Italy’s volcanoes help shape the lives of the millions of Italian’s who live in their shadows. From the historical eruptions of Vesuvius and the excavation of Pompeii, to the distinctive terroir of Sicily provided by Mount Etna, the three active volcanoes of Italy are an all powerful presence that are both benignly generous and furiously dangerous.
Living in the shadow
of Italy’s volcanoes
Etna’s most destructive eruption took place in 1669 produced lava flows that destroyed 10 villages on its southern side before reaching the city walls of Catania. The fortified walls were enough to divert the lava flow into the sea, some lava did breach the walls an entered the city destroying a number of buildings before eventually coming to a halt at the rear of the Benedictine monastery. The centre of the city was spared. In all it took five weeks for the lava flow to creep down the side of the mountain to the city, for the whole time, the city residents must have live in permanent sense of unease.
Although there were reports of up to 20,000 fatalities, modern historians believe that no one died as a result of the 1669 eruption, but there are detailed accounts of the buildings that were destroyed. Twenty-four years later an earthquake devastated southeast Sicily killing 60,000 people and was linked to eruptions on Mt. Etna around the same time.
Etna is Europe’s tallest and moat active volcano, it is a huge tourist attraction as well as an important site for research and volcanology. The mountain and surrounding are has since May 2013 been added to the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites, with an announcement due in June 2013. It is a volcano of more-or-less continuous activity 1991-93 represents the most recent violent eruption and brought about a media explosion of interest as people flocked for all over the world to climb the slopes of Etna and witness the spectacular firework display as Etna spewed lava 500 metres into the air.
Since classical times the famed fire mountain of Mount Etna has been studied and paid homage to. In Greek mythology the deadly monster Typhon was trapped under the mountain by Zeus the god of the sky and thunder and king of the gods, and the forges of Hephaestus (the gods’ blacksmith who forged all the weapons on Mount Olympus), were said to be also located underneath it. Etna has been an ever-present dominating presence on the island of Sicily, she influences everything on the Island.
Many living Sicilians can recall her fiery tantrums and can recount how their lives were forever changed due to the effects of a particular eruption such as in the town of Mascali that was utterly obliterated in 1928 over the course of two days. But for the most part Etna is a benign presence towering above the island, welcoming visitors from all over the world to her fair slopes and sustaining a tourism industry all her own. The fertile soils of her flanks, regularly replenished by lava low and ash fall, provide a rich and nutritious soil that contributes to the island’s cuisine, wine, the terroir of the region is profoundly linked to Etna.
It is just too tempting to draw similarities between the persona of Etna and the character of the Sicilian locals. The Italian temperament is one of bountiful generosity, they too welcome people from far and wide to their home, feeding them well and sending them home satisfied. Imagine Etna as the ultimate personification of the Sicilian woman, stunningly beautiful, attractive, generous and gregarious, beguiling and enchanting, but with a devastating temper, that once aroused, will destroy all in its path. She can shut the Catania airport down for weeks at a time. It can be said that Sicilians live on the slopes of Etna, but they live with her inside themselves and sit with her at their table every day, she really is a goddess, that cannot be reconstituted as a Catholic martyr, but a pagan deity that is alive and well and very present in the lives of Sicilians.
Further north, on mainland Italy, Vesuvius slumbers above the Gulf of Naples. Most famous for the eruption of 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, this sleeping beauty is only biding her time before exploding again. In the 18th and 19th centuries when the gentlemen of Europe travelled to Naples to further their artistic and cultural education, Mount Vesuvius was crowned with a plume of smoke, a feature of all the panoramic paintings of the time.
A typical ‘hump-backed’ volcano she is the perfect picture of a volcano from an illustrated encyclopaedia, complete with large cone partially encircle by the steep rim of a caldera caused by the collapse of an earlier and much higher structure. Her appearance tells of her violent history, but what marks this active volcano apart from almost all others in the world is the density of population at her feet. The city of Naples is located to the West of the volcano, while at her base are densely populated villages, with Pompeii to her Eastern flank. Building on the mountain slopes has been outlawed but as is typical of the people of Campania, people find a way to circumnavigate the law, and her flanks are gradually being populated. Vesuvius has not erupted since 1944, which has lulled some into a false sense of security.
The Italian government’s emergency plan assumes the worst-case scenario for an eruption would be one similar in size and type to 1631. In this scenario, the slopes of the mountain spreading out 7km from the vent would be prone to pyroclastic lava flows throughout them, while the whole surrounding area would be vulnerable to tephra falls (hot fragmented material raining down from the sky). The plan assumes two weeks to 20 days’ notice of an eruption and has an evacuation plan for 600,000 people. Giving the scale of the mountain and proximity of population, this could be viewed as an extremely optimistic outlook, but there isn’t much to be done. The evacuation of an entire city just isn’t possible. Again it’s tempting to point to a Neapolitan character that is both optimistic and opportunistic. Is the character formed by living in such close quarters with Vesuvius?
The third of Italy’s three volcanic sisters is Mount Stromboli on the volcanic island of the same name in the Aeolian archipalego north of Sicily. Known as the ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ she is a smaller yet fierce volcano that is in a near constant state of eruption. The island’s population today is 200-350 year round residents, in decline from a peak of 2,100 in 1891, but as many as 6,000 visitors arrive each summer. The island is a remote and harsh environment that is still not on the electrical grid. Life on the island has remained more or less the same for hundreds of years, everything, including drinking water has to be ferried in. The harsh environment provided by the volcano has inured the islanders with a tough resilience and a resourcefulness, but it has equally spurred them off the island though emigration where they have taken their Aeolian culture to the four corners of the world.
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