PORTFOLIO: Andy Warhol’s Last Lithograph Vesuvius

Andy Warhol silkscreen of his friend, Lucio

Most people do not know this, but for many years I worked with the legendary art dealer Lucio Amelio, one of the greatest dealers to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century. Amelio was responsible for bringing cutting-edge contemporary art to Italy. Amelio’s Modern Art Agency began within humble circumstances (he opened it out of his apartment in 1965), but his shows early shows were groundbreaking, featuring work from dear friends like Jannis Kounellis, Cy Twombly, Keith Karing, Robert Mapplethorpe, among many others.

After the Irpinia earthquake devastated Naples in 1980, Amelio initiated the Terrae Motus (“earthquake” in Italian) collection. He was interested to commission work specific to the theme, so Amelio called upon a loyal stable of Fine Art heavy-hitters to get involved, and I was charged to make the pitch. The final product was an extraordinary success in its moment and has since stood the test of time: Contributions from the likes of Richard Long, Robert Mapplethorp, Tony Cragg and others now stand in a permanent collection in Herculaneum.

The great Andy Warhol also obliged our offer — Andy loved Naples and Naples loved Andy, but he and Amelio were old friends and had a long history together — and we were able to produce on of his last serigraphs,Vesuvius. In 1985, the Museo di Capodimonte mounted a major exhibition of his recent works produced while he lived in the city, and incidentally, on Mount Vesuvius itself (where else could such a creative radical roost?). 

Portraiture was another method — this one by David Alan of Sir William Hamilton (the prodigious antiquarian and student of Mount Vesuvius), pictures the inactive volcano smoking in the distance.

In Vesuvius, Warhol wrestles the infamous volcano into a visually arresting icon of Amelio’s home city, dressing it up in the garish Pop aesthetic for which he made his name as an artist. Ostensibly, the work celebrates the sublime volatility of nature (hardly an untapped trope in Western art) but, this is Andy Warhol; he would hardly rehearse another’s aesthetics. Instead, Vesuvius falls in-line with the artist’s fixation with the mass-reproduction of culture through imagery, and it is imprinted upon this work as it was upon his silkscreens of criminals, car crashes and mid-century starlets.

Two centuries prior, in the context of Grand Tour art and ephemera circulating around Western Europe, Mount Vesuvius was very much an overexposed icon. In the 18th century, the British sent off their elite sons on the Grand Tour, or a cultural immersion vacation around the capitals of Europe, and visits to Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples was a perrennial and highly popular destination. Like camera-toting tourists do now, these visitors found in maquettes, paintings and woodcuts of Vesuvius the best means to memorialize their stop in Naples.