Young Hans Christian Andersen’s Breathtaking Account of Climbing Mount Vesuvius During an Eruption
“The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky…”
By Maria Popova
Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805–August 4, 1875) revolutionized storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, driven by a cinematic sensitivity to beauty. In mid-February of 1834, while touring Europe, 29-year-old Andersen arrived in Naples just as the mighty Mount Vesuvius was in the midst of one of its then-regular and dramatic eruptions, three centuries after the first of them had drowned dozens of Italian villages in hot lava and killed an estimated 3,000 people. The flamboyant mesmerism of the event cast a spell that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — the same obscure yet remarkable volume that gave us Andersen’s little-known and lovely sketches — comes his breathtaking account of his visit to Vesuvius and his crazy quest to climb the mount as it was erupting.
In a diary entry from February 18, Andersen — a true enchanter with a penchant for cinematic storytelling — recounts his first breathtaking impressions of the fiery marvel:
I bought some drawings, walked by the sea pounding against the rocks. — It was the world’s great pulse beat that I heard. The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky… Such shades of colors on the mountains! Just as the sun went down, the red lava was glowing. Some boys played soldiers on the beach, and tramps in their brown hooded coats sat on the rocks watching them.
It may seem like a wild and rather unsafe notion today, but the eruption of Vesuvius, a regular occurrence since the middle of the 17th century, was quite the tourist attraction in Andersen’s time — so much so, that tour guides hustled for visitors’ attention. Andersen writes on February 21:
They were literally chasing me, underbidding each other… I had to say, in order to get away, that I would come back tomorrow. Then they all asked me to write down their names, and I got away by scribbling something down, and so I walked around in a small side street that seems to have been constructed entirely by lava debris.
But unperturbed by this brush with the materialistic exploitation of such a wonder, he goes on to marvel at nature’s might ablaze before him:
Smoke swirled thickly up out of Vesuvius, and the lava gave off a cloud of steam… At dusk I walked down to the sea. Vesuvius spewed great streams of lava; it blazed into the air; it was like tongues of fire flaring up. This is the most violent I have seen it.
Four days later, on February 22, Vesuvius quiets down as Andersen paints another breathtaking vignette:
The moon was shining on the dark blue water, and the waves breaking on the shore looked like a glimmering piece of embroidery. Fire was running in great streams down Vesuvius, but there was almost no smoke to be seen. — I walked out to the lighthouse and saw then in the moonlight a handsome frigate coursing under full sail into the harbor.
But then, two days later, Vesuvius reaches its climax and Andersen beholds it in breathtaking detail as he and a small group of fellow Danes set out to climb the mountain, now shaken by Vesuvius’s frequent huffs and puffs of smoke and lava:
The evening was so infinitely beautiful; the sun set like a ball of fire; the sky was a glimmering gold that shaded over into the ether-blue. The sea was like indigo, and the islands were lying like pale blue clouds on it. It was a magic world that had manifested itself… The mountains were shining so splendidly with the white snow; they lay far off in the blue sky, and close to us we could see all the red lava of Vesuvius.
By the time Andersen and his crew reached the hermitage in the mountain, it was almost dark — a perilous detail that only added to the inspired insanity of their expedition. Andersen recounts:
The wind was so biting cold that I had to get off my donkey and walk… Soon the donkeys couldn’t take us any further. We stood before the mountain itself, whose rounded contours were covered with blocks of lava and ash. We were now ascending a fairly steep grade, sinking up over our knees into ash. With every other step we slid backward by one. Large, loose rocks went sliding downward when we stepped on them.
An hour passed and we were on some sort of plain under the cauldron. Here we caught a sudden glimpse of the moon right over the crater. Coal-black smoke swirled upward; then a ball of fire and gigantic, glowing boulders rolled down onto the plain that we had to cross to get to the lava flow… There was no path at all; we had to walk and crawl between huge pieces of lava… With every eruption the moon was entirely hidden by the pitch-black smoke.
Andersen was a man at once keenly sensitive to beauty, as both his fairy tales and his travel writing attest, and afflicted by great vanity, which reared its head even in these grueling circumstances: “I sang loudly to show how little it was tiring me,” he confesses in the diary. Indeed, the entire endeavor was perhaps a manifestation of youthful vanity for a band of twenty-something men — an exercise to conquer danger for no good reason, except the vainglory of living to tell about it. And their bravado only accelerated as the danger got more intense:
After a while we could feel the heat coming up from underneath us. In order to see the new lava flow we had to cross one that had been flowing the night before; only the outermost crust was black and hard, and red fire was burning in the cracks. We stepped out onto it; it burned our feet through the soles of our shoes. If the crust had broken, we would have sunk into a sea of fire. Then we saw the monstrous stream of fire pouring slowly, thick and red like porridge, down the mountains. The sulphur fumes were so strong; the fire was burning our feet, so that after two minutes we had to go back. All around we saw fissures of fire. There was a whooshing sound coming from the crater, like when all at once a flock of birds starts up from a forest.
Ultimately, however, one has to give Andersen the benefit of the doubt and trust that the hazardous undertaking was for the sake of beauty, driven by a longing to get as close as humanly possible to nature’s source, to that fiery frontier of life and death, of beauty and suffering, from which true awe springs. It was beauty, ultimately, that Andersen took away:
The lava looked like colossal, fallen stars. — We rode again over the black lava field. I hung back from the others in order to watch the matchless play of nature.
The voyage to Vesuvius is but a sliver of the richness found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen, an exquisite read in its entirety — a treasure trove that blends breathtaking travel writing with rare insight into the great storyteller’s soul. Complement it with the most beautiful illustrations from 150 years of Andersen fairy tales.
Published April 4, 2014