„The Neapolitans would certainly be different people if they would not feel trapped between God and Satan.” The German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reached this conclusion while he observed a magnificent sunset during his descent from the Vesuvius in March 1787. And it is precisely this mixture of the horrible and the beautiful that fascinates the world: the dangerous volcano at the breathtakingly beautiful Gulf of Naples.
Every child in Italy knows the name of the fire-spitting mountain near the metropolis of Naples. The Italians refer to it as “Vesuvio” and every year thousands of tourists from all over the world surge to the fateful mountain. Despite the well-known fact that the volcano could erupt anytime and without much prior warning …
As the only Volcano on the European mainland and one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions – which is rather impressive considering Italy’s rich cultural history. However, the reason for the volcanic mountain's fame goes hand in hand with catastrophes and misfortunes.
Pompeii’s dark end
Next to the Vesuvius, tourists want to see Pompeii. Yet, the city has not existed for centuries. Once, in ancient times, Pompeii was a prosperous Mediterranean city. It was located on a high plateau ten kilometers south of the Vesuvius. From the palaces of the city, the view over the Gulf of Naples must be have been splendid.
Photo: I, Pastorius, CC BY, from Wikimedia Commons
On August 24, AD 79, the sky over Pompeii suddenly darkened. Daily earthquakes had announced the eruption of the volcano for weeks. House walls were torn open and water pipes were broken. But not all Pompeiians knew how to interpret these signs of warning in time. The panic, which broke out at the sight of the threating cloud of dark ash, came too late. Within just a few hours, the city and its inhabitants were buried underneath the ash and streams of lava.
Vesuvausbruch von 1774
Gemälde von Jacob Philipp Hackert
Photo: Jacob Philipp Hackert, via Wikimedia Commons
The once magnificent Pompeii is forgotten for a long time. Centuries later, astonishing antique findings are repeatedly made in the region, which were highly sought after in the Renaissance. Slowly but surely, plunderers and historians uncover the secret of the lost city. But it was not until the 18th century that the city was systematically and excavated almost “unharmed”. Pompeii rose like a phoenix from the ashes, because the pumice stone of the volcanic eruption has literally preserved the city and the dead. “There has been a lot of disaster in the world, but little that delighted posterity this much,” said Goethe while visiting the excavation site.
A volcano as a tourist attraction
The eruption of the volcano in the year 79 was not the only one. Bigger eruptions followed in the years 472 and 1631. The volcanic outburst took place on March 18, 1944. Since then, the Vesuvius is in a “resting phase”, the duration of which is difficult to predict.
If you are visiting the region of Naples, you should not miss a visit to Pompeii and climbing up the Vesuvius. The danger of the volcano, the perceptible demise of the city and – in contrast – the undeniable beauty of mountain and antiquity. The Vesuvius and his history have not only captivated Goethe.