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Volcanic power depicted in rare artwork

Before and after
Before, left, and after perspectives of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius Photos/Nathan Masters

After centuries of dormancy, a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius cast a column of debris more than 20 miles into the air in 79 A.D. A molten mixture of gases and pumice rained down on the Italian towns of Oplontis, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Pompeii for more than 18 hours, killing thousands of people.

The mountain of magma and rock subsequently would erupt more than three dozen times throughout history, most recently in 1944.

With nearly 3 million people living in close proximity to the volcano, geologists consider Vesuvius to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.

The destructive power of Vesuvius was captured by William Morgan in 1840 in a rare handcolored lithograph acquired by the USC Libraries.

Morgan’s “Improved Protean Scenery: Mount Vesuvius as Represented at the Surrey Zoological Gardens” is a rare example of a “transparent” print that changes in appearance when exposed to strong light. When lit from behind, the 7 by 10-inch print morphs from a daytime image of Vesuvius into a scene depicting a powerful nighttime eruption complete with flames and lava.

Interest in Vesuvius has increased dramatically in recent years, especially in response to the February eruption of Sicily’s Mount Etna, the April 2010 eruption of Iceland’s ice cap Eyjafjallajökull, which disrupted air traffic in Europe for several days, and the opening of the historic exhibition A Day in Pompeii, mounted by the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Museum Center.

To make arrangements to see USC’s lithograph of nature’s power, contact USC Libraries’ Special Collections at (213) 740-5900 or

Volcanic power depicted in rare artwork

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