That Time a German Prince Built an Artificial Volcano

When a 18th century German prince visited Mt. Vesuvius in Naples, he insisted on building a replica of it on his estate back home. 200 years later, a chemistry professor brings it back to life

Inside the volcano's round chamber, Jonas Lohmann and two other graduate students from the Brandenburg Technical University doused fires with lighter fluid and smoke powder to create the columns of smoke that streamed from the volcano all afternoon and evening. (Rebecca F. Miller)

The smoke began rising above the farm fields and tidy forests of Woerlitz last Saturday morning, puffs of white and black that signaled something unusual. By sunset, thousands of people had gathered on the shores of an artificial lake, listening avidly to ominous rumbles. Dozens more, tipsy with schnapps and wine, floated in candlelit gondolas on the still water.

They were all here to see Europe's biggest, oldest and—as far as anyone knows—only artificial volcano. Completed in 1794, the Stone Island of Woerlitz is a little-known wonder of the Enlightenment, a provincial prince's attempt to bring a bit of Italian drama and grandeur to the farmers of Germany.

Today it's part of the Garden Realm of Woerlitz, a Unesco World Heritage site about an hour's drive south of Berlin. But just a decade ago, this odd structure was condemned, a decrepit ruin covered over with weeds and crumbling stone. After a five-year restoration project, the "volcano" was safe—but silent after nearly two centuries of neglect.

In 2004, the World Heritage site’s management turned to Wolfgang Spyra, an enthusiastic chemistry professor at the Brandenburg Technical University with a side interest in historical pyrotechnics, to bring the volcano back to life. “A volcano that can’t explode is a very sad volcano, and I wanted to make it happy again,” Spyra says. "We wanted to help the volcano get its identity back."

But first, Spyra—who spent a decade as the head of Berlin’s criminology lab and signs his e-mails "the Eruptor"—had to do a little historical detective work to figure out how an artificial volcano had risen out of this decidedly un-volcanic region of Europe in the first place.

The trail led back to Leopold III Friedrich Franz, prince and duke of Anhalt-Dessau, who ruled a small kingdom near the modern-day town of Dessau in the 18th century. Born in 1740, Franz was an unusually enlightened ruler, even for the Age of Enlightenment. In his mid-20s, he went on a grand tour of Europe, a rite of passage for the continent's nobility.

Franz's travels took him to London, Paris, Marseilles, Rome, Venice and Naples, where the 27-year-old princeling was captivated by the smoldering Mount Vesuvius and the recent discovery of the buried Roman town of Pompeii.

"Vesuvius must have really impressed him, because 22 years later he came up with the idea to re-create the Gulf of Naples in flat Germany," says Uwe Quilitzsch, the Woerlitz Garden Realm's staff historian. "He saw himself as obliged to enlighten his subjects, and he saw this as a lesson for people who would never get to Naples."

While preparing for the night’s eruption, Spyra and Quilitzsch explain some of the volcano's secrets. Franz had his architects build a brick inner building nearly five stories high and cover it with local boulders. At the top, a hollow cone housed a high-ceilinged chamber with three fireplaces. The building's roof also included an artificial "crater," which could be filled with water.

Nearby, Franz built a Greek-style amphitheater and a small villa to serve as his personal study and flooded the corner of his estate to surround the "Stone Island" with water. Then, according to historical accounts, he invited his friends to watch his personal volcano erupt.

But even though the structure had been carefully reconstructed, Spyra and his team didn’t have much to go on when it came to re-creating the event: Only one contemporary image of the volcano’s eruption, a painting from 1794, exists. “We needed to figure out if it was a realistic depiction or fantasy,” Spyra says.

About Andrew Curry
Andrew Curry

Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about science and history for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and Wired. He is a contributing editor at Archaeology and has visited archaeological excavations on five continents. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Porto)

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