Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry February 2011
from the series

  Through the Eyes of...

1. The New York Times: published April 15, 1906. This is a feature on Raffaele Matteucci (1846-1909), the director of the Vesuvius Observatory during the great eruption of 1906. The eruption started on April 4 and continued for over a week. By the date of this article, the worst was over and the NYT ran this feature praising Matteucci. The article carried no by-line. The photography and captions here below were not part of the original article.

2. The green box at the bottom was added on Jan 8, 2019. It is on  Matteucci's assistant, Frank A. Perret and is not part of the original article.

Eyes of the World on the Hero of Vesuvius

Professor Matteucci, Whose Defiance of the Volcano's Outbreak
and Encouraging Messages Saved Naples from a Panic

Vesuvius, April 1906: the eruptive column
as it starts to collapse under its own weight.
Photo by F.A. Perret, Matteucci's assistant.

    Vesuvius eruption 1906There are many kinds of heroes. There is the heroism of the soldier who fights to the end and dies rather than surrender, of the sailor who stays in the sinking ship so that passengers can be saved, of the physician or the nurse who remains in a plague-ridden city, of the fireman or the policeman who regards it as no more than his duty to imperil his own life if others are in need of aid.

    But of all forms of heroism, surely that of the man who faces death in a dozen different ways, not for a moment or a minute or an hour, but hour after hour and day after day, is the highest. On such a man the eyes of the world have been turned during the past week. R.V. Matteucci, the Director of the Royal Observatory on Mount Vesuvius, has remained at his post during the eruption of the volcano, the most awful outbreak of Vesuvius since that in A.D. 79, when Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed.

    He has stayed there, in the ruins of the observatory, early wrecked by the hot ashes thrown from the crater of the volcano. His friends implored him to save himself, but he believed that during this terrible time, if at any time at all, his duty demanded that he remain—that he could be of real help to the many thousands of people living near the volcano by warning them when further peril was impending, and by reassuring them when the volcano began to show signs of having spent its force.


    And in this belief he has been justified. On Tuesday and Wednesday, when even in Naples there was a veritable panic, when the people believed that the city was about to be blotted out, when the prisoners of the jail mutinied, and the poorer classes, declaring that the authorities were to blame for the loss of many lives, were ready for any excess, it was the messages from Matteucci that furnished the one note of hope. It is, indeed, more than probable that they turned the scale at the critical moment and averted a terrible outbreak on the part of the population.

    The knowledge that this man, in the midst of peril far greater, indescribably greater than that of any inhabitant of Naples, remained cool and full of faith that conditions were about to grow brighter, must surely have served to calm the fears of thousands.

    "If my words," said Matteucci on Wednesday morning, "could influence the population, they would be words of encouragement and sympathy, for I am most confident that Vesuvius will soon return to its normal conditions."

    When this message was sent the outbreak was at its height, and the situation of Matteucci and the half dozen carbineers who shared his peril in the ruins of the observatory cannot even be imagined. We know that enormous masses of stone were being ejected from the crater; that lava was coursing down the mountainside, destroying everything in its path; that even at Naples, the ashes covered everything like a snowstorm, and that the "scoriae," as the smaller stones are called, to distinguish them from the larger stones, which are called "bombs," were falling as far away as Capri. What must have been the situation a mile and a half from the centre of the crater?


    But, whatever happened, it was not enough to upset Matteucci's nerve. On Friday, as soon as it became evident that his prediction had been accurate and that the volcano was considerably calmer, he set out from the observatory, not for Naples to get some rest after his frightful experience, but—up toward the crater! "At the imminent risk of his own life," said the dispatches, which seems superfluous.

    It was no daredevil trip that he undertook, simply to go where no one else would dream of venturing. His journey toward the crater served still further to quiet the alarm of the populace, for Matteucci found that, unless the conditions changed radically, there would be no further discharge of lava. He ascertained that the cone of the volcano had diminished considerably in height and that the showers of cinders thrown out had been transformed into ashes, and therefore he believed the end of the great disturbance was near.

    The same day Matteucci sent another comforting message to Naples. He said:
    "Very little is known of the volcanic forces, so one can never safely predict what is going to happen. But I think I can with some confidence express the hope, based on my experience here, that the explosive period of the eruption has passed. It is impossible to make a positive statement to this effect, but the probabilities point to a quieting down of the volcano. This however, does not mean this its activity will entirely cease.

    "Until the crater definitely assumes its new shape—that is to say, when the ridges have been smoothed down—there is a possibility of further disturbances. For the present the light wind blowing, will in all probability, carry the ashes in a direction which will leave Naples free from further annoyance of this nature, and as it is, the ill wind is blowing good to other places, for ashes are the best fertilizer it is possible to use. It is merely a question just now of having too much of a good thing."

