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Recent Eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius & The Fountain of Spina Corona


Those are just clouds above the cone, but the folks who built the houses you see on the slopes of Vesuvius (photo, right) are obviously optimists, for the question is always, "Isn't it about time?" (Of course, you never ask that question aloud because that brings bad luck. Yes, your loud mouth might well cause the next one!)

Well, is it time? With all the pompous weight of scientific certainty, I can now say...uh, maybe. It is instructive to look at the recent history of eruptions for a clue. 'Recent' is relative. We can take the last 400 years or so because in geologic terms that is but a heart-beat.

Working back from the present, the last eruption of Vesuvius was in March, 1944. It happened in full view of the Allied armies, which had taken the city of Naples a few months earlier. WWII was still raging farther north in Italy when Vesuvius went into what is called an effusive eruption (less violent than an explosive eruption, but nevertheless dangerous and potentially deadly). That eruption destroyed a number of nearby towns; the volcanic ash also rendered useless the planes of a U.S. B-25 bomber group parked at the Capodichino airport in Naples.) There are still a lot of people in Naples who remember that one, including at least one U.S. Army captain (still in Naples!), Herman Chanowitz, whose wartime memoirs are chronicled elsewhere in this encyclopedia.      [Also see this additional photo of Vesuvius during the 1944 eruption.)

Mt. Vesuvius, 1944 eruption. Photo: H. Chanowitz.
Photo restoration: Tana A. Churan-Davis.

Eruptions count as major or minor (and everything in between) depending on the extent to which they are explosive or effusive, how much ejecta they produce and the extent to which they change the profile of the volcano, blowing bits and pieces away, adding new craters, new lava flows, etc. Thus, the eruptions of 1929 and 1926 were minor, but they did, for example, add a few new craters and damage nearby structures. There was also geologic activity of a different nature near Naples in that period; a major earthquake struck the Irpinia region (i.e., near Avellino) on July 23, 1930, killing 1500 persons. (Earthquakes are not necessarily related to volcanism, but at least in this area, there is that possibility.) 

The eruption of April, 1906, was massive and attracted worldwide attention. (Indeed, for an unusual aside to the 1906 eruption, see The Wonderful Wizard of Chittenango.) It killed 100 persons and buried nearby towns. The initial rumblings, however, caused little alarm and locals joked that 'the mountain' was just preparing a royal welcome for British King Edward, due in Naples for a visit shortly. He made it just in time for an eruption that dropped the ridge on the main cone some 250 meters, according to Prof. Raffaele Vittorio Matteucci, the director of the Vesuvius observatory. The eruption covered the city of Naples, itself, with ash, and made the roads near the volcano impassable. Residents of destroyed villages fled to Naples or to nearby towns such as Castellammare. The eruption was followed by heavy rains that produced what geologists now call a lahar (an Indonesian word)--massive mud-like slides of ash and water that buried everything in their path. The eruption created a heroic mythology around the persons of Matteucci and his US American associate, Frank A. Perret, who stuck to their stations in the observatory to gather data while hell raged around them. (Some sources reported at the time that it was the most massive eruption since the great explosion that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. That may be an exaggeration, since the 1872 and the 1631 eruptions were likely to have been at least as powerful.) Matteucci's presence on the slopes during the eruption and his constant messages of reassurance to the population of Naples were credited with avoiding a general panic.

[See also: this New York Times article from 1906, praising Matteucci.]
[See also: this account of the 1906 eruption by Herbert M. Vaughan.]

There had been a few warnings of the strong 1906 eruption a few years earlier. In 1900 there was a "Strombolian eruption," that is, a strong but relatively low-level volcanic eruption with regular ejections of incandescent material to altitudes of tens to hundreds of meters. From the city of Naples at night, it was something like watching a pretty good fireworks display. That activity continued through 1903.

In the 1880s and 1890s there was constant visible volcanic activity on Vesuvius, small but enough to produce minor secondary cones and small lave flows. As in 1930, the period also contained a major earthquake, this one on the island of Ischia on March 4, 1881.



