Location: 40.821°N, 14.426°E

summit elevation: 1281 m

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(with the  description of excursions to the volcanoes and their record of activity)

This description is mostly based on the Excursion guidebook to Neapolitan Volcanoes by Scandone and Giacomelli distributed at the International Iavcei Conference "Napoli 91" and the paper by Scandone, Giacomelli and Gasparini (1993)

The most recent activity of the Campanian plain is that of the Somma-Vesuvius volcano which spans the period between 25000 years ago and the recent. Its first dated products, overlie the products of the so-called "Campanian Ignimbrite" (34000 years ago), and belong to the Codola pumice formation dated at 25000 years ago (Alessio et al, 1974).

The most important Plinian eruption of Vesuvius occurred at about 17000 years and is called the "Pomici Basali or Sarno eruption". A series of other 8 Plinian or Subplinian eruptions occurred after 17000 years, the last three of which occurred in 79 AD, (the eruption which destroyed Pompei and Herculaneum) in 472 and 1631 (table 1).

Table 1 Main Plinian and Sub-Plinian eruptions of Somma-Vesuvius

Name of the Eruption
Age (years before present 
or AD)
Basal Pumices ( Sarno) 
Greenish Pumices 
Mercato (Ottaviano) 
no date available
1900 (79 AD)
472 (AD)
1631 (AD)


Vesuvius before 79 AD

Greek and roman scholars (Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Vitruvius, Vergil) already knew the volcanic nature of the mountain before the eruption of 79 AD.

Diodorus Siculus (80-20 BC) reports that the Campanian plain was called "Phlegrean ("fiery") from the mountain which of old spouted forth a huge fire as Aetna did in Sicily; at this time, however, the mountain is called Vesuvius and shows many signs of the fire which once raged in those ancients times." Vitruvius, active between 46 and 30 BC, reported in his "The Architectura" that "once fires burnt below Vesuvius and sometimes it spouted flames on the surrounding fields". Strabo (64 BC-25 AD) gives the most accurate description of Vesuvius of his times: "Above these places lies Mt. Vesuvius, which, save for its summit, has dwellings all round, on farm-lands that are absolutely beautiful. As for the summit, a considerable part of it is flat, but all of it is unfruitful, and looks ash-coloured, and it shows pore-like cavities in masses of rocks that are soot-coloured on the surface, these masses of rock looking as though they had been eaten out by fire; and hence one might infer that in earlier times this district was on fire and had craters of fire, and then, because the fuel gave out, was quenched."

The most famous and destructive eruption of Vesuvius occurred in AD 79. It destroyed many towns around Vesuvius. A detailed description was made by Pliny the Younger who observed the eruption from Cape Misenum at a distance of about 20 km from the volcano. During the eruption the uncle of Pliny the Younger (Pliny the Elder), admiral of the roman fleet based in Misenum, went to the rescue of the people endangered by the eruption and lost his life. 


The period between 79 AD and 1631

We have no information on the state of Vesuvius immediately after the eruption of 79. The first account of continuing activity is from Galenus (c.172 AD) who testifies that "the matter in it (Vesuvius) is still burning " .

Dio Cassius in 203 AD reports a violent eruption heard in Capua, some 40 km from the volcano. The same eruption is reported by another source (Manuele) referred to by Gasparini and Musella (1991).

Two large eruptions occurred in 472 and 512. Marcellinus Comes reported that, on the 6th of November, 472, "Vesuvius (...) erupted the burning interiors, caused night during the day and covered all Europe with fine ash ". This eruption is also confirmed by Manuele (Gasparini and Musella,1991).

Information about the eruption of 512 is more detailed. Cassiodorus, an officer of king Teodoricus, wrote a letter to ask the exemption of taxes for the people affected by the eruption; in his letter he reports that " a burnt ash flies in the sky, and, forming ashy clouds, it rains with ash droplets also in the provinces beyond the sea (...). It is possible to see ash rivers flowing like liquid, bringing hot sands and (....) the fields grow suddenly up (the fields are covered with sand)to the top of the trees (.....) and are ravished by the sudden heat. " .

Several other eruptions are reported in 685 (Paulus Diaconus), 787 and 968.

Gasparini and Musella (1991) suggest that the first testimony clearly referring to a lava flow is for the eruption of 968. Leo Marsicanus reports in a chronicle of the Cassino Monastery that "Mount Vesuvius exploded with flames and emitted a great amount of gluey and sulphurous matter that formed a river hurriedly flowing to the sea " . Several authors report other eruptions in 991, 993 and 999 (see in Alfano, 1924) but they must be regarded as suspicious because of the belief of the end of the world in 1000 AD.

