Written By: Liz Ronk

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.

Vesuvius has in fact 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.”

Troops watch the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1944.

Troops watched the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, 1944.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Troops in a bell tower during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

Troops in a bell tower during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Priest and children during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

Priest and children during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Civilians move furniture during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

Civilians moved furniture during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Watching the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

People watched the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Children, Italy, 1944.

Children, Italy, 1944.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Nighttime eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1944.

Nighttime eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1944.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Refugees make their way through dust during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

Refugees made their way through dust during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

People make their way through ash and dust during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

People made their way through ash and dust during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Street scene, Italy, 1944, at time of Mt. Vesuvius' last major eruption.

Street scene, 1944, at time of Mt. Vesuvius’ last major eruption.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

The 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene in nearby town during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Scene in nearby town during the 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

George Rodger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

More Like This

nature

Cats: Companions in Life

nature

When Maine Got Its Caribou Back

John Dominis African antelopes, 1969. nature

How John Dominis Photographed Wild Antelope Without a Telephoto Lens

Color photos of pollution in the Great Lakes in 1968. nature

Disturbing Photographs Show Pollution in the Great Lakes Before the Clean Water Act

Giant Panda Chi Chi from China in 1958 nature

This Adorable Panda Was at the Center of a Cold War Conflict

Grand Canyon National Park in color, 1947. nature

The Grand Canyon: Stunning Color Photographs From 1947