A newer observatory was built in 1970.
 It is a short distance away from the
original building on the same ridge.

                  observatorySix years ago the scientific world was startled by reading that an observer had camped for three days on the edge of the crater of Vesuvius while the volcano was in violent eruption. At that time the boiling lava was within 200 feet of the top of the crater, enormous stones were thrown out, and great quantities of the scoriae. The observer who camped on the edge of the crater was Prof. Matteucci, who had then been the Director of the Royal Observatory for four years.

    The details later received regarding the proceedings of the professor only served to increase the general wonder at his intrepidity. It was related how, on one occasion, when he was camping, not on the edge of the crater, but on the mountainside some distance below, the volcano threw up a block of stone of extraordinary size. It rose on the air and came down within a few yards of Matteucci.

    What was Matteucci doing in the meanwhile? Running away as fast as his legs could carry him? No. He was standing with a stop-watch in his hand, carefully counting the seconds during which the great mass of stone remained in the air. It was up seventeen seconds, and, by weighing the stone afterward and going into various elaborate computations, Matteucci was able to announce that the stone, which had traveled at the rate of 300 feet a second, had been ejected from the volcano with a force equaling 607,995 horse power.
    A man who could do this could do anything, and perhaps he has been reckoning the horse power within Vesuvius which has been behind the outbreak of last week.


    Matteucci has had three famous predecessors in the observatory, all of whom displayed heroism when the volcano was in eruption. The first Director was the great Melloni, who died in 1854. It was he who suggested to the Neapolitan Government the advisability of erecting an observatory on Mount Vesuvius, and pointed out the most suitable site for such an institution—a ridge 1,995 feet above the level of the sea and not far from the crater, which was sufficiently high to divide, except under extraordinary conditions, a stream of lava from the volcano.

    Melloni's suggestions were adopted, and the observatory was established in 1841. Melloni was appointed Director and remained at his post for several years, but then the Italian revolutionary troubles broke out, and Melloni, who was an ardent revolutionist, was forced to flee from the country. The observatory was closed for a long time, but in 1860 it was reopened under the control of Naples University and has remained open ever since. The arrangement is that the Professor of Terrestrial Physics at the University is also Director of the Vesuvius Observatory.

    The first holder of the combined posts was Prof. Palmieri. He remained at the observatory throughout the great eruption of 1872. That the buildings were not then utterly destroyed was regarded as hardly short of miraculous. Every window was broken, the structure was set on fire more than once, and the lava flowed so close to it that it seemed impossible that the observatory could escape. Palmieri, unlike Matteucci during last week's eruption, was completely cut off from communication with other human beings.

    It was in the eruption of 1872 that a huge stream of lava issued from the Atrio del Cavallo with such suddenness as to overtake and bury twenty persons of a crowd of spectators who had gathered there to watch the spectacle, while others were badly hurt  by stones ejected from the crater. At the entrance of the observatory is a slab on which is an inscription in memory of those who perished.


    Prof. Palmieri was succeeded by Prof. Semmola, and he in turn was succeeded by Prof. Matteucci.
    In an article printed in The Cosmopolitan Magazine  last October Prof. Matteucci described some of his experiences on the volcano, and the article was illustrated with photographs taken by the author which showed more clearly than words the perilous nature of the professor's work. There is one photograph of the beginning of a great explosion in the crater, taken apparently, from a point within a few feet of the crater's edge, which is calculated to cause the same feeling in the person who looks at it as the Japanese picture of a ghost —a tendency, that is to say, toward cold shivers down the spine and the raising of the hair.

    "I love my mountain," said Matteucci in the article in The Cosmopolitan. "She and I dwell together in solitude mysterious and terrible. The lustre of her awful brow lights up the night far out at sea; her moods are many and various—a mistress most imperious, whose wrath is more terrible than an army with banners.

    "I could not leave her. I am wedded to her forever; my few friends say the her breath will scorch and wither my poor life one of these days; that she will bury my house in streams of liquid metal or raze it to its very foundations. Already she has hurt me, has injured me sorely. Yet I forgive her, I wait upon her, I am hers always."


    The reference to "sore injury" by the volcano is to an accident that happened to Prof. Matteucci in 1900 and which confined him to his bed in a Naples hospital for many months. He was injured when he was taking just such a photograph as the one already alluded to. He was near the edge of the crater while the volcano was displaying enormous activity. In some mysterious manner, known only to the expert seismologist, he became aware that a still greater outbreak was imminent. He called to his assistants to run, and started running himself. Their progress was impeded by the great quantities of scoriae with which the cone was covered, and, in addition, as Matteucci naïvely says, they kept on looking back at the crater to watch the action of the volcano, "even though thereby we should court a fate worse than that of Lot's wife."

