Summit explosive activity and collapses that form pit craters and calderas represent major volcanic hazards on a dominantly effusive, frequently active volcano like Piton de la Fournaise. Only three summit collapse events (1986, 2002, 2007) have been recorded since the foundation of the Piton de la Fournaise volcano observatory (OVPF) in 1979, and two of them (1986 and 2007) were associated with weak phreatic activity. At Piton de la Fournaise, the normal explosive activity consists of short-lived and mild (< 20 m-high) lava fountains, which quickly evolve into strombolian activity during the eruptions. Based on comprehensive literature review and high-resolution image analysis of surface outcrops and summit caldera walls, we reconstructed the time distribution of recent explosive events (phreatomagmatic; phreatic) and their link with summit collapses and lateral (flank) effusive eruptions. In historical time (post-1640 CE), we recognise two main clusters of explosive events. Frequent and violent phreatomagmatic to phreatic explosions occurred during the oldest cluster (1708–1878) and alternated with long-lasting periods (years to decades) of summit effusive activity. In contrast, scarce, and on average, weak explosions occurred during the youngest cluster (1897–2012), when discrete and short-lived (< 6 months) effusive eruptions represent the main eruptive dynamics. Historical summit collapses (pit craters and caldera), all localised at the top of the summit cone, were related to voluminous lateral eruptions and were followed by a significant decrease in eruptive rate. However, magma draining during lateral eruptions was not systematically associated with summit collapses or explosions. The long-lasting occurrence of magma at very shallow depth below the volcano summit, followed by a rapid lateral drainage, apparently represents a critical condition favouring magma–groundwater interaction to produce explosive activity. The prehistoric growth of the Piton de la Fournaise summit cone results chiefly from long-lasting to continuous activity, centred below its western side (Bory crater containing lava lakes). High lava fountains, long-lasting effusive activity, lava lakes, ash plumes and block ejections were common types of eruptive dynamics in the historical past, between 1640 and 1878. In this perspective, short-lived, small volume eruptions and long pauses, up to six years, during the last century of activity of Piton de la Fournaise can be considered as a lull, despite the high frequency of eruption (1 eruption/9 months on average). Temporal and spatial variations in recurrence rate and eruptive dynamics of basaltic volcanism, such as those recognised at Piton de la Fournaise, should be considered in the formulation of hazard assessments and in the interpretation of precursory patterns.