Leo Marsicanus refers of another eruption on the 27 of January, 1037, that lasted for six days. The chronicle of the Cassino monastery records an explosive eruption between 1068 and 1078 (Gasparini and Musella, 1991).

The last eruption before a long quiescent period occurred on the 1st of June, 1139. Several sources refer to it as a strong explosive eruption (Falcone Beneventano, the Chronicle of the Monastery of Cava dei Tirreni, John of Salisbury). It lasted eight days and ashes covered Salerno, Benevento, Capua and Naples. No reliable report of volcanic activity is available until 1500, when Ambrogio di Nola reports a small explosion. From 1500 until to 1631, no eruption occurred on Vesuvius. Records are good during this period, and none mention volcanic activity.


The activity between 1631 and 1944

The great eruption of 1631 is the largest explosive eruption of Vesuvius since those of 472 and 512 AD. It occurred after 131 years of quiescence. Large trees covered the Gran Cono, the cone within the Somma Caldera, and local people did not remember it being a volcano. The mountain was called "La Montagna di Somma" (the Mountain of Somma, a small town on its northern side).

Several months before the beginning of the eruption, people near the volcano felt some earthquakes (Braccini, 1632). They were not particularly scared because earthquakes from the nearby Apennine chain were often felt in the area (a large one had occurred three years before in Apulia, in 1628). The seismic activity became more severe in the few days before the eruption. Nevertheless, the awakening of Vesuvius in 1631 surprised the inhabitants. A strong explosive eruption started in the night between 15 and 16 December of 1631 and its paroxysmal stage lasted two days. We will not deal with the details of this eruption as Rosi et al discuss it specifically in this issue.

The eruption started a period of persistent activity that lasted, with a few breaks, for more than three centuries until 1944. After the violent eruption of 1631, the inhabitants living at the base of the volcano, became accustomed to its activity and were inclined to record only the most notable events.

After the violent eruption of 1631 the volcano entered a stage of almost persistent activity with numerous effusive-explosive eruptions. During this period the main explosive eruptions (table 2) were of limited magnitude (VEI≈ 3) but displayed a peculiar trend.

Table 2
Main eruptions of Vesuvius in the period 1631-1944
Beginning of Eruption
Eruption Type 
3 July 1660
Ash fall to north-east 
13 April 1694 
Lava toward Torre del Greco 
25 May 1698
Damage by ash-fall to Boscotrecase, Torre Annunziata, Ottaviano 
28 July 1707 
20 May 1737
A lava flow invades T. del Greco; ash-fall and lahars
23 December 1760
Opening of lateral vents on southern flank (150 m asl); a lava flow toward T.Annunziata 
19 October 1767
Two lava flows toward T.Annunziata. and S. Giorgio a Cremano 
8 August 1779
Ash and bombs over Ottaviano 
15 June 1794
Opening of lateral vents on south-western flank (470 m asl); a lava flow destroys Torre del Greco 
22 October 1822
Two lava flows toward T. del Greco and Boscotrecase 
23 August 1834
A lava flow toward Poggiomarino 
6 February 1850 
1 May 1855 
A lava flow invades Massa and S.Sebastiano 
8 December 1861
Opening of lateral vents on south-western flank (290 m asl) 
15 November 1868 
24 April 1872
A lava flow invades Massa and S.Sebastiano 
4 April 1906
A lava flow toward T.Annunziata, strong explosive acivity
3 June 1929 
A lava flow toward Terzigno 
18 March 1944 
A lava flow invades Massa and S.Sebastiano 

More detailed tables with the activity in the period 1631-1944 along with contemporary engravings are available consulting the general index of the homepage

The eruptions always began with an effusive phase with lava outpouring from a fracture in the cone or from the rim of the cone. After a few days of such activity, accompanied by mild strombolian explosions, a more explosive phase followed with lava fountaining up to 2-4 km height. The last phase, characterized by the formation of a sustained eruption column, 5-15 km high, was followed by a collapse in the central crater and a period of quiescence lasting several years. Quiet lava emissions characterized the new outbreak of activity. The last eruption occurred in 1944, and the still lasting quiescent period is much longer than the repose observed in the period 1631-1944.


General references about Vesuvius

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Last modified 12 Jan 2000