Journey into the volcano

An entry from the diary kept by Lord Wilton recording his Grand Tour in Europe, 1784-1785


Naples, 6th March, 1785

Went with Mr. Clarke to the summit of Mount Vesuvius, as far as Resina in a carriage.  From thence we ascended upon mules to the base of the large dome, where we dismounted and with the assistance of two men with leather belts over their shoulders we walked or rather scrambled up the steep ascent of the crater.

The fatigue of this is excessive as two thirds of every step we took was lost by the ashes giving way and the foot slipping back.  We were an hour and a half upon the mules and an hour and a quarter in getting to the summit of the cone.  The appearance was awful all the way as we ascended the mountain, as the mountain was frequently convulsed and kept continually throwing up quantities of red hot stones with a prodigious noise and an  immense quantity of smoke, but upon reaching the edge of the crater it was tremendous indeed.

The crater is about a mile in circumference and from 20 to 40 or 50 yards deep.  In the crater there is a large cone forming and a smaller one adjoining, both emitting smoke and fire.  There are also several places within the crater from whence issue fire and some smoke with a prodigious hissing noise.

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when we reached the top of the mountain, where we ate our cold dinner and drank our wine called Lachrima Christi; enjoying the finest view imaginable of the whole Bay of Naples and the islands near it, with the declining sun enlivening and lighting up the different objects in our front; and at our backs the fiery region of this most destructive and burning mountain.

At six we descended into the crater and viewed the opening from whence came the river or stream of red hot liquid lava.  For some way it ran very rapidly, then fell down a rock like a cascade, about 12 feet.  Its motion was slower the further it flowed and at the distance of about half a mile it divided into five streams and stopped in the valley betwixt Mount Somma.

We crossed this liquid upon a small self formed bridge of scoria which had cooled and formed an arch not thicker to appearance than a half crown piece, which we were obliged to step upon to cross the stream, and got into a little sort of cove that sheltered us from the suffocating smoke of the mountain.  In this place we remained for some length of time after it was dark, better to enjoy the tremendous fiery scene, which was much more awful and terrific in the most wonderful phenomenon of nature.

In recrossing the crater we perceived it in most places then red hot under our feet, that is, under the crust or scoria on which we stood.  The throwing up of the red hot stones or lava from the summit of the cone with the crater was attended with a previous convulsion of the earth, which we very sensibly perceived, and some shocks were very strong.

We descended to our mules by torchlight on which we rode to Resina and got back to Naples about 10 o’clock.

No worries about health and safety in the eighteenth century! It is difficult, today, to imagine professional vulcanologists, equipped with protective clothing, crossing a stream of lava with only a thin crust over it, let alone tourists.