    When Matteucci was about sixty feet from the edge of the crater—the others had run quicker than he—there was a terrific explosion. He stopped to look back again, and in instant he was in the midst of a shower of stones. He bent down, trying with his arms and hands to save his head. His camera was smashed, and, while stooping to recover the lens, Matteucci slipped and fell into a mass of burning ashes.

    Although he was in great pain he gathered up the pieces of his camera, "for it contained so many very valuable films," and then crawled down the mountainside. He did not at first realize that he had been badly hurt, but it was later found that he been seriously bruised on the face and body and that his right knee had been struck by an enormous "bomb."


    In the article in The Cosmopolitan, Matteucci tells of his daily work on the volcano. "It consists," he says "of observing dynamic and meteorological phenomena; noting carefully the movements and aspects of the volcano, and classifying and rearranging all the existing and newly gathered materials.

    "I rise with or before the sun, and do my own cooking. Naturally that is not elaborate, frequently consisting of bread and cheese, or a dish of macaroni, which requires very little 'cooking' indeed. How can I, when my beloved volcano is in eruption, and I should be counting the number of explosions per minute, occupy my mind with thoughts of mere food? Every day I calculate the total number of explosions, examine and collect the matter ejected, and take photographs at very close range.

    "Sometimes in the dead of night, or at dawn, my guides take out my laboratory tent and pitch it on the very verge of the crater, or on the side of the cone. During the last and present year, Vesuvius has been in what I call a 'Stromboli' phase—that is, eruptions of projectiles only, without the issue of liquid lava. This activity has kept me on the alert for many months.

    "I have, indeed, many drawbacks in my work. Not only do tourists take up my time, but I am also injuriously affected by the electric railroad, which takes them to the Upper Funicular Station below the crater. I am now advising the university to build a supplementary laboratory, for the observation of electric and magnetic phenomena at a considerable distance from this tourist railroad, which, being an electric system, affects my instruments very seriously."

    When the latest eruption of Vesuvius began Prof. Matteucci was being assisted in his work by Frank Alvord Perret, an American, who is the honorary Assistant Director of the observatory. Mr. Perret, whose home is in Brooklyn, is a young electrical engineer, who went to Naples for the benefit of his health about eighteen months ago and became a friend of Prof. Matteucci. Later the Professor made Mr. Perret his assistant.


    It is almost certain that the wonderful collections in the Vesuvius Observatory have been destroyed as a result of the eruption. The accumulation of these collections was begun by Palmieri, and many remarkable specimens were added by Matteucci. They included lava fragments, crystals, curious "bombs," and minerals unknown to the scientist of to-day.

    Palmieri also began the formation of a library in the observatory, and under Matteucci it was enlarged until it included practically every volume ever written on Vesuvius from the earliest times to the present day.
    The scientific instruments in the observatory were of an elaborate and complete character, and represented a large cash outlay. Palmieri was the inventor of the seismoscope.

    The observatory was a picturesque building of two stories, containing, in addition to the rooms for scientific work, apartments for the Director. It was surmounted by a turret, from which marvelous views could be obtained—on the one side of sunlit country and sparkling sea, and on the other of the desolate scene around the crater.


Added on 8 January 2019.
Frank A. Perret
1867, Conn., USA - 1943, New York City, USA

Frank Alvord Perret is mentioned in the main article as the photographer of the photo at the upper right of the entry and also as Matteucci's assistant. I am indebted to author Marius Kociejowski [MK] for pointing out to me that Perret was, indeed, quite a bit more than that. He deserves at least this tiny reminder of just what a remarkable person he was. MK's material on Perret is in his forthcoming book The Serpent Coiled in Naples in the chapter entitled "Signor Volcano," also linked in the excerpts table (below) as #10 and #10-

Perret is listed in various sources as "an American entrepreneur, inventor, and volcanologist," the last of which drew noteworthy attention with his research on Mt. Vesuvius, Kilauea in Hawaii, Mount Pelée (the volcano on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean), Mt. Etna on Sicily, Mt. Teide in the Canary Islands and Mt. Sakurajima in Japan. He founded volcanology observatories on Kilauea and Martinique. A 1950 tribute on Perret by Mildred Gibbon of the Carnegie Instituion Geophysical Laboratory (CIGL, or simply GL) in Wahington DC said that his monograph on Vesuvius was "the clearest and most comprehensive report on a volcanic eruption and its aftermath ever published."

Perret started out as an electrical engineer and, indeed, perhaps because of the new electronic climate of the times, he comes across as possessed of the kind of nervous energy that must have driven the likes of Tesla, Edison, and Steinmetz. He studied physics at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and then went to work in the laboratories of Thomas Edison in New York City where he worked on the development of engines and dynamos. In 1886, He founded the Elektron Manufacturing Company, a small company that designed and produced electronic devices and batteries. (That company eventually was acquired by the Otis Elevator Company.) He had a number of patents and his work includes designs for an electric car. He was, it seemed, born for the new world of electricity.

