From scorched Pompeii scrolls to diaries of climbing Vesuvius: Stunning exhibition charts our deadly fascination with volcanoes

Whether as signposts to an underworld or as fascinating displays of the natural world, volcanic eruptions have captured our imaginations for centuries. 

Now curators of a new exhibition hope that looking back at this rich history will help us learn valuable lessons about how best to reduce the effects of future volcanic disasters.

The exhibition, which will open at the Bodleian Library in Oxford next year, will include encounters with volcanoes in letters, reports, diaries and through sketches and illustrations.

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A new exhibition will open at the Bodleian Library in Oxford next year, which will include encounters with volcanoes in letters, reports, diaries and through sketches and illustrations. Pictured is a summit crater photo of Soufrière St Vincent taken in 1977

A new exhibition will open at the Bodleian Library in Oxford next year, which will include encounters with volcanoes in letters, reports, diaries and through sketches and illustrations. Pictured is a summit crater photo of Soufrière St Vincent taken in 1977

The exhibition, which is simply titled ‘Volcanoes’, will include accounts from Sir William Hamilton.

Sir Hamilton was Britain’s special envoy to the Spanish court at Naples and, from the first time he laid eyes on it, he was fascinated by Mount Vesuvius.

Eruptions in 1767, 1779, and 1794 enabled Hamilton to observe changes to Vesuvius’ crater, and he is thought to have climbed the volcano more than 65 times.

Hamilton wrote one of the first descriptive monographs of an active volcano.

Among the objects on display will be papyrus scrolls that were salvaged from the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, as well as paintings commissioned by Hamilton.

This glimpse into real-life accounts of volcanoes could help scientists understand how they behave.

The exhibition, which is simply titled 'Volcanoes', will include accounts from Sir William Hamilton, who was fascinated by Mount Vesuvius throughout the 18th century. Hamilton used this image to show that volcanoes don't always erupt from their summit

The exhibition, which is simply titled ‘Volcanoes’, will include accounts from Sir William Hamilton, who was fascinated by Mount Vesuvius throughout the 18th century. Hamilton used this image to show that volcanoes don’t always erupt from their summit

Among the objects on display will be papyrus scrolls that were salvaged from the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD

Among the objects on display will be papyrus scrolls that were salvaged from the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD

An illustration shows the explosive eruption of Vesuvius viewed from Naples in 1822, as drawn by George Poulett Scrope
This sketch shows an eruption plume from Krakatoa in 1883, as drawn by Wilhelm Trübner

Several drawings and illustrations of Vesuvius are included in the exhibition, including those by George Poulett Scrope (left) and Wilhem Trübner (right) 

David Pyle, curator of the exhibition, said: ‘Humans have lived with volcanoes for millions of years, yet scientists are still grappling with questions about how they work.

‘This exhibition features historical representations and ideas about volcanoes that are captivating and dramatic but most importantly these works provide scientists today with valuable insights into how these enigmatic phenomena behave. 

‘Looking back at history can help us learn valuable lessons about how best to reduce the effects of future volcanic disasters.’

SIR WILLIAM HAMILTON  

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), was Britain’s special envoy to the Spanish court at Naples.

From the first time he laid eyes on it, Hamilton was fascinated by Mount Vesuvius.

Eruptions in 1767, 1779, and 1794 enabled Hamilton to observe changes to the crater.

He is thought to have climbed Mount Vesuvius more than 65 times, documenting his travels in books from 1779 to 1794.

This monitoring allowed him to correlate the density of the volcano’s smoke and ash clouds with the weather and to analyse the volcano’s effect on the fertility of the soil in the area.

This painting shows the eruption of Vesuvius in 1779, seen from Naples
A night time view is shown of the eruption of Vesuvius in 1779

These gouache paintings by Pietro Fabris appeared in the supplement to William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, 1779

Extraordinarily detailed sketches by Athanasius Kircher, which date back to the seventeenth century will also be on display.

Kircher’s interest in geology, and particularly in volcanoes and earthquakes, were highly documented in twelve books between 1664 and 1678.

Richard Ovenden, librarian at the Bodleian Library, said: ‘Volcanoes are one of the most extraordinary marvels of the natural world and have fascinated us for millennia.

‘This exhibition draws on both the rich collections held at the Bodleian and cutting edge scientific research to demonstrate the power and fascination of volcanoes through time.’  

One of Kircher's drawings shows Mount Etna in 1637
This drawing by Kircher shows an illustration of subterranean fires

Extraordinarily detailed sketches by Athanasius Kircher, which date back to the seventeenth century will also be on display. One of Kircher’s drawings shows Mount Etna in 1637 (left) and another shows an illustration of subterranean fires (right)

William Dunn's diary for July 1783, records the 'putrid air' across England following the eruption of Laki, a volcano in Iceland

William Dunn’s diary for July 1783, records the ‘putrid air’ across England following the eruption of Laki, a volcano in Iceland

The images are found in a book called The eruption of Krakatoa
The paintings depict the vivid colours seen over Chelsea

William Ascroft’s watercolours show red sunsets seen from Chelsea, London, in autumn 1883 after the great eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia

This cross-sectional diagram of Mount Chimborazo was drawn by Alexander von Humboldt, and shows information on temperature, altitude, humidity, atmospheric pressure, and the animal and plants found at each elevation

This cross-sectional diagram of Mount Chimborazo was drawn by Alexander von Humboldt, and shows information on temperature, altitude, humidity, atmospheric pressure, and the animal and plants found at each elevation

The exhibition will also display the earliest known manuscript illustration of a volcano, which was found in the margin of a 14th century account of the voyage of St Brendan, an Irish monk who travelled across the North Atlantic in the 6th century.  

Diaries and paintings from the 18th and 19th century that capture the distant effects and freak weather conditions caused by major volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Indonesia will also be included.

These varied and compelling accounts through the years will be displayed at the exhibition from February until May 2017.

Alexander von Humboldt published several drawings in his book,'Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent' in 1810 

Alexander von Humboldt published several drawings in his book,’Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent’ in 1810 

These drawings, taken from the supplement to the 1779 edition of William Hamilton¿s Campi Phlegraei, show the styles of eruptive activity at Vesuvius

These drawings, taken from the supplement to the 1779 edition of William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, show the styles of eruptive activity at Vesuvius

A 19th century infographic by natural historian Charles Daubeny shows the comparative heights of volcanic mountains

A 19th century infographic by natural historian Charles Daubeny shows the comparative heights of volcanic mountains

The earliest known manuscript illustration of a volcano, found in the margin of a 14th century account of the voyage of St Brendan, an Irish monk who travelled across the North Atlantic in the 6th century
Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein in the terrible, rainy summer of 1816, which was known as a 'year without summer' due to the 1815 eruption of Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia

Several diary entries are included in the exhibition, including the earliest depiction of a volcano (left) and an extract from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein