The most storied volcano on earth, Italy’s Mount Vesuvius looms above the Gulf of Naples like an unpredictable god. The story of the mountain’s 79 AD eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum — burying those two ancient towns in scalding rock and ash — has been depicted so many times in art and literature that it has assumed the feel of myth. But for the thousands killed in that most famous of all volcanic cataclysms, the unfathomably awful, sudden end of their world was too real.
Vesuvius has erupted dozens of times in the centuries since Pompeii and Herculaneum were nearly erased from history, sometimes killing thousands (as in 1631), at other times destroying homes and even whole villages but leaving no one dead in its wake. The last major eruption happened 70 years ago, in the midst of World War II, and was photographed by the great British photographer and Magnum founding member, George Rodger.
As LIFE noted to its readers in the April 17, 1944, issue of the magazine, the eruption “has compounded the complexities of fighting a war and of merely existing in southern Italy. Beginning on March 18 and still continuing , the eruption has given the Allied Military Government several thousand more refugees to look after and brightened the night horizon as far north as Anzio beachhead.”
But LIFE also quoted the director of the Mt. Vesuvius Observatory, Professor Giuseppe Imbo, who offered a refreshingly sanguine take on the Neapolitan people’s relationship with the great, unpredictable volcano in their midst:
“A marvelous thing, my Vesuvius,” the professor enthused. “It covers land with precious ash that makes the earth fertile and grapes grow, and wine. That’s why, after every eruption, people rebuild their homes on the slopes of the volcano. That is why they call the slopes of Vesuvius the compania felix — the happy land.”