"For me, the best part was being that close to an active volcano," says painter Alexis Rockman. "Especially because it wasn't exploding." That particular rush is what has been drawing people to Mount Vesuvius since the 18th century. There was the exoticism of the lava-sculpted southern landscape, the romance of the newly uncovered city of Pompeii, even the possibility of some highbrow titillation in the form of pornographic frescoes. And, of course, there was always the chance that the volcano might go off again. The first recorded eruption, in A.D. 79, buried both Pompeii and its most famous observer, the naturalist and scholar Pliny the Elder. But the mountain didn't disappoint later visitors, blowing its top with some regularity in the late 1700's.
The 41-year-old Rockman has long been interested in the often violent collisions of man and nature—and their strange consequences. He has painted farms stocked with six-legged featherless chickens, as well as postapocalyptic landscapes populated with giant killer rats. For him, a place perpetually on the brink of spectacular natural disaster was a perfect subject. Rockman painted the view of Vesuvius from his balcony in Posilipo, as he imagined it: glowing red and orange against a smoke-blackened sky.
The eruption of the volcano was so compelling it spawned an entire subgenre of landscapes: Vesuvius paintings. Sir William Hamilton, English ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (as Naples and Sicily were known) from 1764 to 1800, was the primogenitor of the school. In addition to guiding an entire generation of wealthy and noble young Englishmen up the slopes of the volcano, he commissioned the artist Pietro Fabris to do paintings of the mount in all its moods. Fifty-four of the resulting works were gathered together with Hamilton's notes from his walks and published as Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies, highly sought-after as an objet d'art in its own right almost as soon as it appeared in 1776. Rockman pays homage to Fabris in a watercolor self-portrait that shows the artist sitting calmly at his easel, sun hat and palette silhouetted against an ominously close torrent of flaming lava. The scene is fabricated, but Rockman seems to have caught some of Sir William's fever: after his trip to Naples, he began a series of paintings based on volcanoes around the world.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli
Sir William Hamilton can no longer lead you on a personal tour. But a visit to Naples's National Archaeological Museum will still give you an idea of what brought legions of young English noblemen to town. The museum has one of the most important collections of classical Roman sculpture in the world; mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum; and a collection of gems that includes Lorenzo de' Medici's private store. You can see those racy mosaics from Pompeii's brothels, too. 19 PIAZZA MUSEO, NAPLES; 39-081/440-166; www.cib.na.cnr.it
Visits to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius can be arranged through your hotel.
Hotel Excelsior Napoli
A 1908 building with antiques-filled rooms and views of the bay and the volcano. DOUBLES FROM $395. 48 VIA PARTENOPE; 800/325-3589 OR 39-081/764-0111; www.excelsior.it
MORE TO SEE
Brooklyn Museum of Art
On April 17, an installation celebrating the museum's new entrance includes an 8-by-24-foot painting by Rockman. "This is my dream project," he says. It's easy to see why. The piece is also the culmination of years of research—Rockman teamed up with archaeologists and ecologists and mined his own work to create Future Evolution, co-authored by paleontologist Peter Ward. It's a look at the shape of things to come for the borough, a post-global warming landscape populated by frighteningly probable animal inhabitants—all rendered in Rockman's signature cheery Pop-realistic style, of course. 200 EASTERN PKWY., BROOKLYN, N.Y. 718/638-5000; www.brooklynmuseum.org
In addition, Rockman has published a new monograph, Alexis Rockman (Monacelli Press).