Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius is well known for the eruption in AD 79, which destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Bay of Naples. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Vesuvius was still active, erupting several times at a low level, and occasionally for longer periods.

These eruptions were a cause of fascination to the Grand Tourists, particularly at night, when the flames could be seen most clearly. From their lodgings in Naples over five miles away, they could watch in fear and wonder as the gases, ash and glowing lava poured out of the volcano’s crater.

The Eruption of Vesuvius by Henry Pether (fl. 1828-1865), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Those who were more adventurous would make the 1000m ascent to the top of the mountain. Arriving on horseback at the Hermitage at the foot of Vesuvius, visitors would dismount, taste the local Lachryma Christi wine from the vineyards on the lower slopes, then proceed on foot or be carried on a sedan chair or pole chair.

It was a difficult climb up a steep and uneven trail, with sulphurus fumes, no shade, feet sinking into loose ash and pumice, those on foot having to be pulled up or pushed by local guides. Reaching the summit, hot, tired and dirty, their reward would be the wonderful views over the surrounding countryside, and a look down into the smoking crater. Frying eggs on hot stones, or pressing coins into molten lava as souvenirs of their visit are some of the things written about by our tourists.

Salita al Vesuvio (Climbing Vesuvius) by Giacomo Lenghi, from the Raccolta di Costumi Napoletani, 1854 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London [E.820-1937] showing people climbing the sides of the volcano, some being dragged by ropes around their bodies, one woman in a chair on poles

Vesuvius attracted many artists of the day, including JMW Turner in 1817 and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), who made over thirty paintings of the erupting volcano. Others were interested in vulcanology, the science of volcanoes, including William Hamilton (1730-1803). He was British Ambassador to the King of Naples, climbed Vesuvius 58 times and published his observations on the Campi Phlegraei (fields of fire) in 1776.

Many of our travellers describe their observations and/or ascent of Vesuvius in their travel diaries. You can read excerpts of these (in pdf format) by Thomas Orde, William Rookes Crompton, Joshua Samuel Crompton, Henry Beresford and Baldwin Harry Bent.