Vesuvius in paintings

A re-post (edited) from Dec 6, 2014, by Schteve

Photograph. Vesuvius erupting with Naples in the foreground. US Navy File No. 54410 Released: 3 April 1944

Vesuvio in Southern Italy (and alarmingly close to the huge conurbation of Naples) has been dormant since 1944. It was not always so quiet; as well as numerous and sometimes hugely devastating eruptions documented since 79 AD, the last 285 years have seen significant eruptions in: 1631, 1660, 1682, 1694, 1698, 1707, 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, 1794, 1822, 1834, 1839, 1850, 1855, 1861, 1868, 1872, 1906, 1926 and 1929 and 1944. There have been few periods of actual dormancy and these have been mostly short lived, the repose since 1944 is the longest since before the major eruption of 1631….

The following images are of eruptions between 1760 and 1868; chosen by me entirely based on what I like. I have included some basic information about each event, courtesy of: http://www.volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=211020 but it’s important to remember that some of these images will be more realistic than others. Many of the paintings are of the Romantic type and some will have been painted from imagination and/ or based on earlier works.  Each artist is shown only once though some of them, notably Volaire and Wright, painted multiple pictures of the subject.

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Charles Francois Lacroix de Marseilles. 1762. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, not on display

This depicts the November 1744 to January 1761 eruptive period, which reached VEI 3 and affected the summit, upper south eastern, eastern and southern flanks. The painting increases the impact by depicting Vesuvius closer to Naples than it really is.

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pierre Jacques Volaire. 1777

Volaire made a career in Italy executing souvenir pictures for English travelers doing the ‘Grand Tour’: during the 18th century, English gentlemen (wealthy ones) would do an extended sojourn through Europe to admire classical ruins, picturesque landscapes, and artistic masterpieces. Volaire painted more than thirty scenes of Mt. Vesuvius. The painting contrasts the moods of nature; the cool, calm water reflecting moonlight and fire is juxtaposed to the violent explosion and fiery terror. Along the bridge he includes references to St. Januarius, protector of Naples from volcanic destruction: from left to right are a statue of the saint, a fleeing townsman holding an image of the saint toward the mountain, and people praying before a drawing of the holy figure posted to a stone pier. Source: https://learn.ncartmuseum.org/artwork/the-eruption-of-mt-vesuvius/

The Summit of Vesuvius Erupting. Micheal Wutky. 1779. Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna

In 1779 Wutky had climbed Vesuvius to observe closely the violent eruption. His drawings were later executed as large-scale paintings.

Mount Vesuvius in Eruption. Jacob More. 1780(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

More had witnessed an eruption of Vesuvius in 1779. Here, he reconstructs the eruption of 79AD and the destruction of Pompeii, in the foreground he included the death of Pliny the Elder. (Source: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/5205/mount-vesuvius-eruption)

Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius from Portici, 1774, Huntington Library, San Marino CA.

Joseph Wright apparently never witnessed a full-on eruption of Vesuvius, although he may have seen some minor activity when he visited Naples in 1774, the year of this painting. This did not stop him making around 40 paintings of her imagined eruptions. It must have been a useful money spinner, at a time when aristocrats who had made the Grand Tour simply had to have a painting of Vesuvius as a souvenir. This period of eruption began in February 1770 and ended in October 1779 and was an estimated VEI 3 affecting the summit, north, north east, south east and eastern flanks. The dominant feature of this pre-romantic painting is the orange light which banishes the night and captures the eye.

The Eruption of Vesuvius. Abraham Pether c.1810

Mount Vesuvius in Eruption. JMW Turner. 1817

This article would not have been complete without Turner’s rendition of an eruption, whilst somewhat impressionistic, he captures the awesome power and wonderful colours brilliantly, there are even hints of volcanic lightning. The eruptive period shown here began in January 1796 and ended in November 1822, it affected the summit and upper flanks and reached an estimated VEI 3. Turner brings out the chaos coming from the explosive light. The rumbling volcano overwhelms the population. Some run in fear, others stand still and watch in fascination.

