Italy – The Aeolian Or Liparic Islands

Though separated from Sicily by a strait more than 300 fathoms in depth, may nevertheless be looked upon as a dependency of the larger island. Some of these volcanic islands, born in the shadow of Mount Etna,” lie on a line connecting that volcano with Mount Vesuvius, and they originated probably during the same convulsion of nature. They all consist of lavas, cinders, or pumice, ejected from volcanoes. Two amongst them, Vulcano and Stromboli, are still active volcanoes, and the flames and undulating columns of smoke rising from them enable mariners and fishermen to foretell changes of temperature or wind. It is probable that this intelligent interpretation of volcanic phenomena was the reason why these islands were dedicated to AEolus, the god of the winds, who there revealed himself to mariners.

Lipari, the largest and most central of these islands, is at the same time the most populous. A considerable town, commanded by an ancient castle, rises like an amphitheatre on its northern shore. A well-cultivated plain, abounding in olive-trees. orange-trees, and vines, surrounds the town, and the slopes of’ the hills are cultivated almost to their very summits. The population, as in Sicily, has been recruited from the most diverse elements since the time that Greek colonists from Rhodes, Cnidus, and Selinus entered into an alliance with the aboriginal inhabitants. This intermixture of races is proceeding now as much as ever, for commerce continually introduces fresh blood, and many Calabrian brigands have been conveyed to the island, where they have become peaceable citizens. The population is now permitted to multiply in peace, for the volcanoes of Lipari have been quiescent for centuries. The Lipariotes have a legend according to which St. Calogero chased the devils from the islands, and shut them up in the furnaces of Vulcano, and we may infer from this that the last volcanic eruption took place soon after the introduction of Christianity ; that is to say, about the sixth century. The existence of subterranean forces manifests itself now only in thermal springs and steam jets, which have been visited from the most ancient times for the cure of diseases. Earthquakes, however, are of frequent occurrence, and that of 1780 so much frightened tin inhabitants that with one accord they dedicnted themselves to the Virgin Mary. Dolomieu, who visited Lipari in the year following, found them wearing a small chain on the arm, by means of which they desired to show that they had become the slaves of the Liberating Virgin.”

Lipari is a land of promise to the geologist, on account of the great variety of its lavas. Monte della Castagna is wholly composed of obsidian. Another hill, Monte Bianco, consists of pumice, and, when seen from a distance, has the appearance of being covered with snow. The streams of pumice which fill every ravine extend down to the sea, and the water is covered with this buoyant stone, which drifts sometimes as far as Corsica. Lipari supplies nearly the whole of Europe with pumice.

Vulcano, to the south of Lipari, from which it is separated by a strait less than a mile across, contrasts strangely with its smiling neighbour. Vulcano, with the exception of a few olives and vines growing on the southern slopes, consists wholly of naked scoriae, and this circumstance prol ably led to its being dedicated to Vulcan. Most of its rocks are black or of a reddish hue like iron, but there are others which are scarlet, yellow, or white. At the northern extremity of the island rises the Vulcanello, a small cone which appeared above the surface of the sea nobody knows when, and which an isthmus of reddish cinders united about the middle of the thirteenth century to the principal volcano of the island. This central mountain of the island has a crater about 1,800 yards in circumference, from which steam continually escapes. The atmosphere is charged with sulphurous vapours difficult to breathe. From hundreds of small orifices jets of steam make their escape with a throbbing and hissing noise. Some of these fumaroles have a temperature of 610` F. Jets of a lower temperature are met with in other parts of the island, and even at the bottom of the bay. Violent eruptions are rare, and in the eighteenth century only three occurred. The last eruption took place in 1873, after a repose of a hundred years. Until recently the only inhabitants of Vulcano were a few convicts, who collected sulphur and boracic acid, and manufactured a little alum. But an enterprising Scotchman has now taken possession of this grand chemical laboratory. He has built a large manufactory near the port, and a few trees planted around his Moorish residence have somewhat improved the repulsive aspect of the country.

Stromboli, though smaller than either Lipari or Vulcano, is nevertheless more celebrated, on account of its frequent eruptions. For ages back scarcely any mariners have passed this island without seeing its summit in a state of illumination. At intervals of five minutes, or less, the seething lava filling its caldron bubbles up, explosions occur, and steam and stones are ejected. These rhythmical eruptions form a most agreeable sight, for there is no danger about them, and the olive groves of the Stromboliotes have never been injured by a stream of lava. The volcano, however, has its moments of exasperation, and its ashes have frequently been carried to the coast of Calabria, which is more than thirty miles off.

Panaria and the surrounding group of islands between Stromboli and Lipari have undergone many changes, if Dolomieu and Spallanzani are correct in saying that they originally formed only a single island, which was blown into fragments by an eruption having its centre near the present island of Dattilo A hot spring and an occasional bubbling up of the sea-water prove that the volcanic forces are not yet quite extinct.

As regards the small eastern islands of the archipelago, Salina, Felicudi, and Alicudi, the last of which resembles a tent pitched upon the surface of the w ater, history furnishes no records of their ever having been in any other than a quiescent state. The island of Ustica about thirty miles to the north of Palermo, is likewise of volcanic origin, but is not known ever to have had an eruption. It is one of the most dreaded places of exile in Italy. Near it is the uninhabited island of Medico, the ancient Osteodes, where the mercenaries deserted by the Carthaginians were left to die of starvation.