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Natural history

Vesuvius: The most famous volcano in the world

Gillian Darley (Profile Books, £15.99, *£13.99)

Vulcanology, like many things, isn’t what it was. Vesuvius has been quiescent since its last eruption in 1944. But last year, an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjalla-jökull, more easily known by its numeronym E15, reminded us all of the astonishing power of magma-and aeronautical engines’ distaste for volcanic ash. Suddenly, volcanoes and those who study them were very much in vogue. In universities, the subject is continuing to regain ground once lost to Hair-dressing & Salon Management.

So Gillian Darley’s study of the patriarchal Vesuvius is timely. And fear not: stratigraphy, geodetic tilt and spectrometry are conspicuous by their absence. There is no dry science here. Instead, within a refreshingly straightforward, chronological structure, Miss Darley gives us a homocentric account of Vesuvius. Beginning with the first eruption we know of, in about 1600bc, she moves elegantly on to Spartacus, the rebelling gladia-tor, camping in the (then dormant) crater with his army in ad73. To the Plinys, elder and younger, who witnessed Vesuvius’s most (in)famous eruption in ad79 and its effect on Pompeii, she devotes justifiable care.

But it was with the 18th and 19th centuries, and often eccentric and ever-itinerant Englishmen, that Vesuvian studies came of age. Miss Darley is a sympathetic and informed raconteur of the likes of George Berkeley, the Anglo-Irish empirical philosopher and divine, who witnessed ‘Vesuvius in action’ over a period of eight weeks or so in 1717. Imagine sounds, he wrote, ‘made up of the raging of a tempest, the murmur of a troubled sea, and the roaring of thunder and artillery, confused all together’. Perhaps Berkeley’s central credo, esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived, was forged in those molten fires?

On Miss Darley goes. Of the scholarly Sir William Hamilton (husband of Emma, beloved by Nelson) and his passion for Vesuvius, she gives considered exegesis. Among others, Goethe, the Shelleys and Charles Dickens follow-before Thomas Cook arrives and proto-package tourism begins. Rapacious guides are a constant, as is the enduring belief in the powers of the local saint to avert catastrophe.

In the best tradition of English letters, this is a book of which even Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, would roar his approval.