The eastern coast of Sicily has historically been one of the most geologically active in all of Europe, dominated by Mount Etna by far the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy. Crystalline deposits of sulphur and layers of ash give the summit a dramatic appearance. The Roman poet Virgil gave what was probably a first-hand description of an eruption in the Aeneid:
"A spreading bay is there, impregnable
To all invading storms; and Aetna's throat With roar of frightful ruin thunders nigh. Now to the realm of light it lifts a cloud Of pitch-black, whirling smoke, and fiery dust, Shooting out globes of flame, with monster tongues That lick the stars; now huge crags of itself, Out of the bowels of the mountain torn, Its maw disgorges, while the molten rock Rolls screaming skyward; from the nether deep The fathomless abyss makes ebb and flow."
The Neapolitan painter Salvator Rosa depicted the spectacular death of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles who had fallen into the mouth of Etna. In antiquity, various explanations were offered. Empedocles had jumped in to prove he had become a god; or to gain fame; or he had slipped. But during the 17th century, he was treated as a martyr for the cause of scientific research.
- 1637 to 1638 - The Jesuit scientist, Athanius Kircher visited the seismic zones of Southern Italy, seeing Etna from afar and peering into the smoking crater of Vesuvius.
- 8 March 1669 - Mount Etna, begins rumbling. Multiple eruptions over the next few weeks killed more than 20,000 people and left thousands more homeless. Most of the victims could have saved themselves by fleeing, but stayed, in a vain attempt to save their homes in the city of Catania and the surrounding towns and villages.
- May 1914 - volcanic activity.