Vesuvius: A Biography (Alwyn Scarth)


It’s fallen out of the news by now – hey, in the age of Trump, even lava bombs get boring – but Kilauea is still erupting.  Sort of.  Which was part of why I decided to read something about volcanoes this year.  The other reason was practical.  I wanted to read about the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902, which I first heard about in connection to the Martinique giant rice rat.  (Yes, I’m a huge nerd about island endemics and their extinctions.  Don’t judge.)  Alwyn Scarth wrote a book about that eruption (Le Catastrophe), so I checked if my library had it.  They didn’t, but they did have Vesuvius:  A Biography.  A friend visited Pompeii on a college trip to Italy last year, so I figured I’d check this one out instead.  Christmas gift ideas, right?

What a fantastic second choice.  First, the hardcover from my library might just be the most pleasant tactile reading experience I’ve ever had.  Excellent high-quality paper, which made the book unusually heavy for its size but a joy to handle.

More importantly, though, Scarth’s writing.  I was afraid this might be a dry book – partly because, paging through it before I started, I saw there were a lot of charts.  After all, being a geologist (or any other kind of scientist) doesn’t automatically make you a good writer.  I had nothing to worry about, though, because Scarth humanizes everything he touches (with one exception – see below).  Looking up his obituary later, I’m not surprised:  he appears to have had broad-ranging interests and been very personable.  The beginning of the introduction should make it clear what I mean.

Vesuvius is the most dangerous volcano in Europe when it erupts, and the crowning glory of Campania even when it is dormant.  The volcano mirrors the fascinating, effervescent, vibrant and sometimes disturbing city of Naples that faces it across a bay of legendary beauty.  It is as if this splendid and paramount couple have nourished each other for centuries.  Vesuvius holds the stage:  a talisman for the Campanians;  a manifest threat to their livelihoods and to their very lives;  it destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, and preserved them for posterity;  and it is the spirit presiding over all the contradictions in the region and its inhabitants.  The volcano is all the more dangerous because it rises in the midst of a populous area that has owed its rural wealth to fertile soils weathered from the ash and lavas of previous destructive eruptions.  Vesuvius plays a dual role:  provider and exterminator;  preserver and destroyer;  guardian and enemy;  tourist attraction and killer;  it is a volcano often to be admired, but always obeyed;  and it is a volcano with a benign and beautiful appearance that masks a ferocious temper, giving substance to the ambiguity in the famous dictum “See Naples and die.”

Vesuvius has a personality that centuries of scrutiny have brought out in all its intimate detail.  Some of the volcano’s fascinating character and volatile behavior seem to have rubbed off onto the people living around it.  Observer and observed have developed a symbiotic relationship that shows no sign of diminishing.  The Campanians are the victims;  and Vesuvius is the aggressor that they fear and admire.  Vesuvius puts on a show for the Campanians and they, in turn, put on a show for Vesuvius whenever the volcano springs back to life.  Their interrelationship is so close that the people often resent interference from outsiders, even from those who are trying to protect them from the next eruption.

Nowhere has this interrelationship been better displayed than on the flanks of Vesuvius itself.  Eruptions have destroyed settlements here time and again, but the villagers have refused to be cowed, and they have rebuilt their homes almost as soon as the ash and lava have cooled.  In recent decades, the bolder or more foolhardy among them have even built their homes almost to the very foot of the great cone – as if they were challenging the volcano to do its worst.  This is an affront that Vesuvius will not ignore, and its retribution threatens to be ferocious.

That’s certainly not dry academic writing.  It’s also a perfect summary of the entire book.  Scarth uses both scientific observations and historical documents to study not only the geologic history of Vesuvius itself, and its important influence on volcanology, but the locals’ reactions to recurring disasters and the mountain’s social position and worldwide fame.  Along the way Scarth also provides a 1000-foot view of the history of Campania.

Of course, we all know the real reason anybody picks up a book about Vesuvius:  Pompeii.  And Scarth doesn’t disappoint.  The chapter on Pompeii alone is worth the entire purchase price of the book.  Forty-six pages that go through the entire event, in detail, hour by hour, using both Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account from across the Bay of Naples and archaeological data from the site.  Scarth’s perfect combination of sympathy and scientific precision turns what could have been a clinical description into a riveting horror of human suffering.  I dare anybody to read this chapter and not a) ask themselves why this hasn’t been made into a movie – not a mediocre disaster flick ala what the 2014 version apparently was, but a true psychological horror piece – and b) be in the kind of mood where all you want to listen to is Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Scarth’s description of the waterfront at Herculaneum is the perfect example of his ability to both educate and tell a terrifying story.  (WARNING:  graphic nightmare fuel)

At 1 a.m. on 25 August, part of the towering column collapsed like a crumbling pillar of fire.  It formed a pyroclastic flow of hot toxic gas, steam, ash and pumice at a temperature approaching 400˚C that swept down the western flanks of the mountain at a speed of 250-400km an hour.  Every living thing in its path was doomed.  The pyroclastic flow headed straight for Herculaneum.  Less than four minutes after it began its lethal journey, it swept into the town, swirled down the streets, and ripped off the rooftops, rushed into every building and penetrated every room.

