‘A volcano to be respected, a
mountain to love’
Mount Vesuvius (“Vesuvio” in Italian) is a classic strato-cone volcano, consisting of layered ash deposits and lava-flows, product of a succession of eruptions. The lava produced has been predominantly of the intermediate andesitic type. This has created a steep-sided cone, since any lava produced has tended to be viscous and slow-flowing. There has been much ejection of pyroclastic material of a variety of types (ash, lava bombs etc). It is now believed that the great eruption of AD 79 culminated in a pyroclastic flow, which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum (see below). Evidence suggests that activity began with several days of eruption of large quantities of ash. Some of the inhabitants of Pompeii had been trying to cope with this when a dense pyroclastic flow swept down and overwhelmed the city. Fossilised remains of people who died were therefore found buried on top of ash-deposits.
The present day volcano is far smaller than the one which existed before AD 79. When that eruption occurred, the original summit was blasted away. This left a caldera, the walls of which form a hollow in which a later crater has grown (the present-day Vesuvius). The original volcano is referred to as Monte Somma.
The record of eruptions in historic times has been well documented, especially the more recent ones: between AD 79 and 1600 there were 11 recorded eruptions; in the 17th century there were 10 eruptions; 9 happened between 1700 and 1750, with a further 9 between 1751 and 1800. In the 19th century there were 13 eruptions between 1801 and 1850 and 10 in the period 1851 to 1900.
The record for the 20th Century is shown in the table below (Year/Type of eruption):
-- 1903/4: Effusive;
-- 1906: Effusive with some explosive activity;
-- 1929: Effusive;
-- 1930-44: Sporadic effusive eruptions continuing from the 1929 vent;
-- 1944: A major eruption with explosive/pyroclastic activity and an outpouring of effusive lava.
The eruption of 1944 resulted in the deaths of 47 people (mostly from buildings collapsing): lava poured in a NW direction, bringing destruction to the villages of S. Sebastiano and Massa; it stopped at only 120m above sea level.
The Vesuvius National Park
The Vesuvius National Park was officially designated on June 5th, 1995, in order to protect the last-remaining active volcanic complex in Europe. The aims of the Park are: conservation of its fauna, flora and geomorphologic structures; application of administration and environmental protection programmes; promotion of educational, recreational and sustainable research activities; reconstitution and defence of hydraulic and hydrogeological balance in the area; promotion of traditional cultural, agricultural and craftwork activities.
The Park is situated in the province of Naples, and extends over 8,482 hectares across the territory of 13 municipalities: Boscoreale, Boscotrecase, Ercolano, Massa di Somma, Ottaviano, Pollena Trocchia, Sant’Anastasia, San Giuseppe Vesuviano, San Sebastiano al Vesuvio, Somma Vesuviana, Terzigno, Torre del Greco and Trecase. It also includes two European Community Sites of Importance, a Special Protection Zone, a Wilderness area and a National Forest Reserve – all proof of the extraordinary natural and environmental interest that this territory offers. The Park is also the guardian of a rich cultural and folkloric heritage, which comprises religious celebrations, dances, songs and music that testify the history of the people of Vesuvius, and includes highly regarded artifacts such as coral, lava stone and copper craftsmanship.
The volcanic complex
Mt. Vesuvius is the only active volcano in continental Europe and the most populated (20 municipalities with a total of 400,000 residents); it is also the most extensively studied volcano on Earth. The current shape of the volcano is the result of the continual alternation between “explosive” type eruptions, which have produced pyroclastic deposits, and “effusive” type ones, which instead have produced lava; the resulting volcanic structure is defined as volcanic stratum. The earliest eruptions, which took place between 25,000 and 17,000 years ago, partly destroyed the most ancient volcano, Mt. Somma, within which the Gran Cono of Mt. Vesuvius was later formed. The two structures as a whole are known as the Somma-Vesuvius volcanic complex and are a typical example of a fence layer volcano.
