‘As soon as it was dark, the Musical entertainment was mixed with the sight and observation of Mount Vesuvius, then very busy. Mr Hamilton had glasses of all sorts…The sight was awful and magnificent, resembling on a great scale the most ingenious and splendid fireworks I ever saw…’
Musicologist Charles Burney, October 1770
While visitors to Naples were enchanted by nocturnal scenes of Vesuvius erupting, these events had dire consequences for the local population, as captured in this painting. The painting shows Vesuvius during the final stages of an active period that lasted from 1744 to 1761. It documents a massive eruption which took place over 13 days, from 23 December 1760 to 5 January 1761. An earthquake was followed by the emission of fumes and the expulsion of rocks from the main crater, then by a process called ‘fire fountaining’, whereby lava was shot tens of metres into the sky, powered by gases at pressure from the magma chamber below. These fire fountains on the flanks of the volcano built smaller cones, called ‘scoria cones.’ During the following days at least seven cones appeared – visible in the present painting – from which the lava made its way through settlements and agricultural land on the southern slopes of the volcano. Some buildings were destroyed on the 2nd January, and on the 5th January the main crater partly exploded. The present painting probably captures the moment just before this last episode, so can be dated to between 25th December 1760 and 2ndJanuary 1761.
Views like this one were very popular among the Grand Tourists who visited Naples throughout the eighteenth century and with the Salon-going public in Paris. Although he was a famous and respected painter, Lacroix de Marseille's biography is still obscure, partly because he moved from one city to another: Marseilles, Avignon, Nimes, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Naples. Like his master, the French Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–1789), Lacroix de Marseille began to acquire reputation in Italy and in the South of France in the 1760s, but it was only later, from 1780s onwards that he attained greater notoriety in Paris. However, unlike Vernet, Lacroix did not benefit from the patronage of the Académie de France in Rome but had to rely on commissions and passing clients. The relatively large format and the high quality of this nocturnal view would indicate that it was commissioned by a rich patron, probably a French Grand Tourist, as a memento of his visit to the city.
Signed and dated: Croix/1761.
Charles-Francois Grenier de Lacroix, known as Lacroix Marseille Vesuvius Erupting at night 1760/1 © Compton Verney