The French writer Marcel Brion subtitled his 1960 study of Pompeii and Herculaneum “The Glory and the Grief,” a phrase that captures the enduring mystery of these two ancient Roman towns, both buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The explosion itself was a majestic sight, if not exactly glorious; we have the word of an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger, who compared the pillar of smoke created by the mountain’s pulverized core to an umbrella pine, the soaring, graceful local tree that virtually symbolizes the Bay of Naples.
The umbrella pine was so perfect an image for a volcanic cloud that nearly every later witness to an eruption of Vesuvius has revived it. When the mountain returned to violent life in 1631 after centuries of quiet, the tree-shaped cloud appeared again:
The smoke narrowed into the shape of an umbrella pine, and gradually increased so much that, as observers have reported, it shot up to three hundred miles into the air—the earth seemed to want to mix with the sky. This was followed immediately by a huge eruption of fiery globes, and then by a subterranean rumbling and crashes like those of horrible thunder, then by continuous flashes and lighting, and then huge amounts of blackish, ashy sand poured forth, which first seemed to present a moist surface, but quickly, as the sun dried it, it changed its color into bright white puffs, rather like silk.1
The volcano’s most recent eruption occurred in 1944, at the height of World War II. The British officer Norman Lewis saw the umbrella pine of smoke, followed by a show of geological pyrotechnics:
Fiery symbols were scrawled across the water of the bay, and periodically the crater discharged mines of serpents into a sky which was the deepest of blood reds and pulsating everywhere with lightning reflections.2
But these glorious, treelike bursts of celestial fire also brought filthy clouds of debris in their wake, and the rotten-egg stench of brimstone. In 1767, William Hamilton, the English envoy to Naples, was caught by a secondary explosion as he explored an actively erupting Vesuvius:
The earth shook, at the same time that a volley of pumice stones fell thick upon us; in an instant, clouds of black smoak and ashes caused almost a total darkness; the explosions from the top of the mountain were much louder than any thunder I ever heard, and the smell of the sulphur was very offensive.
The umbrella pine of smoke and the celestial fireworks provided a prelude to more terrifying cataclysms. In 79, as Pliny the Younger reports,…
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