The Magazine

Fools for Lava

The timeless beauty, and obvious danger of Mount Vesuvius.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By AMY HENDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Other Romantic artists were similarly affected. Darley gives such examples as J. M. W. Turner, whose first view of Vesuvius in 1819 transformed his earlier imagined ideas about erupting volcanoes. Vesuvius also proved perfect dramatic fodder for opera, as exemplified by the set design for an 1815 production of The Magic Flute, which featured a glowering Vesuvius as the backdrop for Act One. Most popular of all was Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii, which in the mid-1830s created an enormous groundswell for Vesuvius and the notion of “doomed glamour.”

Darley’s chronicle showcases how Vesuvius has been viewed, over time, as a site potentially holding the secrets of the universe. It is a perspective compatible with the hypothesis expressed in the 20th century by the late anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould, who posited that, from Pliny onward, the idea had taken root that the earth was “ruled by sudden cataclysms that rupture episodes of quiescence and mark the dawn of a new order.”  

In the 20th century, Vesuvius was embraced by the new order of popular culture. A 1908 movie drew crowds to watch the dramatic doom of The Last Days of Pompeii, while Thomas Cook & Sons sold tickets for funicular rides to the crater and built a convenient hotel nearby so that visitors could experience “the wonderful air, both transparent and pure.” The Italian song “Funiculi, Funicula” resonated in parlors and concert halls around the world  and remains a popular operatic encore to this day.

Of course, the question remains: Why do people live on the mountain?  Darley muses how, since the 1944 eruption, “a demonic game of grandmother’s footsteps has been going on, in which 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.” Urbanization has swamped the mountainside, and the lower slopes are now “matted by a dense web of illegal buildings—commercial and retail, residential and even public amenities.” There is an oil refinery and a hospital.  

At least on paper, a “National Disaster Plan” outlines a cascading system of emergency command for the next eruption—a catastrophe in which between 650,000 and 3.1 million people will be put at risk. Meanwhile, Vesuvius sends up gentle little wisps of steam, and the band plays on.

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and curator in Washington.