Painting of Mount Vesuvius Erupting in 1812 as seen from the Ponte del Maddalena. Unknown Artist.

Vesuvius in eruption, October 1822. George Poulett Scrope, Considerations on Volcanoes, 2nd edn (1864), frontispiece. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

This is not a painting, but a drawing by a geologist. This was at the end of the eruptive period 1797-1822, after which Vesuvius took a short beak.

Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius. Johan Christian Dahl. 1826, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.

This image shows the eruptive period of July 1824 to November 1834 which affected the summit, the upper eastern and southern flanks. Dahl’s painting contrasts the smoke and lava from the volcanic eruption with the peaceful coast. It gives the sense of the imminent destruction of an idyllic location.

An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, 1838 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T08222. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

This image is quite different in style and appears to be painted in watercolours, lovely in the way he has seemingly captured the plume so accurately. It depicts the eruptive period of January 1835 to January 1839. Affected areas were the summit, upper eastern and western flanks, VEI 3.

Mount Vesuvius at Midnight. Albert Bierstadt. 1869

This again shows a somewhat different style to many of the earlier works, appearing a little more abstract, however he has still captured a convincing image of the lava and plume. This shows the eruptive period February 1864 to November 1868 which affected the summit and the upper south eastern flank. Bierstadt is best known for his landscape paintings of the American West, and there is an impression of the Sierra Nevada (US, not the Spanish orginal) in this painting. The use of light was an important aspect of his paintings.

Vesuvius. Andy Warhol. 1985

This illustrates a generic eruption, clearly based on earlier works by other artists, however Monte Somma is well realised and the lava fountain is impressively dynamic. It is one of an edition of several hundred, and this version seems to be the one in the Capodimonte museum in Naples (well worth a visit!). I had never been a fan of Warhol’s art, but I absolutely fell in love with this.

I hope that the images have captured your imagination and helped bring to life one of the world’s most dangerous and beautiful volcanoes.

Schteve. (edited by Albert)

Recommended reading: “Vesuvius A Biography” by Alwyn Scarth. ISBN 9781903544259.

Romanticism and volcanoes

Volcanocafe articles: Vesuvius in retrospect

Devil May Care Campi Flegrei

Volcano forecasts and Campi Flegrei

35 thoughts on “Vesuvius in paintings

  1. Thanks Schteve (Albert)!

    I vote Volaire.

    Funny how cartoonesk lighting is painted/drawn by some of the artists. 😁

  2. Volcanos and eruptions never stop to fascinate! Great paintings and impossible to select a favorit!

    • What interested me is that the lava streams go in all directions! No side of Vesuvius is safe. At the time of the paintings, Naples was well away from the lava paths. Nowadays the city has expanded right up to the slopes and there is no free path left for the lava. The explosive eruption on the drawing shows the ash going east, away from the city. This is indeed the dominant wind direction in Naples. But the lava does not follow the wind.

  3. It looks very likely that Vesuvius will erupt sometime this century, potentially quite in soon.
    It could be a VEI4 and even a VEI5 is possible.

    • What makes you say that?? Vesuvio seems very much asleep right now. Certainly there’s a good few fumeroles at the crater pit, but The Phlegrean fields seem more concerning / likely…

    • Uh, I don’t know about that…prior to the 79 CE eruption, Vesuvius last erupted in 217 BC. That’s 296 years of quiescence, possibly. But take this with a grain of salt, as this was ancient times, and so records weren’t always kept. This is especially as the literacy rate was likely a good deal lower than in modern times. In a nutshell, this means there could have been some activity which may have gone unrecorded during that time period.

      If Vesuvius did indeed go dormant for nearly 300 years prior to 79 CE, then by that reckoning, we might have to wait until the early 23rd Century until it wakes up again! But volcanoes are unpredictable beasts which do not usually stick to schedules, as we all know too well.