The base of the pyroclastic flow scythed down the upper storeys of virtually every building in the town.  The people waiting anxiously on the shore below the suburban baths heard the sudden dreadful crashing, but they could not have seen the pyroclastic flow itself until the very last moment.  In any case, it was already far too late.  They had no chance.  Sixteen people and a horse died instantly on the beach itself.  Their heads exploded, their brains boiled, their teeth cracked, and their bodies shriveled and dried up at once.  Those in front of the suburban baths turned and crowded desperately under the arches, trying to get as far inside the boat-houses as possible to escape from the searing heat.  As many as 40 people crushed together in each boat-house.  It was of no avail.  They had just time to clutch their loved ones.  The heat dehydrated their muscles, which flexed their limbs into a boxer’s posture that made them seem – wrongly – as if they had died fighting off the surging cloud.  Analysis has revealed that they were burned to death, as if they had been struck down and baked by some vast and terrible lightning.  Some 1900 years later, excavators found their skeletons in an indescribable tangle betraying a frantic terror that can scarcely be conceived.  And the horror of their dying moment was still stamped upon their remains.

Despite Pompeii’s (deserved) infamy, most people (including me before I read this) know little about the other times Vesuvius has erupted.  It has actually done so fairly often, though usually on a much smaller scale and sometimes with decades- or centuries-long breaks.  Its physical profile also changes frequently.  In fact, the peak we now call “Vesuvius” didn’t exist at the time of Pompeii;  it’s actually a cone that has built up inside the caldera since then, via many smaller constructive eruptions (eruptions that add material rather than eject it).

The next most famous, widely destructive eruption after Pompeii happened shortly before Christmas 1631.  Scarth dedicates another detailed chapter to this event, mostly focusing on the residents’ religious response.  There were several religious processions in Naples in the midst of the earthquakes and falling ash, mostly centered on public penitence and the relics of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint:

In the cathedral, [the Cardinal-Archbishop of Naples] discovered the happy omen that the blood of the San Gennaro had liquefied.  The blood of the saint had always liquefied during crises in the past;  and the saint would save Naples now.  The cardinal-archbishop begged the viceroy “to join him in the pious work that was indispensable to counteract the evil threatening the city.”  They decreed that a procession should be organized for 2 p.m. to carry the head of San Gennaro to confront the erupting mountain near the church of the Madonna del Carmine at the eastern end of the city, where the relics of the saint were believed to have first saved the city during the great eruption of about AD 472.

Every important group in the capital joined the solemn procession:  the clergy, the monastic orders, the collegiate authorities, and, of course, His Excellency the Viceroy, and his civil and military administration.  Sad to say, the zealous cardinal-archbishop proved unable to join them.  Just as the procession was about to leave the cathedral, he was overcome by a feverish attack, caused, it was said, either by his arduous voyage across the bay or by his fervent prayers after he had landed in Naples.  Cardinal Buoncampagno was 35 years old.

A vast crowd of penitents rushed to join the procession and the most enthusiastic walked barefoot in the mud, half-dressed and humble.  It was great Neapolitan show of public piety and masochism.  Some carried immense crosses and even beams across their shoulders.  They mortified their flesh as best they could, lamenting and shouting for the mercy of Heaven, beating each other with their bare hands, with ropes, or iron chains that drew much blood.  And yet, for all this display of contrition, the eruption only worsened.

This is where, in my opinion, you can see Vesuvius:  A Biography’s only real flaw.  Scarth indulges a bit too much in the so-called “conflict thesis,” the idea that religion and science are at odds and one must necessarily stifle the other (usually religion stifling science).  He doesn’t quite say it outright, but it’s implied frequently and especially in the chapter on the 1631 eruption.  The conflict thesis is popular with atheists online – which on one level I understand, since at least American Christianity has been going through an anti-intellectual temper tantrum for decades – but it’s no longer current among historians of science, as it’s been shown to be an overly simplistic framing of history.  I don’t know what Scarth’s personal religious views are (if he has any), but like most people enamored of the conflict thesis, he seems to hold a special grudge against Christianity.  For example, the Neapolitans in 1631 didn’t know much more about volcanos than the Pompeiians did in 79, and neither are to blame for it.  But Scarth quasi-mocks the Neapolitans and sympathizes with the Pompeiians.  (I guarantee you there was just as much desperate prayer going on in Pompeii, albeit to different gods and not involving showy processions.)

