The Crater of Vesuvius by Thomas Nast, in Charles Dickens's Pictures from Italy, Sketches, and American Notes, twelfth chapter, "A Rapid Diorama," page 77. Wood-engraving, 4 ¼ by 5 ¼ inches (10.7 cm high by 13.3 cm wide), vignetted. Descriptive headline: "Up Mount Vesuvius."

Passage Illustrated: The Exciting rather than Contemplative Picturesque

What with their noise, and what with the trembling of the thin crust of ground, that seems about to open underneath our feet and plunge us in the burning gulf below (which is the real danger, if there be any); and what with the flashing of the fire in our faces, and the shower of red-hot ashes that is raining down, and the choking smoke and sulphur; we may well feel giddy and irrational, like drunken men. But, we contrive to climb up to the brim, and look down, for a moment, into the Hell of boiling fire below. Then, we all three come rolling down; blackened, and singed, and scorched, and hot, and giddy: and each with his dress alight in half-a-dozen places. [Chapter Twelve, "A Rapid Diorama," 77]

Commentary: The New Picturesque — Nature Violent, Not Benign

Dickens makes his descriptions of the Italian landscapes and cityscapes highly engaging because they are "dioramic" rather than merely "picturesque." However, Nast in this Vesuvius sequence, for example, is not entirely successful at conveying Dickens's descriptions of the changing light and its effect of the atmosphere of the area around the volcano. At the mouth of the crater the illustrator depicts Dickens and his Neapolitan guide but fails to communicate the transparency of moonlight as the mountain's "red light fades, and the night comes on" (76). The intense heat of the volcanic smoke serves as a dramatic accompaniment to the scene at the summit, although Nast does cannot use it to obscure the entire scene momentarily and then reveal unobscured as a diorama could. The New Picturesque aspects of Nast's scene include a violent and menacing natural environment and a pair of figures who are central rather than incidental to the meaning of the foreign and exotic landscape — an affluent Northern European tourist and his professional tour guide (albeit attired in picturesque local costume). The chief influence on Dickens's writing in this final, long chapter of Pictures from Italy may well have been the popular entertainment capable of spectacular effects, the diorama:

. . . imagine a new cutting edge technology in which lifesized illusions of ancient or distant lands were recreated on large transluscent screens and scenes of beauty or disaster were enhanced with lights that simulated scenes containing fire, the changing seasons, and sunrises and sunsets. Dioramas were a 19th century version of virtual reality – spectacles that both entertained and filled the viewer with wonder. Illusionary, seemingly 3D, and augmented by concealed lights in back of the stage, these entertainments were shown in buildings designed to display them. [Vic]

Dickens himself probably attended many "an instructive and spectacular 'moving diorama'" (Meisel 33) in a purpose-built 19th c. auditorium constructed for the presentation of such "padoramas" as Martin Meisel describes. Dickens's friend and Christmas Book illustrator and seascape painter Clarkson Stanfield produced paintings for a number of such "moving landscapes" in the 1820s and 1830s: "Painting and painters were deeply involved with such spectacular topographic illustration in the theater, in the tradition of De Louthrbourg's Wonders of Derbyshire (1779). Though already exhibiting at the Royal Academy, Stanfield and David Roberts were leading diorama artists for the major theaters in the 1820s, and from 1828 to 1830 created an independent annual 'British Diorama,' "exhibiting views of Lago Maggiore, Tintern Abbey, the city of York, the ruins of the Temple of Apollinopolis" (Meisel, 33). Dickens would have been well aware that he was inviting comparisons between the effects of his prose and the effects of the diorama when he entitled the last chapter of the Italian travelogue "A Rapid Diorama."

Nast's half-blackened composition suggests the alternation of darkness and light that the viewer of a diorama would encounter in the slide presentation of exotic and foreign locales. Although the text mentions the considerable size of the party of tourists ascending Mount Vesuvius, the pair of illustrations that accompany this exciting episode in the long final chapter depict either nobody (From Pompeii to Vesuvius) or just two members of the party of thirty (The Crater of Vesuvius). Consequently, in this illustration Nast departs from Dickens's text. Dickens emphasizes the travellers as observers throughout the book, but the illustrator here emphasizes what the travellers observe. The American Household Edition volume (unlike the other, more sparsely illustrated editions of Pictures from Italy in the Victorian period) creates a series of intensely seen moments punctuating Dickens's rapid progress through Italy. Previous illustrators conveyed neither the writer's rapid progress nor the sublime scenery. Gordon Thomson has emphasized the people of Italy, and Samuel Palmer has emphasized the iconic historic sites of the peninsula. Nast, on the other hand, achieves an admirable balance between Italian characters and Italian places. Nast here is far less concerned with metonymy, with providing a few telling visual moments to represent all of Dickens's Pictures from Italy. In the long narrative-pictorial series Nast has been able to capture incidental as well as significant moments, sometimes, as in as The Crater of Vesuvius, combining human actors and picturesque effects.