The highest point of Mt. Vesuvius reaches 1,282 metres above sea level. The current crater has a diameter of 650 metres and a depth of 230 metres. At the base of the crater there are a number of eruptive openings which discharged many of the streams of lava from 1631 up until 1944, the year of the last eruption. Today there are small fumaroles on the Gran Cono of Mt. Vesuvius, a sign of its dormant state. Mt. Somma reaches a height of 1,132 metres above sea level with Punta Nasone, and has a base diameter of approximately 15 km. The “fence” of Mt. Somma is well preserved on its northern part and the old crater edge has a succession of smaller peaks known as ‘cognoli’. On the external slope meteorological events over thousands of years have created numerous ravines. The southern enclosure, however, has now disappeared completely and in its place there is a flat area, called Piano delle Ginestre. The Vesuvius and Mt. Somma are separated by a depression known as Valle del Gigante, itself divided into Atrio del Cavallo to the west and Valle dell’Inferno to the east.
The environmental aspects
The Vesuvius side has a characteristic Mediterranean-type vegetation. Colonisation of the lava by vegetation happens thanks to a greyish-silver lichen called Stereocaulon vesuvianum, which prepares the ground for settlement by other pioneering species, and eventually maquis or scrub is formed. The Somma side instead is damper and it is covered by mesophyll forest vegetation, with a prevalence of a mixed woodland of Chestnut, Oak, Alder, Maple and Ilex trees.
Over nine hundred plant species have colonised the volcanic complex over time; the current composition of its flora includes 610 species, amongst which are 18 endemic plants of great interest, such as Helichrysum litoreum. Another interesting feature is the presence of twenty species of orchids and small nuclei of Birch (Betula pendula) – a remaining evidence of the mesophile woodland that once covered the slopes of the volcano.
The fauna is interesting too: some of the mammals that can be found here are Wood mouse, Stone marten, fox, Wild rabbit and Hare. The most commonly found vertebrates are birds, with around 140 species, amongst which are Sparrow hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Buzzard, Redstart, Wood Pigeon and Imperial Crow. As far as the amphibian are concerned, there is a considerable Emerald Toad population, while there are eight species of reptiles, amongst which Rat Snake and Aesculapian Coluber. There is also a large community of invertebrates, including 44 species of butterflies.
Since ancient times man has settled at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius, because its fertile volcanic soil and temperate climate have favoured the emergence of a thriving agriculture there. The extensive oak woods have slowly been replaced by vineyards and orchards, which are still the main crops farmed in the area today. Among the best-known produce are: apricots in a wide range of varieties, cherries (which are mostly grown at the foot of Mt. Somma), the famous pomodorini da serbo – cherry tomatoes that are kept all year long, hanging from the walls or ceilings in characteristic trails known as ‘piennoli’ –; among the vegetable species is the giant cauliflower. Mount Vesuvius, however, is above all a wine-growing area; one of its most renowned wines is the Piedirosso, which – together with the Falanghina – is the Vesuvian red and rosé wine with a Controlled Denomination of Origin, while the white wine with the same denomination comes from the Coda di Volpe vineyard, which has ancient origins. The Falangina, Piedirosso and Coda di Volpe grapes are used also to produce the famous Lacryma Christi wine.
Optimising Land Use
A drive towards local development has to be a priority if culture and traditional activities are to be effectively exploited – also for promoting tourism in the area. The Park Authority involves the local community in initiatives based on the rediscovery and appreciation of cultural traditions and local production that symbolise work, the passion of the people of Vesuvius as well as the history and memory of the protected area. The Park works to make the territory competitive – even on the wider market – with its typical produce. It is the Park Authority’s inexorable aim to give cultural activities linked to the protection and promotion of anthropological and historical values an essential social communication function, and provide a fundamental tool for promoting local cultures. Many events of cultural interest are held in the municipalities of the Park during the year, and these are strongly felt by the communities that live within the Vesuvius area. The strategic importance of the Park Authority’s participation in these events has found expression in the promotion and rediscovery of popular celebrations, publicising such events effectively through the media.
The Nature Trail Network
The Vesuvius National Park nature trail network comprises 9 trails that will allow visitors to discover all of the beauty and peculiar features of the Somma-Vesuvius volcanic complex. Each trail has been made safe using special engineering techniques and signposted with information on the nature, geology and history of the area. There are signs indicating the colour shown on the signpost at the beginning of each trail.
Trail no. 1: The Valle dell’Inferno (yellow). Location: municipality of Ottaviano. Starting point/finishing point: provincial road Ottaviano-Monte Somma. Typology: circular nature trail. Total length: 9,972 m. Level of difficulty: high. Time required to complete the trail: short option: 2.45 hrs round trip; intermediate option: 4 hrs round trip; complete distance option: 9 hrs round trip. The Valle dell’Inferno separates the old caldera of Mt. Somma from Mt. Vesuvius and is engulfed by the lava from the last eruption of 1944, colonised by Stereocaulon vesuvianum lichen.
