Vesuvius: A Biography

Lucia Gurioli feels the heat in these eyewitness accounts of Italy's famous volcano

March 11, 2010

Now and again a book appears that offers a different perspective on volcanic eruptions. Alwyn Scarth's Vesuvius: A Biography is one such book, and it takes the reader on a fascinating journey through Vesuvius' history seen through the eyes of the people who witnessed the eruptions and who were often directly affected by them.

Vesuvius is one of the most hazardous volcanoes in the world, with more than 650,000 people living within 10km of its summit. It is also one of the most famous volcanoes in human history, thanks to the AD79 eruption that destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The literature is rich in work relating to this volcano, and countless monographs describe its geological life. Here, however, Scarth provides the first widely accessible narrative that expertly combines academic research with contemporary accounts and eyewitness descriptions for all of Vesuvius' recorded eruptions.

It is a gripping book; Scarth does an excellent job in exploring the intimate relationship between Vesuvius and the people who have lived on it. He eloquently guides the reader through all the eruptions experienced by its resident population; but instead of employing clinical scientific descriptions, he allows the people who witnessed these events to speak.

An extremely active volcano, Vesuvius looms over one of the world's largest cities, Naples. And, as Scarth observes, it also mirrors this fascinating, effervescent, vibrant and sometimes disturbing city. Indeed, every page shows the conflicting relationship between it and the people living on this attractive, but deadly, volcano.

Scarth begins with an overview of basic volcanological principles, and offers background as to why Vesuvius exists and its relationship with the neighbouring volcanoes of Campi Flegrei. This provides the reader with the background necessary to understand the descriptions that follow. Here, Scarth does a great job, conveying complicated issues in a simple yet accurate manner. This, indeed, is the beauty of the book; for deeper descriptions, readers can refer to the numerous sources that the author cites.

Although Vesuvius has been active for more than 22,000 years, the first disaster that its residents confronted occurred early in the Bronze Age. The eruption destroyed farming villages scattered around the volcano and claimed its first recorded victims. For this reconstruction, Scarth integrates the scientific record of the eruption with archaeological findings, a method that is now a popular scientific approach.

For the AD79 eruption, he follows the classic accounts of the two Plinys, the younger and the elder, and adds detailed historical accounts of daily life at the time, a beautiful description of the region, and the thoughts, beliefs and feelings of the people affected by the eruption. Many anecdotes are offered; some may be new even to those who consider themselves familiar with this famous event. I have been studying this eruption for at least a decade, and every time I work in the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii I wonder how the people facing such horror felt. Scarth describes exactly what I imagined from my view of the interaction of the towns and the volcanic deposits, and paints a striking picture of the terror of that day.

The records available for the events of AD79, however, stand in stark contrast to the lack of human information for eruptions in the Dark Ages. Here we witness the contrast between the Classical era, when natural events were well documented, and a later era in which news of Vesuvius' activity can be gleaned only from brief accounts related to the lives of the saints, prodigies or satanic interventions. However, Scarth elegantly integrates available chronicles with modern dating techniques to examine every event identifiable during this age.

At this point, he shifts to the 1538 eruption of Monte Nuovo in the Campi Flegrei. It is now the Renaissance and this switch not only shows how the whole area is extremely dangerous in a volcanological sense, but it also highlights the revival of curiosity in nature that the Renaissance inspired. In contrast, the historical record of Vesuvius' 1631 eruption reminds us of the changed climate of the Reformation, with the eruption widely viewed as God's punishment for human sins. Scarth highlights the strong relationship between that eruption and the faith of the Neapolitans who turned to their saints for salvation, forming long processions in attempts to calm Vesuvius' fury.

Up to this point the book is a crescendo of events that keep the reader intimately involved in the volcano's history. This theme is picked up once more in William Hamilton's descriptions of the 1767 eruptions, including the hazards posed to the local population by ash fall, pyroclastic flow and lava inundation, as well as earthquakes, mud flows, tsunami, fires, lack of light and the risk posed by firework factories (which are, astonishingly, still common in the region). Scarth also considers those forced to leave their houses, which were looted soon after, and their fruitless efforts to convince others to leave. He takes us through the age of the Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th centuries, and visits to the volcano by luminaries such as Dickens, Goethe, Berlioz and Mozart.

Naturally, the book culminates with the 1944 eruption and the birth of modern volcanology. Given the dynamic nature of volcanology, and the weight of scientific literature, covering modern work on Vesuvius would be an impossible task within the scope of Scarth's project. The beauty of this book is its success in placing Vesuvius and its eruptions in a historical context and in considering the role it has played in human history and the lives of those living on its flanks.

Vesuvius: A Biography

By Alwyn Scarth

Terra Publishing, 352pp, £24.95

ISBN 9781903544259

Published 18 September 2009

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