But strange things happen. Due to health problems he left his company in 1904 and went to Italy.  He settled in Naples, met Matteucci, wound up his assistant and eventually became one of the most respected volcanologists in the world. He lived in Naples until 1921, during which time he  undertook trips to study other volcanoes. During the 1906 eruption of Vesuvius, Frank Perret rendered valuable aid in transmitting messages to calm the people of Naples and was cited by the King of Italy for his service.
Pelée and the modern town of Saint-Pierre

In the 1920s and '30s Perret travelled, did his research and wrote. During those years he spent a total of about 10 of them on the island of Martinique, originally to study the eruptions of Mt. Pelée (image, right) that started in 1929 and continued into 1932. It was the first volcanic activity of Pelèe since the cataclysm of 1902, one of the most powerful eruptions of the early 20th century anywhere on Earth. It totally obliterated Saint-Pierre, called the "Paris" of the Caribbean, killing the entire population of 30,000. Perret didn't want to miss this one and went to extraordinary — even foolhardy lengths to ensure that he got every detail. He had a small observation station on the slopes of Pelée. Once, as a fast-moving current of hot gas and volcanic matter (known as a pyroclastic flow) approached the station, he climbed inside the station, sealed all the vents as best he could, put on an oxygen mask and waited to see what these clouds looked like from the inside! He fainted from the heat and was burned, but lived to write it up for his monograph on Pelée that he then wrote for the GL. The Perret volcanology monographs are a valuable part of the GL archives. As in Naples, he behaved heroically in aid of the population and was made an honorary citizen of Martinique. There is a volcanology museum named for him in the town of Saint-Pierre.

Perret returned to America and held a position at the GL from 1931 until his death in 1943. In the same tribute to him cited above, the author said “scientific contributions of Mr. Perret are unique in that no other volcanologist had the time and opportunity to make so thorough and varied observations on so many types of active volcanoes. He was a daring and sagacious researcher, indefatigable in his quest for information. He was a proficient and discerning photographer, and his publications are freely illustrated with fine pictorial records."

This paragraph added in August, 2019:
One Italian writer, Giuseppe Peluso, interested in the story of Frank A. Perret sends this paragraph, although he does not cite his own source for what he writes. But, for the record:

The strange device is an old geophone, or an acoustical horn, relatively common until the development of modern electrical acoustical equipment. This was Perret's own favorite among his many inventions. It was a simple contact microphone, then a receiver that was really a slightly modified normal telephone, both mounted on an old animal sternum and inserted into an empty gasoline can and buried six meters down on the flank of the volcano. The purpose of mounting the receiver on bone (the sternum) was to keep the receiver from coming into direct contact with the metal can and, hence, from the soil around the can.
Author of The Serpent Coiled in Naples, Marius Kociejowski [MK], points out that Perret's remarkable article, "The Day's Work of a Volcanologist" appeared in The World's Work for 1907 (New York, Doubleday & sons), (currently held in the Princeton University library). Perret writes of his travels and adventures on various volcanoes around the world concisely and articulately and yet full of passion and adventure:
The heat here was terrific -- radiant heat from the incandescent mass of this beautiful river of death...and then with a bellowing roar, the great fissure extended itself a hundred yards. The solid rock of the mountainside was torn as one tears a piece of cloth, and the white-hot lava shot a hundred feet into the air in sheets of liquid fire before it fell...and how we did run!
He speaks of using a "microphone" and a "stethoscope". In one hand he holds a microphone and in the other a receiver of some kind. The wires are attached to the top of a metal cone, which acts as an ear-trumpet. He is listening to the movements of the underworld. Perret proudly by-lined his article, "honorary assistant of the Royal Vesuvian Observatory."

Kociejowski, in his final thought on the current plight of Solfatara, the active volcano 'park' in Pozzuoli, now closed, pays eloquent tribute to Perret:
I’ll settle on that image of Frank Alvord Perret, breathing in the fumes, l’americano, who had a knack for making do with whatever materials were available, in this instance a metal horn shaped like a witch’s hat, a receiver and a microphone, wires connecting all three, which he then composed into something resembling a giant stethoscope ― ‘the hero of Vesuvius’, Frank Alvord Perret, arguably the greatest volcanologist of them all, eavesdropping on the guttural rumblings of a world Virgil had centuries before sung into verse.
Frank A. Perret is buried in Brooklyn, New York. 

These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's  [MK]The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts in Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item from MK (after #15) .

related entries: Mt. Vesuvius;   Vesuvius Observatory;   Vesuvius (recent eruptions);
The Wonderful Wizard of Chittenango.

index for this series, 'Through the Eyes of...'        to top of this page

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