Naples – The awful crater of Vesuvius

Is this tremendous abyss in which these clouds of vapor and ashes dash against the mountain sides in vast rolling billows, a view of the lower world, where, amid incessant flashes of lightning and the shooting of mysterious tongues of flame, horrible, demoniacal forms are seen passing to and fro in the lurid glare, as though they themselves were on fire? Or, has the end of all things come and are the heavens being rolled aside as a scroll, and is the old earth a mass of surging fire to the universal terror and for the destruction of men? When the conflagration has burned itself out, will it leave the globe an immense ball of black and smoking cinders madly careering through a universe of charred and blazing worlds? Certainly one is to be excused, if, when gazing into this burning lake of liquid fire, he grows superstitious and feels awed at the sight. Surely nothing but a spectacle like this – an immense stone caldron in which fiery, weltering waves of red-hot lava boil up to the edge of the crater and then die down again – could have inspired and given rise to the crude, blood-curdling Dantesque visions of the Middle Ages.

What causes such a volcanic phenomenon? With all our progressive science, we have no complete and satisfactory explanation of the causes which produce such a condition of things; but, from the fact that the principal volcanoes are situated near the sea, it is reasonable to suppose that the water finds its way to the fires which burn in the interior of the earth, and dense clouds of steam are thus generated, which expand with enormous power and ultimately find a vent through some mountain summit ; the earthquakes which precede an eruption being caused by the gases and vapors struggling to find this outlet.

Before the first recorded and most terrible eruption of Vesuvius, in 79 A. D., when Pompeii was destroyed, severe earthquake shocks were occasionally experienced and, during one of the most alarming of these, Nero was entertaining the populace of Naples with the rendering of a cantata which he composed, and a chorus of five hundred trained voices accompanied the royal singer. While the emperor was singing a selection, there came a fearful shock and the building gave way, but even though surrounded by cracking floors and crumbling walls, Nero, in-flamed with wine, sang on, stopping only to command that no one be permitted to leave the building. The first shock was followed by another still more terrible and, as the structure began to totter, even the drunken Nero concluded it was time to move on, and only with the greatest difficulty escaped with his life, while many of the spectators were overwhelmed in the ruins.

In all, there have been sixty eruptions since that time and in one of them, on December 16, 1631, at-tended by scenes of most appalling and indescribable terror, eighteen thousand persons lost their lives, and Bosco, Torre Annunziata, Torre del Greco, Resina and Portici were overwhelmed.

It is impossible to give any accurate estimate of the number of people who have perished as the result of the destructive power of this volcano, but the number extends far into the thousands. A period of quiescence, when the crater becomes choked with stones and ashes, is always followed by an eruption whose severity is in proportion to the amount of obstructive material, for the longer the steam and lava are held back, the greater and more tremendous is the eruption when they make a vent for themselves. In 1871, an eruption of unusual severity took place, when the mountain ” sweated fire,” and lava streams a mile in breadth and, in some places, a hundred feet deep, poured down its lightning-scarred sides. Since 1872, the mountain has been comparatively quiet, till in 19o0, it again showed signs of unusual activity.

In April, 1906 a gigantic pillar of ” smoke ” two miles high rose from this crater and fiery masses of stone were thrown up three thousand feet or more. A huge mass was torn out of the body of the mountain and liquid lava overflowed once more. Hundreds of deaths were caused in villages and towns near-by, and a hundred thousand people took temporary refuge at a safer distance. The lava that poured down the eastern and southeastern slopes moved slowly enough so that people could abandon their houses when necessary; the losses actually due to the lava were mostly of property, not of life. But in several different villages volcanic dust accumulated on the roofs of churches, dwelling houses and other buildings in such quantities that roofs collapsed, burying men, women and children in the ruins. That happened, indeed, as far away as Naples ! It was difficult to estimate how much strain a roof would bear, and hundreds of lives were lost in consequence. The destruction of dwellings, fields and vineyards was enormous, and a terrible amount of suffering ensued among peasants who had found, during the best of times, difficulty enough to earn a living.

When we were within fifty feet of the edge of this crater, our guide warned us to stop, but still we pressed on. ” Stand back ! ” he shouted. We were certainly headstrong and foolhardy to advance as far as we did, but, in spite of the stifling fumes of sulphur and other gases, the sight was so fascinating and dreadful that, as through the exercise of a diabolical and irresistible charm, it drew us toward the very edge. A year before, three Englishmen had ventured even nearer and, being suddenly overcome by the insidious gases, toppled over into the burning abyss. The place where we stood was so hot that we had to literally keep on a hop in order to stand there at all. One long, earnest gaze into this ” bit of hell ” on earth, and we turned quickly and re-traced our steps to where our guide stood, but none too quickly, for we had already begun to feel faint. Yet even there the lava was hot, and thrusting a stick into a stream of it which ran past us down the mountain slope, and twirling it around until quite a lump adhered, I shook it off upon the cooler lava on which we were standing and then inserted a cop-per coin into the glowing mass. When it had cooled, I picked it up, though it was still rather warm, and I have it yet as a reminder of the day we looked into the crater of Vesuvius.

We have seen Herculaneum and Vesuvius, but our knowledge of this region would certainly be incomplete unless we paid a visit to Pompeii.

On the map No. 6, ” Environs of Naples,” we find Pompeii some eight miles to the south and east of Vesuvius. The two red lines which branch slightly north of west from Pompeii show what is to be our field of vision from our first position there. We shall evidently be looking back toward Vesuvius.