone on the north and rising to 3,714 feet (1,132 metres). Between Mount Somma and the cone is the Valle del Gigante (Giant's Valley). At the summit of the cone is a large crater about 1,000 feet (about 305 metres) deep and 2,000 feet (about 610 metres) across; it was formed in the eruption of 1944. Although a relatively young volcano, Vesuvius had been dormant for centuries before the great eruption of 79 AD that buried the cities of Pompeii, Oplontis, and Stabiae under ashes and lapilli and the city of Herculaneum under a mudflow. Between the years 79 and 1037, several eruptions were reported. After some centuries of quiescence, a series of earthquakes preceded a major eruption that took place in 1631. Many villages on the slopes of the volcano were destroyed, the lava flow reached the sea, and the skies were darkened for days. After 1631 there was a change in the eruptive character of the volcano, and activity became continuous. Two stages could be observed: quiescent and eruptive. During the quiescent stage the volcano's mouth would be obstructed, whereas in the eruptive stage it would be almost continuously open. Between 1660 and 1944 several of these cycles were observed.
Mount Vesuvius seen from Pompeii; (inset) people walking along the rim
Vesuvius is the genius of the scene. From every indication of the ruin it has worked, we look, again with an absorbing interest to where its smoke is rising up into the sky. It is beyond us as we thread the ruined streets; above us as we stand upon the ruined walls; we follow it through every vista of broken columns, as we wander through the empty courtyards of the houses; and through the garlandings and interlacings of every wanton vine.
Charles Dickens - Pictures from Italy - 1846
Crater of Mount Somma and Valle del Gigante
March 2, 1787. (First visit) I ascended Vesuvius, although the weather was
unsettled, and the summit of the mountain surrounded by
clouds. I took a carriage as far as Resina (it was renamed Ercolano in 1969), and then, on the
back of a mule, began the ascent, having vineyards on both sides.
March 6, 1787. (Second visit) Most reluctantly, yet, for the sake of good-fellowship, Tischbein accompanied me to-day to Vesuvius. (..) At the foot of the steep ascent, we were received by two guides, one old, the other young, but both active fellows. The first pulled me up the path, the other Tischbein, - pulled I say, for these guides are girded round the waist with a leathern belt, which the traveller takes hold of, and being drawn up by his guide, makes his way the easier with foot and staff. In this manner we reached the flat from which the cone rises: towards the north lay the ruins of the Somma. (..) We now went round the ever-smoking cone, as it threw out its stones and ashes. (..) A violent thundering toned forth from its deepest abyss, then stones of larger and smaller sizes were showered into the air by thousands, and enveloped by clouds of ashes. The greatest part fell again into the gorge; the rest of the fragments, receiving a lateral inclination, and falling on the outside of the crater, made a marvellous rumbling noise. (..) As, however, the presence of danger generally exercises on man a kind of attraction, and calls forth a spirit of opposition in the human breast to defy it, I bethought myself that, in the interval of the eruptions, it would be possible to climb up the cone to the crater, and to get back before it broke out again. I held a council on this point with our guides under one of the overhanging rocks of the Somma, where, encamped in safety, we refreshed ourselves with the provisions we had brought with us. The younger guide was willing to run the risk with me; we stuffed our hats full of linen and silk handkerchiefs, and, staff in hand, we prepared to start, I holding on to his girdle. Goethe
March 6, 1787. We soon stood on the brink of the vast chasm, the smoke of which, although a gentle air was bearing it away from us, unfortunately veiled the interior of the crater, which smoked all round from a thousand crannies. At intervals, however, we caught sight through the smoke of the cracked walls of the rock, the view was neither instructive nor delightful; but for the very reason that one saw nothing, one lingered in the hope of catching a glimpse of something more; and so we forgot our slow counting. We were standing on a narrow ridge of the vast abyss: of a sudden a thunder shook the mountain; we ducked our heads involuntarily, as if that would have rescued us from the precipitated masses. The smaller stones soon rattled, and without considering that we had again an interval of cessation before us, and only too much rejoiced to have outstood the danger, we rushed down and reached the foot of the hill, together with the drizzling ashes, which pretty thickly covered our heads and shoulders. Goethe
Joseph Wright of Derby - Mt. Vesuvius seen from Portici, a town very near ancient Herculaneum (ca 1774)
March 20, 1787. (Third visit) The news that an eruption of lava had just commenced, which, taking the direction of Ottaviano, was invisible at Naples, tempted me to visit Vesuvius for the third time. Scarcely had I jumped out of my cabriolet, at the foot of the mountain, when immediately appeared the two guides who had accompanied us on our previous ascent. I had no wish to do without either, but took (..) the two for the greater convenience. Having ascended the summit, the older guide remained with our cloaks and refreshment, while the younger followed me, and we boldly went straight towards a dense volume of smoke, which broke forth from the bottom of the funnel; then we quickly went downwards by the side of it, till at last, under the clear heaven, we distinctly saw the lava emitted from the rolling clouds of smoke. (..) Some cracks in the canal afforded opportunity of looking at the living stream from below, and as it rushed onwards, we observed it from above. A very bright sun made the glowing lava look dull; but a moderate steam rose from it into the pure air. I felt a great desire to go nearer to the point where it broke out from the mountain. (..) To see and experience this phenomenon, we again ascended the hill, in order to come from behind to this point. Fortunately at this moment the place was cleared by a pretty strong wind, but not entirely, for all round it the smoke eddied from a thousand crannies. (..) We ventured about twenty steps further, but the ground on which we stepped became hotter and hotter, while around us rolled an oppressive steam, which obscured and hid the sun; the guide, who was a few steps in advance of me, presently turned back; and seizing hold of me, hurried out of this Stygian exhalation. Goethe