Another Context: Paintings from the era of The Grand Tour

In illustrating the Dickens travelogue in the 1870s, Nast was probably aware of (and influenced by) paintings of Italy from the previous century, when wealthy English tourists visited Italy as part of The Grand Tour. Without the capacity of the diorama to capture the effects of changing light, Nast must have found himself limited in how effectively he could render in a single illustration the changing effects of moonlight, lava, ash, and smoke, for it is but a snapshot and Dickens's prose offers a panorama: "There is something in the fire and roar, that generates an irresistible desire to get nearer to it.  We cannot rest long, without starting off, two of us, on our hands and knees, accompanied by the head-guide, to climb to the brim of the flaming crater, and try to look in" (76-77). Nast cannot fully convey a sense of the imminent danger that the pair of climbers face as they press forward to the summit, but the surrounding prose does that for him. Nast, indeed, does not attempt to convey the response of the onlookers, the other members of the party of thirty-one that started out that afternoon: Dickens and his guide "climb to the brim of the flaming crater, and try to look in," in the process terrifying their observers "out of their wits." This, then, is the precise moment that Nast attempts to capture as he isolaties the two figures in a nightmarish landscape which had thrilled so many Romantic-era tourists on The Grand Tour.

From the period before Dickens's visit the writer and his various illustrators would have been aware of a number of visual explorations of the Romantic sense of the Sublime in spectacular paintings, prints, and drawings of Vesuvius by such prominent artists as J. M. W. Turner, Wright of Derby (Vesuvius from Portici, 1774-76), John Martin (1822),  Jacob Philipp Hackert (Vesuvius, Eruption, 1774), and  Pierre-Jacques Volaire (The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius 1777). Vesuvius was one of the most spectacular instances of the 'natural sublime' typically visited as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. The easily accessed volcano was in a constant state of activity throughout the Romantic period, and provided terrified spectators with at least six significant eruptions between 1774 and 1822. Dickens's account here shows the influence of the works of previous travel writers, including John Chetwode Eustace's A Classical Tour through Italy (1812) and Joseph Forsyth's Remarks During an Excursion in Italy (1813), both of which provide extended descriptions of the volcano and its environs that Dickens might have drawn upon, and that Nast, too, might have read.

One of the previous occupants of Dickens's Genoa residence, the Villa Bagnerello, Lord Byron (1788-1824), may well have had Mount Vesuvius in mind when in Canto XIII of Don Juan  (1823) he ridiculed the cliché of volcanic imagery in poetry:

I hate to hunt down a tired Metaphor –
So let the often-used Volcano go;
Poor thing! how frequently by me and others
It hath been stirred up, till its Smoke quite smothers. [285-8]

British painters had found inspiration in the eruptions of Vesuvius, resulting in such celebrated works as those by Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), as well as by the German Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), and by the Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729-99). These painters staged panoramic exhibitions in London and other European capitals throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Romantic Era Paintings of Italy

An additional informing context for the Nast illustration would likely be recent newspaper photographs such as Mount Vesuvius: Near the Summit of the Cone (Illustrated London News, 25 May 1872: 449), and Vesuvius from the Forum, Pompeii (Illustrated London News, 25 May 1872: 497).

The Companion Illustration of the Journey up Vesuvius: Foregrounded Ruins

Above: Thomas Nast's's realistic wood-engraving of the desolation and destruction which the volcano wrought on the surrounding landscape, From Pompeii to Vesuvius [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Relevant Marcus Stone illustrations for Pictures from Italy

Related Material

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Dickens, Charles. Chapter 12, "A Rapid Diorama." Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz, and American Notes. Illustrated by A. B. Frost and Thomas Nast. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877. 70-82.

__________. Pictures from Italy and American Notes. Illustrated by A. B. Frost and Gordon Thomson. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880. 1-381.

Meseil, Martin. Chapter 2: "Illustration and Realization." Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. 29-37.

Orestano, Francesca. "Charles Dickens and Italy: The 'New Picturesque'.” Dickens and Italy: Little Dorrit and Pictures from Italy, ed. Michael Hollington and Francesca Orestano. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2009. 49-67.

Vanfasse, Nathalie. Chaper 6, "'A Rapid Diorama': Dickens's Representation of Naples and Florence in Pictures from Italy." Dickens and Italy: Little Dorrit and Pictures from Italy, ed. Michael Hollington and Francesca Orestano. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2009. 68-79.

Vic. "The Diorama: 19th century entertainment." Jane Austen's World. 28 November 2011.

Created 20 May 2019

Last modified 14 June 2020