      • Mike K S opinion makes sense
        Also remeber that Vesuvious magma supply is not very large either…
        To make a huge 10 km3 plinian it needs to be dormant for 100 s of years.

        The 1910 – 1944 activity was very very slow almost nonstop hawaiian style fillings of its summit. That kind of gentle activity was rapidly cut off in 1944 when the volcano turned explosive and then suddenly vent dormant.

        1920 s to 1944 is rather odd
        First slow effusive very fluid basaltic ( hawaiian style )
        Then Vesuvious suddenly vent violent Subplinian and just shut off

        • I think there are the usual deep earthquakes underneath Vesuvius but the seismographs are not open access. But there is indeed no indication of any impending activity, but one may wonder whether any tentative indications (i.e. not conclusive) would be published. There have also not been any major earthquakes since 1944. I think we may have another century before it goes again. But when it give, some serious damage is unavoidable.

          • At the summit of Vesuvius there is only the occasional faint wisp or whiff of sulphur just now. Ischia is closer to the Phlegrean Fields, and had a strong earthquake last year, similar to the one a hundred years before. I would be interested to know whether the island is increasing in height. The entire Bay of Naples ought to be monitored however, as the cliffs near Sorrento show stark differences between black and white cliffs nearby, along the edges of that very large caldera

          • Seismograms are not publicly available but there are bulletins (Italian only)
            http://www.ov.ingv.it/ov/it/bollettini/275.html

            There is a continuous seismic activity but very shallow (mainly within 1Km, nothing below 5 in the last year) and very weak (mainly magnitude -1 to 1)

            GPS is going steadily down. Overall, Vesuvius looks like a dormant volcano with very little inflow of new magma that is slowly cooling down and shrinking, and that is likely to be the origin of earthquakes.

            This could obviously change at any time, but I believe any reactivation would be a noisy and lengthy process.

          • Thanks, that is a very useful link. I will need to brush up on my Italian!

            As you say, not just dormant but in deep sleep.

      • I did some reading and Vesuvius seems to follow a cyclic behaviour. A repose period is followed by a plinian event then a series of closely spaced eruptions (subplinian to effusive) and then another repose period starts. The geochemistry of the lava erupted is highly variable and ranges from phonolitic basanite (similar to basalt) to phonolite (similar to dacite) this partly explains why the eruption styles are so varied.

        The big plinian eruptions like 1631 start with phonolite which is a more viscous explosive magma, phonolite seems to form during the repose period, the plinian eruptions then go on to erupt progressively more primitive magmas tephriphonolite and phonotephrite so it pretty much leaves the volcano devoid of diferentiated melt, which is why the volcano goes for a less violent style during following eruptions. The plinian eruption also has to reopen the path because it probably cooled over during the repose which might potentially be a factor aswell.

        According to the publication I was reading the repose periods preceding the 79, 472 and 1631 AD plinian eruptions were of 800, 170 and 490 years respectively, the publication didn’t mention any eruption in 217 BC and it seemed to have a very good record of the eruptions. Anyway I do think the next eruption will be a VEI 4 to VEI 5 since we are in another repose period but depending on how long it lasts it won’t happen in our lifetimes, a reawakening will have powerfull and damaging volcano-tectonic earthquakes.

        It is also interesting to wonder why a repose perod happens I think it is probably just that supply runs out after a period of numerous eruptions and needs to recover but this is speculative.

        • Being so very alkaline ( Phonolite / Basanite / Trachyte / Alkali basalt )

          Thats a sign that partial melting in Vesuvious arera is rather small and weak.
          And deep down.

          Etna is also alkaline, but much much more mildly and Etnas magma supply is very much higher.
          But that also makes small constant eruptions.

          Vesuvious with sometimes long response times, evolves its magmas much more.

          But sometimes Vesuvius behaves just like Etna as it did from 1910 s up to 1940 s during an open conduit episode

          • Amazing fluidity indeed, Vesuvius was actually open conduit and erupting frequently all the way from 1631 to 1944, the longest dormancy during this entire interval was of only 7 years!

