Vesuvius Observatory: history and science

Gentlemen, we have caught lightning in the sky;

but what it is and what follows at a little depth

in this land that we all tread

and where we all have life and death,

it is still a great mystery to us.

May God keep me from presumer much of myself,

I dare to promise to raise this serious veil,

where s exterminated more vigorous hand

unfortunately felt their impotence.

Macedonio Melloni, 1845 speech at the opening of the Meteorological Vesuvian Observatory

by Ciro Langella –

Living in the shadow of an active volcano is not easy, especially if the volcano in question is an active one; this fact often creates alarmism, sometimes justified as resulting from in-depth studies, and sometimes not justified because from not properly scientific  sources  that trigger unnecessary fear in a population that often has had to deal with the overwhelming and devastating force of nature .

In this weird picture a staple and reassuring point is represented by the Vesuvius Observatory, an institution dedicated to volcanology and geophysics research applied to the active volcanoes that, since 1841, continuously monitors our beloved – hated volcano.

The story of the Vesuvius Observatory

[cml_media_alt id='5006']Sede Osservatorio Vesuviano[/cml_media_alt]

Sede Osservatorio Vesuviano

Its foundation dates back to the Bourbon kingdom of Naples with Ferdinand II and appears to be in effect the oldest institution of this type in the world.

Key figure in the establishment of the Observatory was Teodoro Monticelli, then permanent secretary of the Academy of Sciences of Naples, who both pushed until he was granted for the establishment of the Observatory, whose direction was entrusted to the physicist Macedonio Melloni, scholar of liberal ideas that had wandered Europe clutching scientific collaborations with distinguished mainly English and French colleagues.

On July 10, 1839 Melloni was appointed Director thus starting the official history of the Vesuvius.

Meanwhile starts the construction of the office, an elegant neoclassical building designed by Fazzini and located on the hill of the Savior between Herculaneum and Torre of Greek  at 608 meters above sea level so as to be repaired by lava flows and the dangerous rains of  lapilli and incandescent materials during eruptions.

The building is delivered, although not yet completed, at the VII Congress of Scientists held in Naples in 1845, the prestigious showcase that landed in Naples with great expectations and a lot of interest right on the thrust of scientific curiosity towards Vesuvius itself.

In fact, the observatory becomes operative on March 1848, the same year during that Melloni, because of his liberal ideas, is removed  from his role.

Distinguished scientists at the direction of the Observatory

[cml_media_alt id='5015']Giuseppe Mercalli [/cml_media_alt]

Giuseppe Mercalli

The following years were a succession of directors of great scientific importance as Luigi Palmieri, inventor of an innovative seismograph developed during  the years of his stay at the Observatory; Raffaele Vittorio Matteucci, Giuseppe Mercalli, father of the scale of intensity of earthquakes, who monitored several eruptions of Vesuvius; personalities who distinguished themselves in many cases for the courage shown in observation even in cases off-limits because of ongoing eruptions.

During the direction of Palmieri there was a dramatic event that saw involved some students who, during the eruption of 1872, driven by curiosity to observe the eruptive phenomenon, they were surprised by the sudden opening of a lava flow that hit them relentlessly.

Over the years, the observatory will be equipped with ever more sophisticated instruments and at the direction of the geophysicist Joseph Imbò begin an important work of structural modernization with the collaboration of Japanese researchers.

It was during the years of the direction of Imbò that occurred the last eruption of Vesuvius in 1944, right in the middle of the Allied operations of World War II; eruption that so much wonder and curiosity aroused in the allies who have left interesting filmed testimonies of those days.

Since 2001, the Observatory is the Neapolitan section of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and its activities are focused on the study and monitoring of active volcanoes  which includes, over  Vesuvius in Campania, the Campi Flegrei and the island of Ischia which is less talk but that are scientifically of great interest.

Moreover, the Observatory also controls the activity of the volcano Stromboli in Sicily in collaboration with Sicilian sections ING. The carried out research includes the different fields of geophysics, volcanology and geochemistry with the primary objective of understanding the processes which generate volcanic eruptions through the decoding of the data.

The Observatory carries out fundamental research in addition to monitoring activities and uses sophisticated instruments overseeing moment by moment life of volcanoes in question; on Mount Vesuvius are installed tools that continuously monitor the ground deformation, seismic activity, gas emissions and fumaroles.

The ongoing work of analysis of data from the instruments is carried out by the researchers according to an interdisciplinary approach that ensures that the collected data are decrypted as fully as possible.

Reopens the Observatory Museum

Pietre Vesuviane

Alongside the scientific activity in recent years has gone widening popular activity of the Observatory, which has its center in the historical site of the hill of the Savior, today a museum, library and laboratories, while the Surveillance Center has been stationed in Naples.

After a period of closure due to renovation work, on Saturday May 23 in 2015, reopens the Observatory Museum with a ceremony full of events, including recognition as a Historic Site of Physics awarded by the European Physical Society ‘(EPS).

Until September, also, the Centre will host the exhibition “The Walk: Hikers and Vesuvius”, the result of a training of foreign students applying practice “Stalker” the Stalker Walking School (SWS) crossed in 3 days walk through the Vesuvius area, starting from the crest of Mount Vesuvius to Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, to see the sights and get in contact with those who live there. Interesting collaboration is emerging between the organizers of the group of associations and Sws, united under the project Scrigni Vesuviani.

Restart, then, guided tours between science and history at the historical site of the Observatory who have already seen in the past an important participation of schools, return to being an important educational and cultural center, as well as raise awareness of the seismic and volcanic phenomena; to complete the Museum, a multimedia track: a really interesting and rich window for visitors will be open on the world of volcanoes and also home to antique scientific instruments used for the Volcanological and seismological observations from its founding to the present.

Article written for Pompeiitaly by Ciro Langella –

wesuvio is a project born with the aim of enhancing the human, historical, cultural and environmental heritage of the area at the foot of the most famous volcano in the world.


I thank the friends of the cultural association WESUVIO, based at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, which as we do, work with commitment, dedication and heart by promoting all that is wonderful in this area.

See you next time


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