by Prof Paul Davies
Everyone knows the story of Mount Vesuvius and its destruction of Pompeii (79 CE), which remained hidden from the world until its rediscovery in the eighteenth century. Far less familiar is the volcano’s later eruption of 1631, even though it was just as catastrophic, and may well have resulted in a higher death toll. At least 3,360 people perished, and some estimates put the number as high as 6000. Several villages were completely destroyed including Bosco, Torre dell’ Annunziata, Torre del Greco and Granatello, as well as Ercolano, the ancient Herculaneum – known as Resina in the seventeenth century – which suffered a second time. Indeed, the list of casualties might have been higher still, had it not been for a rescue mission conducted three days later to save stranded villagers. Here below is an account of the beginning of the tragedy written by an eyewitness, Giulio Cesare Braccini, and translated from his book Dell’Incendio fattosi nel Vesuvio a 16 dicembre 1631, Naples 1632 (p. 28 ff.)
[This] story … will live on in the memory of our descendants through the [various] sad reminders and vestiges [of the disaster]. On the 10 of December, the Torresi [the townsfolk of Torre del Greco], the villagers of Massa di Somma, of Polena, and San Bastiano, began to hear noises coming from inside the mountain – the contortions of underground spirits – [so terrifying] that they couldn’t sleep at night. Some, knowing of an ancient tradition that an old river used to rise from Vesuvius – but had got trapped in the mountain – thought it was now trying to force its way out. Others of a more pious nature, were mindful of the stories of Peter Damian who wrote that there was a door in that place leading down to hell, where the most wicked souls were taken; and no one doubted that it was there that the demons held court to avenge the great misdeeds of the world, in their capacity as agents of God. Another group, distracted by their daily affairs, did not worry because the tremors remained constant, and relatively gentle. At the same time, others noticed that the water in the wells was becoming fouled and, in some cases, had disappeared altogether; but if they had been good students of Pericles and Pythagoras they would have been able to predict the earthquakes from that information alone, and save themselves. But as someone said perituri non recipiunt consilia [they die who do not take advice].
A trustworthy person from Ottaviano said that he had been upon the mountain, at the mouth of the crater, one month earlier and then again two weeks later. And on the second occasion he noticed that the ground had risen so much that there was no depression in the middle at all, as Aristotle notes in describing the how the land bulged in Sarga, one of the Aeolian islands…
On Monday morning, 15 [December], when the weather was calm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, an enormous star was seen over the mountain, which aroused in me standing forty miles away a sense of awe. But during the night at around five o’clock [midnight according to the modern clock], a servant of the Marquis of Arena left Portici to come to Naples and he told us that when he was on the Bridge of the Magdalen he saw a beam of fire that seemed to him to run from all the way from Pozzuoli to Vesuvius. And the men of Resina [Ercolano] confirmed that they saw the same thing just below the top of the crater, which remained stable for several hours, while fiery exhalations danced all around as if they were thunderbolts. At that time…having just arrived at my abbey of Civita Luparella, I felt a little earthquake. Yet in the places closer to the mountain, from that hour until twelve o’clock [5am], the ground shook continually and, in some places they felt 18 quakes and in others 50, each more forceful than the last. And from what I have been able to gather, the mountain opened up on its flank, or to be more precise in the Atrian levels, the plain [nearby]. [This fissure] was visible at first only from the south side, from Torre dell Greco and from Annunziata and higher up the mountain from the church of S. Maria a Pugliano where according to tradition the Prince of the Apostles [St Peter] said mass…. Then, it spewed smoke and fire and ash and stones and flames from more than one side. And I heard from Santolo di Simone from S. Anastasia, who bravely with four friends from the village climbed the mountain that morning, that on arriving at a place called Mountain of the Devils…less than half a mile from the crater, he saw smoke and fire coming from several sides. [He related that the fissures] were opening up still further, bit by bit, throwing up from the cracks an explosion as if made up of little firecrackers of the type used on feast days; and the holes seemed to them like the bottom of great vats that grew ever larger owing to the exhalations. These exhalations then joined together in the air to form a great cloud…from which rained thunderbolts and massive rocks, one of which fell so close that it almost hit him. He stood there for half an hour looking at the spectacle and all the time he saw new fissures appear, and all the while the stones that fell burned and consumed everything they touched. The one that fell near him landed on a rock and shattered into many pieces, burning everything around. And when it had cooled down he picked up a piece and took it home and he found that it was much heavier and stronger than expected, …like wrought iron……
The sight of these flames for those living nearby – also terrified by the constant shaking – caused …them to throw up their hands to heaven to ask mercy from God. And abandoning their possessions… they fled wherever they thought it was safest. The more pious ran to the churches to confess their sins and to receive the sacraments, and because there were many gathered there, they thought their united prayers would be effective.
After a while, even though the sun had come out, one could still see a dense and extraordinary cloud over the mountain from as far away as Naples. It looked like an exceptionally tall leafless umbrella-pine, as it had seemed to Pliny, who saw it in the year of our Lord 81 [actually 79 CE]. It had a huge trunk, like a vast round tower but rising to such a great height that it almost became lost from sight. Then, either because its spirit could rise no higher or because it could not sustain its own weight, it fell, spreading itself in great, branch-like canopies, extending many miles across the area. Because it was hidden from the clear light of day, it appeared now black and evil, now stained and livid, but always with some red in it, like fire.
On seeing all this some … simple folk ran through the streets screaming… At the beginning I stayed put, as I was not in a place where I could see the mountain. But it struck me in the end, when it had risen so high and spread so far, just what it was, and I went to a bookshop and took the collected letters of Pliny off the shelf. And showing it to various people I told them how 1550 years earlier Pliny had described precisely what we were seeing. One of them who was there, overcome with curiosity, went up to the roof-top terrace with his quadrant and worked out that it had risen up over thirty miles into the sky. And this is believable … as it could also be seen from as far away as Rome.