Trail no. 2: Along the ‘Cognoli’ (blue). Location: municipality of Ottaviano. Starting point/arrival point: provincial road Ottaviano-Monte Somma. Typology: circular nature trail. Total length: 8,134 m. Level of difficulty: high. Time required to complete the trail: short option: 2,30 hrs round trip; intermediate option: 4,30 hrs round trip; complete distance option: 8 hrs round trip. The trail climbs the ridges of the ‘Cognoli di Ottaviano’ and the ‘Cognoli di Levante’; on these you can admire the most beautiful rope-like lava formation of the whole volcanic complex, carved with deep fissures which are the habitat of numerous species of fern.
Trail no. 3: Mt. Somma (green). Location: municipality of Ercolano. Starting point/arrival point: provincial road Ercolano-Vesuvius. Typology: circular nature trail. Total length: 7,650 m. Level of difficulty: high. Time required to complete the trail: short option: 1,30 hrs round trip; intermediate option: 3 hrs round trip; complete distance option: 5 hrs round trip. The trail follows the ridges of Mt. Somma as far as Punta Nasone – the highest peak of the old caldera – and goes back down the trail used by religious processions during Christian celebrations. It is the most important experimental trail in the Park in terms of the engineering techniques used for its development.
Trail no. 4: Across the Riserva Tirone (orange). Location: municipality of Ercolano. Starting point/arrival point: Provincial road Ercolano-Vesuvius. Typology: circular nature trail. Total length: 8,413 m. Level of difficulty: low. Time required to complete the trail: short option: 3 hrs round trip; intermediate option: 5 hrs round trip; complete distance option: 7 hrs round trip. This trail follows most of the ‘Tirone Alto Vesuvio’ Forestry Reserve established in 1972, and alternates between closed stretches of pine forest, ilex groves and open stretches of maquis or scrub, reaching the 1944 lava flow from where the Gulf of Naples can be admired.
Trail no. 5: The Gran Cono (red). Location: municipality of Ercolano. Starting point/arrival point: provincial road Ercolano-Vesuvius. Typology: circular nature trail. Total length: 3,807 m. Level of difficulty: moderate. Time required to complete the trail: short option: 1 hr round trip; intermediate option: 2 hrs round trip; complete distance option: 3 hrs round trip. This trail is the traditional climb up Mt. Vesuvius; it offers a spectacular view of the impressiveness of the volcano and allows visitors a closer look at the nuclei of birch – a remaining species that had become widespread in Italy during the periods of glaciations.
Trail no. 6: Along the Strada Matrone (violet). Location: municipality of Trecase. Starting point/arrival point: via Cifelli. Typology: panoramic trail. Total length: 6,877 m. Level of difficulty: high. Time required to complete the trail: short option: 2 hrs round trip; intermediate option: 3 hrs round trip; complete distance option: 7 hrs round trip. This trail retraces the path followed in the 1920s-30s by the Matrone brothers to reach the crater, used up until the 1980s. The hairpin bends offer breathtaking views, with glimpses over the gulfs of Naples and Sorrento.
Trail no. 7: Il Vallone della Profica (brown). Location: municipality of San Giuseppe Vesuviano. Starting point/arrival point: via Profica Paliata in Santa Maria La Scala. Typology: agricultural trail. Total length: 1,718 m. Level of difficulty: low. Time required to complete the trail: complete distance option: 1.30 hrs round trip. This trail crosses a variety of environments: cultivated fields, which exemplify the ancient link that exists between the people of the Vesuvius area; fertile volcanic soil; deciduous woods and pine forests, ideal habitats for the abundant Vesuvius avifauna.
Trail no. 8: “Il trenino a cremagliera” (‘rack train’; light blue). Location: municipality of San Sebastiano al Vesuvio. Starting point/arrival point: via Panoramica Fellapane. Typology: circular nature trail. Total length: 1,188 m. Level of difficulty: moderate. Time required to complete the trail: short option: 1 hr round trip; intermediate option: 1.30 hrs round trip; complete distance option: 2.30 hrs round trip. This trail follows the route used by the rack train which once went from the station of Pugliano (that has now been demolished) to the lower funicular train station made famous by the well-known song “Funiculì funicolà”.
