Vesuvius: volcanic laboratory or miracle of divine intervention?

Public history of science lecture by Gillian Darley

Vesuvius Vesuvius, from the diaries of Antonio Piaggi (Royal Society MS/2)

Event details

Gillian Darley is a writer and broadcaster, and author of Vesuvius: the most famous volcano in the world (2011).

Commentaries on Vesuvius have, for some two thousand years, see-sawed between observers' fascination with the phenomenon, as an inexplicable expression of the earth's inner force, and the relationship of the unpredictable mountain to a religious population, who seek to placate it through their faith. 

The talk begins with the death of Pliny the elder in the cause of scientific observation and ends with the continuing search for ways to avoid an unimaginable catastrophe at the foot of the mountain. Among an extraordinary cast list, those who watched Vesuvius over the centuries included illustrious Fellows of the Royal Society including John Evelyn, William Hamilton and Humphry Davy, and those, no less important, who never received its accolade, such as Mary Somerville and the American volcanologist Frank Perret.     

In counterpoint to the careful, increasingly scientific study of the volcano is the continuing, life-threatening, drama that it represents. By the 17th century, San Gennaro (St Januarius) was entrusted with protecting Naples from the menace of Vesuvius.  Even during the most recent eruption, in 1944, the saint was on duty in villages around its flanks. The ceremony of the liquefaction still continues in the city's cathedral, three times a year, and is supposed to ward off the ever-present danger. 

Much as the countless 18th and 19th century paintings of the volcano in action often juxtapose a chilly moon over the Bay of Naples against the fire-spewing mountain behind it, the cultural history of Vesuvius is one of extremes.

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