          • The longe dormancy periods were 235-472 AD, 536-685, 685-787,787-968, 1037-1139, 1150-1570, 1570-1631. That gives dormancies of 267, 149, 102, 191, 102, 420, 61 years. At the moment we are at 75 years. If the past is a guide (often a poor guide for volcanoes), there is a 50% chance of an eruption in the next 75 years, but if we go beyond that it may be some centuries. And the period 1631-1944 seems to have been unusual. There was a failed or partial eruption in 1570 which is often overlooked in the statistics.

          • The numbers I mentioned came from one of the publications I linked but that was more focused in geochemistry. This one instead is about the eruptive history: http://www.ipgp.fr/~legoff/Download-PDF/ArcheoItalia/Principe_et_al-bullVolc2004.pdf

            It mentions a 1500? event which I presume must be the same as the 1570 event you mention, it is described as “fumarolic activity and unlikely phreatic explosion”. So it seems that between 1150 (strombolian activity) to the big plinian eruption of 1631 there is not much evidence for any magmatic eruption, which makes 480 years of repose.

            Also, from the article: “As suggested by the comparison of historical
            and archaeomagnetic data, several effusive eruptions occurred between the second half of the 9th century and the first half of the 10th century that were not documented in the surviving historical sources”

            So the long dormancy periods are 235 or 395 to 472, 536-685, 685-787, 1037-1139 and 1139-1631, or respectively 77-237, 149, 102, 102, 480 years. The only VEI5 was 1631 but the 472 eruption was also very big with widespread pyroclastic surges and destruction.

          • I was unsure about the 1500 (?) event. The 1570 comes from a document describing active fumaroles in the crater with glowing rocks and occasional explosions.

  4. Most of this sign is actually caused by the plume, rather than isostatic uplifting.
    Notice all the signal increases the closest one is to Bardarbunga and Grimsvotn, where the plume is located.

    Another reason why it is not isostatic uplifting? A large part of northern and western Iceland were covered by glaciers, yet one does not see any signal (or very little) in those regions…

    • The uplift around Vatnajokull due the melting of the ice cap has been measured at some 2 cm per year. Isostatic uplift after the Ice age was quite fast in Iceland, for several reasons. The icecap was not as large at those in Scandinavia and Canada, the icecap melted much faster than those on the continents, and the viscosity of the lithosphere under Iceland is quite low. the relaxation time was around 2000 years on the peninsula and 5000 years on the west coast. The bottom line is that the isostatic uplift from the ice age was completed by about 8000 BP.

    • I remember seeing one model that predicted how isostatic uplift would affect Iceland and showed the maximum uplift in the Vatnajokull area,

    • Uplift from the Iceland Plume?
      Many maps between 1998 and 2004 shows alot of uplift near Grimsvötn
      Meh meh Im just silly.. wanting Iceland to go full blown Siberian Traps

      Beautyful paintings Albert! I loves this kind of art
      Old landscape paintings are the most beautyful.
      I intensely dislikes modern cubic abstract art

  5. Love old artwork-sometimes it is not accurate in the sense of realism, but conveys a “feeling” that hits your senses and emotions . Volaire’s got my vote, too. I’d love to see what he would’ve done with St.Helens..

  6. The earthquakes in Bardarbunga seem to have followed the caldera fault and are not dyke related. And in Askja, at the end of the swarm there were a few earthquakes at the edge of the crater.

    • Bardarbunga have already had a massive eruption
      Earthquakes are the caldera plug thats interacting with faults and mid ocean ridge tectonics.
      Bardarbunga is quite drained these days from magma.

      • The ring fault earthquakes happen due to the shear strain as the floor of the caldera rises or falls with the changes in magma pressure so they are closely related to the magma chamber and in this case they are probably caused by inflation of Bardarbunga. It is intriguing though why some volcanoes show this actvity while most dont.

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