Trail no. 9: Il “fiume di lava” (‘river of lava’; grey). Location: municipality of Ercolano. Starting point/arrival point: provincial road Ercolano-Vesuvius at via Osservatorio. Typology: educational trail. Total length: 690 m. Level of difficulty: low. Time required to complete the trail: complete distance option: 1.30 hrs round trip. This trail crosses woodland and maquis, reaching the typical grey-coloured tongue of lava of 1944 covered in the lichen Stereocaulon vesuvianum. Along the trail you can see the hydraulic works that the Bourbons have carried out in the area around Vesuvius.
Even though the purpose of this website is to concentrate on sites of natural interest, so strong is the connection between Vesuvius and the two Roman settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum that I have included some information on these two world-famous archaeological sites here:
Pompeii was founded in the 7th Century BC on a prehistoric lava flow from the Vesuvius. The city lay under the control of the Greeks, then the Samnites, and eventually by 80 BC it was a prosperous Roman colony; a centre of commerce and manufacture. In 63 AD it was devastated by a major earthquake; much of the city had been rebuilt when, on 24th August 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius – overshadowing the town to the north-west – erupted with little warning. Evidence collected from the site and from the account written at the time by Pliny the younger (who observed the event from a safe distance across the Bay of Naples) suggests that for many hours large quantities of ash were deposited over the city. Many people stayed and tried to weather out the event, but finally a dense pyroclastic cloud swept down the south-eastern flank of the volcano and Pompeii was engulfed by it. Those still in the city must have died agonising deaths, being badly burnt, choking on the ash and breathing in only incandescent gases.
When the city’s remains were discovered in 1750, many of the buildings and their contents had been preserved intact; bodies of people and animals had also been covered and preserved by the ashes. They had decomposed, but had left behind perfect moulds in the form of void spaces surrounded by the ash which had hardened; plaster casts were then taken from many of them, where the faces show the inhabitants in the agony of their last moments alive.
In fact, only about 10% of the city’s population of 20,000 perished in the disaster; the majority had taken the rumblings of Vesuvius and the ash cloud above it as a warning and had fled to safety. Today, the excavated site offers a real insight into the life, customs, passions and vices of the ancient Romans; the bodies of about 2,000 people along with their houses, temples, works of art and household objects were preserved. Many of the more valuable articles have been removed and were transferred to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples – one of the most outstanding of its kind.
The city occupies a large site and much of it is laid out in a regular grid-iron pattern. Important sites are almost too numerous to list, but they include a number of well-preserved houses such as the House of the Vettii (Casa dei Vettii) and the House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno), the Forum, the Temple of Apollo, the Stabian Baths, the Via dell’Abbondanza (Pompeii’s central axis) and the Amphitheatre.
The excavations of the Roman town of Herculaneum can be found in the north-eastern Naples suburb of Ercolano, close to the base of the south-western slope of Mt. Vesuvius. The town was first established as the Greek colony of Herakleion in the 5th century BC; it was later controlled by the Samnites before becoming part of the Roman empire in 89 BC. It was a rich resort town, close to the coastline of the time; like its more well-known neighbour Pompeii, the town was also destroyed by the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Herculaneum was covered in a thick layer of mud: this fact preserved the buildings of the town and their contents much more effectively than in Pompeii. The ruins lay undiscovered until excavation work in the 18th century revealed remains of the old town. Over a period of time more has been exposed, but there is a problem in that the built-up area of the modern suburb completely surrounds the site of the ruins, which are at a much lower level.
Many of the works of art, carvings and frescoes have also been removed to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, but some of the buildings are exceptionally well-preserved. The site is much smaller and self-contained than Pompeii, which makes its visit a lot more intimate affair (and, in my personal view, a more striking experience). Among the more well known buildings to view are:
- The Trellis House, an example of an inexpensive multi-family Roman dwelling;
- The House of Stags, named from the sculpture of groups of stags found here;
- The House of Neptune, with its mosaic in the summer dining room;
- The City Baths, divided into two sections for men and women.
One of the mysteries posed by Herculaneum was why there were so few bodies found there when it was excavated, compared to the large numbers unearthed in Pompeii. This puzzle was solved only recently: hun dreds of people had sought shelter in a large cellar nearer to the coast, which was only discovered in 1982. Being closer to the eruption than Pompeii, Herculaneum suffered one or more pyroclastic flows at quite an early stage, which would have killed all of its population.