Again, on one level I can sympathize.  I’ve vented my own frustrations specifically about evangelicalism and science before, and although I am Christian, I certainly don’t think religious processions and relics will help anybody against an erupting volcano.  But Scarth goes further than that.  He implies several times that it would have been considered heresy – literal, not metaphorical, heresy, as in the Inquisition – to even suggest that volcanic activity had a natural cause, rather than being the judgment of God.  (Neapolitan officials had engraved notices put up after the 1631 eruption warning the populace that Vesuvius would erupt again someday and there would be warning signs in advance.)  That’s a claim you should be able to back up.  Except he doesn’t present any real evidence for it, other than to claim that the Counter-Reformation was hostile to science (I assume this is a sidelong reference to Galileo and maybe certain myths about Copernicus), mention the Inquisition once or twice, and poke fun at venal and/or gullible clergy.  So I would trust historians of science on this point more than a geologist.

(This isn’t to say that people at the time didn’t think volcanic activity was a sign of divine wrath.  They did;  it was a pretty standard reaction to any extreme weather or natural disaster in the 17th century.  But this idea also wasn’t automatically seen as being at odds with studying nature.  Thus why doing history requires getting into your subjects’ heads on their own terms, rather than just projecting your own modern assumptions backwards.)

After 1631, Vesuvius became consistently active, and stayed that way until 1944.  This was mostly low-level constructive activity, involving lava flows that added to the top of the mountain, punctuated by occasional larger destructive eruptions (though all smaller than 1631).  Predictably, the mountain became a tourist trap, since it so reliably “put on a show” for observers and was so close to ancient Roman sites.  Scarth also includes info on early archaeology at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but Charles Dickens’ description of the ruins of Pompeii is most memorable.

Stand at the bottom of the great marketplace of Pompeii, and look up the silent streets through the ruined temples of Jupiter and Isis, over the broken houses with their inmost sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright and snowy in the peaceful distance;  and lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the Sun.  Then…see, at every turn, the little familiar tokens of human habitation and everyday pursuits;  the chafing of the bucket rope in the stone rim of the exhausted well;  the track of carriage wheels in the pavement of the street;  the marks of drinking vessels on the stone counter of the wine shop;  the amphorae in the private cellars, stored away so many hundred years ago, and undisturbed to this hour.

The most interesting character in this section is William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples and an amateur scientist.  Vesuvius was Hamilton’s hobby for decades, and he unintentionally helped lay the groundwork of volcanology.  Visiting scientists, dignitaries and aristocrats – Naples and Vesuvius were now part of young aristocrats’ obligatory “Grand Tour” of Europe – wanted to see the volcano up close, and Hamilton was happy to play tour guide.  (Some of these adventures were, let’s just say, unwise according to modern safety standards.)  Hamilton was also the third leg of a then-infamous love triangle between himself, his wife and Admiral Horatio Nelson.  Go figure.

Vesuvius’ final eruption (for now…) was in March 1944 – finally late enough for photographs.  This happened to be in the middle of the Allies’ liberation of Campania;  some of Scarth’s photos came from members of the 614 Pathfinder Squadron of the RAF who were there at the time.  When the volcano began to show signs of erupting, the director of the observatory on the mountain told the Allies to move the planes they had parked nearby.  They didn’t listen, and a week later the planes were covered in ash.

Lava flows partially destroyed the towns of San Sebastiano and Massa di Somma, northwest of the volcano, and British intelligence officer Norman Lewis observed the locals’ reaction:

About 50 yards from the edge of this great slowly shifting slagheap, a crowd of several hundred people, mostly in black, knelt in prayer.  Holy banners and church images were held aloft, and acolytes swung censers and sprinkled holy water in the direction of the cinders.  Occasionally a grief-crazed citizen would grab one of the banners and dash towards the wall of lava, shaking it angrily as if to warn off the malignant spirits of the eruption.  The cinema…was still there, protected now by a dozen young men who had formed a line and had advanced, brandishing crosses, to within a few yards of the lava.  Not a single clinker tumbled down the black slope as we watched.

After 1944, Vesuvius quieted down, and remains quiet today.  This is, in fact, its usual pattern, to be active for several centuries, then quiet for potentially several more.  Thus, it’s a matter of when it erupts again, not if.  Unfortunately, the longer it remains dormant, the more severe the eruption will be when it finally does wake up – and it has already been quiet for over 70 years now.  Experts expect the next eruption will be on the scale of 1631, which, while smaller than the one in 79, killed thousands with pyroclastic flows and caused widespread ash falls, mudflows and even tsunamis.  The population around the volcano is far larger now than it was then, so this will be a catastrophe by any measure when it finally does happen.

Accordingly, authorities in Italy have put evacuation plans in place.  Scarth, however, is not optimistic that everything will work out so neatly.  Many locals either believe nothing can be done, or that Vesuvius is extinct.  Developers, of course, wishing to build close to the mountain, have actively promoted the idea that there will be no further eruptions.  Even without attitude problems and active dishonesty, the evacuation at least 600,000 people (the number in only the “red zone” of the evacuation maps), in an orderly manner and in time to get them to safety, may turn out to be unworkable in practice.

Will any of us live to see Vesuvius erupt again?  Who knows – volcanologists cannot accurately predict eruptions with that much precision yet.  We can, however, safely say that denial in the face of certain disaster springs eternal.  So, at least Americans aren’t the only ones!


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