HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Campi Flegrei, or "burning fields", is the name given by the Greeks to an area extending beyond the present Campi Flegrei to Vesuvius. It was where Greek mythology placed the battle between the Giants and the Olympic gods which was probably related to the occurrence of volcanic activity. As no volcanic eruption is known to have occurred during Greek times (excluding the activity of Ischia), it is probable that the Greeks adapted the legends of the former inhabitants to their own mythology.

The first Greek colonies were founded around the middle of the VIII century B.C. in Ischia and Cuma. One of the first occurrences of the classical Greek alphabet was found in Cuma on the so-called 'Cup of Nestor'.

Cuma attained its maximum power during the Vth century B.C., when, allied with the Greeks of Syracuse, it defeated a coalition of the Etruscans and Carthaginians. After the naval battle of Cuma, the Syracusans settled in Ischia, but were soon driven out by an eruption which occurred on the island.

During the IVth and IIIrd centuries B.C., the area fell under the influence of Rome, which, after the Samnite wars, became the ruler of peninsular Italy. During this time Campi Flegrei was a malarial area, covered by marshes and by a thick forest called 'Silva Gallinaria', which often became the refuge of bandits. The area of Baia and Pozzuoli (the most important port of the Roman empire) became the rest area of the Roman aristocracy after the destruction of the main part of the 'Silva Gallinaria', to build up the fleet of Augustus. The emperors' palace, where many of the murders of Nero occurred, was situated near the present Punta dell'Epitaffio, in Baia, but is now submerged at a depth of 8 m.

Little is known of the area in the Middle Ages, when part of the coast was submerged; during this time the villages suffered from Arab incursions, until they became part of the Kingdom of Naples. Since then, the area of Campi Flegrei has followed the vicissitudes of the rest of southern Italy. Most of the district remained a malarial swamp until the beginning of this century.

Somma-Vesuvius entered in the history of volcanology with the eruption of 79 A.D., described by Pliny the Younger, which destroyed Pompei, Herculaneum, Oplonti and Stabiae. Although the event was unexpected by the local population, the volcanic nature of the mountain was already known, as testified by Strabo, Diodorus Siculus and other Roman and Greek writers.

The eruption of 79 A.D. caused extensive damage throughout all the Neapolitan region and Titus was compelled to nominate an officer (Curator Restituendae Campaniae), selected from the body of ex-consuls, to coordinate repairs and reconstruction. Inscriptions dedicated to Titus for his help have been found in Sorrento (for repairing a building "Terraemotus Collapsus").

A structural scheme for the Campanian plain

The Campanian Plain is located within a graben bordered by Mesozoic carbonate platforms. Its origin has been related to a stretching and thinning of the continental crust by counter-clockwise rotation of the Italian peninsula and the contemporaneous opening of the Tyrrhenian sea with a consequent subsidence of the carbonate platform along most of the Tyrrhenian coast.

An intense phase of potassic volcanism began about 1 Ma ago in the Roman and Campanian provinces, especially along the western margin of the Peninsula. All the volcanic activity occurred in areas where the carbonate platforms sank by between 1 and 4-5 km. The stretching of the crust produced an uplift of the mantle in the centre of the Tyrrhenian sea where the crust is now 5-10 km thick. The depth of the Mohorovicic discontinuity increases toward the Appennine chain, but some local upwelling of light portions of the mantle have been located such as that below northern Campi Flegrei where recent investigations have identified an upwelling to a depth of 15 km.

The buried volcano of Parete was discovered during geothermal drilling when more than 1500 m of andesitic and basaltic lavas were encountered. These lavas produce positive circular gravimetric and magnetic anomalies (Aprile and Ortolani, 1979); the age of the volcano is not known exactly, but is certainly > 0.1-0.2 Ma. The magnetic anomalies of the Campanian plain (Fedi and Rapolla, 1987, Rapolla et al, 1989) are mostly confined to these two areas and seem to confirm the idea that extensive lava edifices are present only in the areas of Vesuvius and Parete.

The linked figure shows a simplified geologic sketch of the Campanian Plain. The Campanian plain is dominated by the large central depression of Acerra, bordered by normal faults. The possible eastward extension of this depression is masked by the presence of Vesuvius. The depression has a seaward extension well into the Gulf of Naples. The faults are evidenced by gravimetry on land and have their continuation in the sea, where they are visible in seismic profiles (Finetti and Morelli, 1974). The fault passing through Vesuvius cuts all recent formations and has been the site of historic volcanic activity with two flank eruptions of Vesuvius (1794, 1861). Recently Scandone et al (1991) proposed that the Acerra depression might be a tectonic depression that has been further depressed by collapses produced during the emission of the Campanian Ignimbrite the most widespread pyroclastic flow deposits of the area.

General bibliography on History and Geography of the area



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