6 February 2020

1783 Calabria Earthquakes

Before photography was possible, copper plate engravings served to record major events, including the 1783 earthquakes
Before photography was possible, copper plate engravings
served to record major events, including the 1783 earthquakes

Series of powerful tremors killed at least 35,000


The Calabrian peninsula of southwest Italy was waking up to the unfolding horror of a sequence of five deadly earthquakes on this day in 1783.

A major tremor destroyed the town of Oppido Mamertina in what is now the province of Reggio Calabria on 5 February, killing almost 1,200 residents, followed by another just after midnight on 6 February, setting off a tsunami that claimed still more lives.

The effects of the first quake  - which has been classified at an estimated 7.0 on the Richter magnitude scale - were felt over a much wider area, however, with countless land and rockslides.  The whole of the island of Sicily is said to have shaken.

In total, it is thought some 180 villages were effectively destroyed, with far more buildings reduced to rubble than remained standing. The city of Messina, on the northeast tip of Sicily, was seriously hit and many casualties were reported there also.

The city’s medieval Duomo was badly damaged, while a tsunami caused the walls of the harbour to collapse.

Another engraving of the late 18th century depicts the  turbulence in the Strait of Messina caused by the quakes
Another engraving of the late 18th century depicts the
turbulence in the Strait of Messina caused by the quakes
This first shock was thought to have claimed in the region of 25,000 lives across the large area affected as buildings ill-equipped to withstand such violent shaking, strong enough to knock people off their feet, simply collapsed.

Only a few hours later, just after midnight on 6 February a second major tremor occurred closer to Messina, this time put at a magnitude of 6.2. This caused a substantial rockslide into the sea near the coastal town of Scilla on the Italian mainland, which in turn set off a tsunami.  Many residents in Scilla, fearful of their homes collapsing after the 5 February quake, had taken refuge on the beach only to be swept away by the giant wave. It is reckoned around 1,500 died in Scilla.

Further up the peninsula, in the area of the Serre Mountains, about 40km (25 miles) from the first quake, a third one took place, more powerful than the second at 6.6 magnitude, at approximately 1.10pm on 7 February, flattening a string of villages between the towns of Acquaro and Soriano Calabro. Again, there were hundreds of casualties.

A period of less violent shocks followed until, on 1 March, another significant quake, put at magnitude 5.9, struck near the town of Filadelfia, about 30km (19 miles) south of Lamezia Terme. Although it took place some 100km (62 miles) northwest of Scilla and the seat of the first tremors, it was later determined to have been part of the same seismic sequence.

This engraving shows the tsunami crashing into the  fishing village of Scilla, with boats capsizing
This engraving shows the tsunami crashing into the
fishing village of Scilla, with boats capsizing
Damage and casualties this time were light, but that could not be said of the fifth major event, in the space of just over seven weeks, that struck on 28 March, just a few kilometres from Filadelfia, between the towns of Girifalco and Borgia. This tremor has been recorded at 7.0 magnitude, just as powerful as the first, with many villages destroyed and a further large number of residents killed.

The total number of deaths resulting from the series of earthquakes is put at 35,000 at least, although some estimates point to a figure nearer 50,000. Either way, it is one of the four deadliest seismic events in Italian history in which estimates of casualty numbers are available.

Modern science knows that the cause of earthquakes and other seismic activity in Sicily and southern Italy is caused by the collision of the African and Eurasian plates - two of the seven largest tectonic plates that make up the surface of the earth.

In the 18th century, however, there were different explanations, including one theory that there were ‘fire channels’ inside the earth, of which volcanoes were the manifestation on the surface, and that chemical reactions between gas, water and metal elements in subterranean voids were the cause of earthquakes and eruptions.

This seemed to be supported by another phenomenon that occurred at around the same time in the form of a sulfuric fog that covered much of Europe in the summer of 1783, which scientists thought was due to gas released by the Calabrian quakes although contemporary studies suggest the two things were not connected.

It is thought, instead, that the fog was the result of sulfuric gases released by a volcanic eruption in Iceland of which mainland Europeans had no knowledge.

The ancient fishing village of Chianalea sits on the water's  edge in the shadow of the Castello Ruffo
The ancient fishing village of Chianalea sits on the water's
edge in the shadow of the Castello Ruffo
Travel tip:

The resort town of Scilla on the north-facing Calabrian coast, situated about 23km (14 miles) north of the city of Reggio Calabria, grew up around a picturesque fishing village sheltered by cliffs and a rocky spur, atop which sits the Castello Ruffo, originally a sixth-century fortification but which has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.  Beneath is the sandy beach of Marina Grande, now lined with hotels. The main part of the expanded town sits above the cliffs on a plateau. On the other side of the promontory is the less developed village of Chianalea, where houses cling to the water’s edge along a single, cobbled thoroughfare.

Hotel deals in Scilla from Hotels.com

Messina's cathedral and bell tower have had to be rebuilt on several occasions due to disasters and war
Messina's cathedral and bell tower have had to be
rebuilt on several occasions due to disasters and war
Travel tip:

Messina, the Sicilian city separated from mainland Italy by the Strait of Messina, is the third largest city on the island and home to a large Greek-speaking community. The 12th century Duomo - the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta - has a bell tower which houses one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world, built in 1933. Originally built by the Normans, the cathedral, which still contains the remains of King Conrad, ruler of Germany and Sicily in the 13th century, suffered much damage in 1783 and then had to be almost entirely rebuilt following the massive earthquake that struck in 1908, and again in 1943, after a fire triggered by Allied bombings.

Find a hotel in Messina with Tripadvisor

More reading:

How Italy's worst earthquake may have killed 200,000

The earthquake in Sicily that led to an architectural rebirth

The Naples earthquake of 1626

Also on this day:

1453: The birth of poet Girolamo Benivieni

1577: The birth of Beatrice Cenci, Roman heroine

1788: The birth of poet Ugo Foscolo

1908: The birth of politician Amintore Fanfani 


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