by Richard Ong
Pliny the Elder was a consummate scholar and a respected Roman naval commander. Much of our understanding on how Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79 comes from his observations as well as from his surviving nephew, Pliny the Younger.
Pliny the Elder led a fleet of fast-moving ships in response to a plea of help from a family friend towards a colony at the foot of erupting Mount Vesuvius. Unfortunately, he succumbed to the toxic effects of the air around him. His surviving crew members returned to relate what happened. Pliny the Younger continued his uncle’s observation of Mount Vesuvius from the safety of his home.
Pliny the Elder is well-known for his publication of his Natural History, detailing his scientific observations of various species of the animal kingdom, among other things in nature. Curiously, in Book IX, he also included a short entry on his description of the Nereids. The Nereids were known for the occasional help they provided sailors. Pliny the Elder’s writings were among the earliest scientific observations known on the subject of mermaids.
In my painting, I envision a time when a Nereid tried to warn Pliny the Elder — perhaps the same one he had encountered in his younger years — to turn back and not to approach Mount Vesuvius. Being more of a scientist than anything else, Pliny the Elder was fascinated by the creature and the explosive events happening on Mount Vesuvius. This error in judgment would cost him his life.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius did not generate any visible lava, at least not according to both Pliny the Elder’s and Pliny the Younger’s accounts. Pompeii and Herculaneum were devastated by the fall of “frozen” magma and rocks. The people who didn’t die of asphyxiation or burial by these falling objects were instantly incinerated by the billowing, superheated plasma of smoke and ash that rolled over them. Daylight was obliterated by a dark mass that filled the sky and deadly debris rained down on the two cities.
In my depiction, I decided that the artistic form would benefit from the brighter and more colorful display of the lava. Adhering to historical accuracy would have reduced the painting to a dark and gloomy rendering of the unfolding drama. The fire from the volcano also served as a device to light up the water around the Nereid.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard Ong