Smoke from the 1944 Crater
March 2, 1787. Next, on foot, I crossed the lava of the year '71, on the surface of which a fine but compact moss was already growing; then upwards on the side of the lava. The hut of the hermit on the height, was on my left hand. After this we climbed the Ash hill, which is wearisome walking; two-thirds of the summit were enveloped in clouds. At last we reached the ancient crater, now filled up, where we found recent lava, only two months and fourteen days old, and also a slight streak of only five days, which was, however, already cold. Passing over these, we next ascended a height which had been thrown up by volcanic action; it was smoking from all its points. As the smoke rolled away from us, I essayed to approach the crater; scarcely, however, had we taken few steps in the steam, when it became so dense that I could scarcely see my shoes. It was to no purpose that we held snuff continually before our nostrils. My guide had disappeared; and the footing on the lava lately thrown up was very unsteady. I therefore thought it right to turn round, and to reserve the sight for a finer day, and for less of smoke. However, I now know how difficult it is to breathe in such an atmosphere. Goethe
Rocks of the 1944 Crater
March 2, 1787. The specimens of lava that I found, were mostly of well known kinds. I noticed, however, a phenomenon which
appeared to me extremely strange, which I intend to examine
again still more closely, and also to consult connoisseurs and
collectors upon it. It is a stalactite incrustation of a part of
the volcanic funnel, which has been thrown down, and now
rears itself in the centre of the old choked-up crater. This mass
of solid greyish stalactite appears to have been formed by the
sublimation of the very finest volcanic evaporation, without the
co-operation of either moisture or fusion. It will furnish
occasion for further thinking.
March 6, 1787. I was able to give my especial attention to the old and new lava. And here the elder of the guides was able to instruct me accurately in the signs by which the age of the several strata was indicated. The older were already covered with ashes, and rendered quite smooth; the newer, especially those which had cooled slowly, presented a singular appearance. As, sliding along, they carried away with them the solid objects which lay on the surface, it necessarily happened that from time to time several would come into contact with each other, and these again being swept still further by the molten stream, and pushed one to the other, would eventually form a solid mass with wonderful jags and corners, still more strange even than the somewhat similarly formed piles of the icebergs. Among this fused and waste matter I found many great rocks, which, being struck with a hammer, present on the broken face a perfect resemblance to the primeval rock formation. The guides maintained that these were old lava from the lowest depths of the mountain, which are very often thrown up by the volcano. Goethe
Naples and its bay seen from Mount Vesuvius; the yellow dot indicates the site of ancient Herculaneum
March 20, 1787. After we had refreshed our eyes with the clear prospect,
and washed our gums and throat with wine, we went round
again to notice any other peculiarities which might characterise this peak of hell, thus rearing itself in the midst of a
Paradise. (..) The most glorious of sunsets, a heavenly evening, refreshed
me on my return; still I felt how all great contrasts confound
the mind and senses. From the terrible to the beautiful -
from the beautiful to the terrible; each destroys the other,
and produces a feeling of indifference. Assuredly, the Neapolitan would be quite a different creature, did he not feel himself thus hemmed in between Elysium and Tartarus.
March 23, 1787. (Returning to Naples from Paestum) we now reached an eminence. The most extensive area in the world opened before us. Naples, in all its splendour: its mile-long line of houses on the flat shore of the bay, the promontories, tongues of land and walls of rock; then the islands and, behind all, the sea, - the whole was a ravishing sight. A most hideous singing, or rather exulting cry and howl of joy, from the boy behind, frightened and disturbed us. Somewhat angrily, I called out to him; he had never had any harsh words from us, - he had been a very good boy. For a while he did not move; then he patted me lightly on the shoulder, and pushing between us both his right arm, with the fore-finger stretched out, exclaimed, "Signor, perdonate questa è la mia patria!'' - which, being interpreted, runs, "Forgive me, Sir, for that is my native land!". And so I was ravished a second time. Something like a tear stood in the eyes of the phlegmatic child of the north. Goethe
The image used as background for this page is based on View of the great eruption of Vesuvius from the mole of Naples in the night of the 20th of October 1767 from William Hamilton's Campi Phlegraei.