When the majestic Mount Vesuvius decided to erupt on 24th August 79 CE, it sent shock waves throughout the region of the devastation it wreaked on the people of the small cities underneath its shadow. It didn’t occur to the Romans that Mount Vesuvius was still an active volcano and that it might erupt any moment. So when it violently blew its top, unprecedented chaos and the scrabble to evacuate ensued. Its violent eruption spewed a thick layer of pumice and ash covering Pompeii in five metres of volcanic matter. Herculaneum, which lay to the west of the volcano, suffered an equally disturbing fate. Whilst it escaped the fallout of ash, it was instead mainly overcome by streaming flows of mud-lava, to the depths of up to fifteen to twenty metres deep.
Historians have learned about the eruption from two letters addressed to Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus from Pliny the Younger. His account recalls the violent destruction of the volcano with its “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames.” In the letters is also a description of how “you could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of the infants and the shouting of the men.” The volcano ejected a cloud of stones, ashes, and volcanic gases to a height of 33k, spewing molten rock and pulverized pumice at an astonishing rate, ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings.
A majority of Pompeii’s 20,000 residents did escape the eruption, but unfortunately some 2,000 did not, dying from effects of raining lava and rock and poisonous ash and fumes. A historical record and a reminder of what took place is ghoulishly visible in the ‘moulds’ made of these victims. This was achieved through a technique used in the archaeological digs of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where plaster of Paris was poured in any void found by excavators. Once the surrounding ash was removed it exposed the shape of human or animal figures. These voids would come to represent the remains of victims in the position that they died.
In the aftermath almost everything in these two cities was preserved beneath the ash and tufa, intact with very little damage of remarkable structures, objects and victims. Interestingly, a call to the Emperor Tacitus yielded help for the displaced of the city but no real attempt was ever made to rebuild the cities. Some people and looters returned in time to dig in the cooling ash; however it wouldn’t be until the middle of the eighteenth century before Pompeii and to a lesser extent Herculaneum were first truly excavated.
In art, since the rediscovery of Pompeii in the mid-18th century, a general fascination surrounding Vesuvius took root in both France and England. From Hubert Robert to Pierre-Jacques Volaire to Joseph Wright of Derby, these artists sketched and painted the infamous peak with dizzy excitement, especially because the volcano had began a sustained period of renewed activity. English landscape and portrait painter Joseph Wright of Derby was in particular seemingly obsessed with painting Vesuivius (over thirty times throughout his career) in the 1770’s. The beginning of the next century, as the excavation of Pompeii intensified, other artists like John Martin and Sebastian Pether were drawn to painting Vesuvius’ terror and beauty. But arguably Russian painter Karl Bryullov above all others, captures our imagination, especially of the horror and madness of the evacuation of Roman citizens in Pompeii in 79 AD in his masterpiece The Last Day of Pompeii (1833).
Of interest are the small staged groups of people huddled together in the painting. In the foreground in particular an image of a woman who has died with her infant still clinging to her is quite emotive. While on the far right in the foreground a mother pleads with her son to flee is also poignant. But above all else, the immense power of Vesuvius illustrated by the fiery sky and the statues toppling from their pedestals is the paintings most terrifying and enduring image.
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