Eruption of 1872 (photo: G. Sommer)              


The year 1872 produced a massive eruption classified as explosive/effusive. Somewhat earlier, in 1841, the geological observatory, itself, had been founded, right on the slopes. The institution was the brain-child of Macedonio Melloni (1798-1854), who became the first director. It survived the political upheavals that came with the conquest of the Kingdom of Naples and its absorption into the modern nation state of Italy. The directorship then passed to Luigi Palmieri (1807-96), who was on duty constantly during the 1872 eruption.You can see the observatory today and from a distance notice that it sits on a handy knoll with the lava flow of the '72 eruption going around it! There were even more scientific heroics as the director, Prof. Palmieri, refused to leave so he could man the instruments. Unlike Matteucci, later, Palmieri was totally cut-off and alone.





Eruption on 1822 (painting: Camillo De Vito)        

The 1850s had constant activity, more Strombolian than explosive, but enough to cause lava to flow, secondary cones to open and artists to paint. The same can be said for the eruption of 1839 and other smaller events in that decade. There is, again, constant activity back to the turn of that century, including a major eruption in 1822 (image, right); in the 1700s, there were at least three notable eruptions: 1707, 1737, and 1794, all of which destroyed local villages. As well, there were weaker eruptions in the 1750s and 1760s. The 1794 eruption opened craters at relatively low levels on the slopes at 480 and 320 meters. (The current height of Mt. Vesuvius is 1280 meters.)

The modern cycle of eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius started Dec. 16, 1631 with an eruption classified as explosive (as opposed to the less violent effusive or explosive/effusive). The volcano had been quiet for some centuries and then simply blew its top. Most sources cite this eruption as the greatest since Pompeii. It followed the familiar behavior of an exploding volcano: lava fountains as high as 4 km and an ash column as high as 15 km, which then collapsed onto the slopes producing what is now called a pyroclastic flow. It was followed in 1637, '49, '52, '54, and '60 by lesser eruptions. Some of those were accompanied by earthquakes; indeed, even the dreaded bubonic plague showed up in 1656, lending credence amongst believers to the rumor that the world was coming to an end. It didn't, of course, and it won't after the next one. (My friends--the people in those houses in the top photo--tell me that I should really be quiet and, especially, should delete those last few words.)


By agreement, then, we stop at the 1631 eruption, a harbinger of the active 300 years to come. But perhaps one item from before that is of interest. One of the most interesting and iconic statues (photo, right) in the city of Naples is the Fountain of Spina Corona. It is a marble representation of an angelically winged siren, Parthenope, the eponym of the original city, above Vesuvius. She is pressing her breasts to direct the streams of water/milk onto the flames of the volcano to extinguish them. The work bears the Latin inscription Dum Vesevi Syrena Incendia Mulcet [While the siren of Vesuvius calms the flames]. That may be a pun in Latin since the Latin infinitive mulcere--besides meaning to calm or caress--can also mean to soften, as in to make metal soft, and Mulciber is, in fact, one of the nicknames of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, guardian of fire, and source of the word volcano. So she is 'mulceting' the 'mulciter'. That's funny. So is the fact that she seems to have the legs of a chicken; I don't know why, but I'm sure it's complicated.

Some sources say, simply, that the statue was done at the behest of Spanish Viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo around 1550, and some from the 1600s even claimed that the siren putting out the flames of the volcano was intended to represent the way Toledo had extinguished the fires of potential revolution. Be that as it may, there are references to the statue from the 1400s, so it couldn't have been Toledo's idea, no matter what people wanted to read into it later on. Most opinion is that it is from the Aragonese period in the 1400s and the Spanish effort around 1550 was a remake. That remake was overseen by Giovanni da Nola (1488-1558), one of the great names of the Italian Renaissance. He worked principally in Naples. His altars, sepulchers, and monuments are found in many of the great churches in Naples; he also built a number of the city's monument fountains from the 1500s.

The fountain has recently been restored and is located outside the church of Santa Caterina della Spina Corona, not far from the Fredrick II university in what used to be the Portanova section of the city. The church, itself, goes back to 1354 when it was built as an annex to a Benedictine monastery and, in its long history, has even been a synagogue. The original statue of winged Parthenope is in the National Museum. The restored fountain uses an exact replica by Achille d'Orso, the prominent Neapolitan sculptor from the early 1900s. In popular and not totally unexpected vulgar parlance, the work is also referred to locally as la fontana delle zizze (The Fountain of the Tits).

Finally, the current period of calm on Vesuvius--no visible activity since 1944 (although "events" such as rumblings and movement are detected by instruments)--has been the longest in centuries. Maybe the restoration of the statue is working.


[Also see "Geology of the Bay of Naples."]

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