To examine the impact of preexisting weaknesses on fracture coalescence during volcanic edifice deformation, we triaxially compressed Mount Etna basalt while acquiring in situ dynamic X‐ray microtomograms and calculated the internal strain tensor fields using image correlation. Contraction localization preceded dilation and shear strain localization into the protofault zone. This onset of strain localization preceded macroscopic yielding and coincided with increases in the magnitude and volume of rock experiencing dilation, and spatial clustering of the strain populations. The exploitation of weaknesses by propagating fractures enabled the dominant shear strain to switch senses as propagating fractures lengthened along 30–60° from σ1. Scanning electron microscopy images reveal pore‐emanated fractures, and fractures linking pores. These experiments provide evidence of internal contraction preceding dilation and shear, consistent with inferences from field and laboratory observations. The transition from contraction to dilation may provide a precursory signal of volcanic flank eruption.