11 March 2021

Etna’s biggest eruption

Sicily volcano spewed lava for four months

Eruptions are a regular occurrence on the Mount Etna volcano - this spectacular shot was taken in January this year
Eruptions are a regular occurrence on the Mount Etna
volcano - this spectacular shot was taken in January this year
The largest eruption of the Mount Etna volcano in recorded history began on this day in 1669.

After several days of seismic activity in the area, a fissure measuring two metres wide and about 9km (5.6 miles) long opened up on the southeastern flank of the Sicilian mountain in the early hours of 11 March.

The lava that was spewed out of the enormous gash continued to flow for four months until the eruption was declared to be over on 16 July, a duration of 122 days.

Although stories of 20,000 deaths as a result of the eruption have been dismissed as myth, with no recorded evidence of any casualties, an estimated 15 towns and villages were destroyed as well as hundreds of buildings in the city of Catania, and some 27,000 people are thought to have been made homeless.

Mount Etna is situated in the northeastern vertex of the triangular island of Sicily. The most active volcano in Europe, it looms over the coastal city of Catania, which has a population within its metropolitan area of more than 1.1 million.  It has a long history of eruptions, first documented in 396BC, when it reportedly thwarted an advance on Syracuse by the Carthanaginians. 

Etna looms large over the port city of Catania, with the outskirts just 15km from the summit
Etna looms large over the port city of Catania,
with the outskirts just 15km from the summit
The 1669 eruption began after a period of intense seismic activity, with accounts of steam and gas rising from the summit to greater heights than normal. A number of earthquakes took place on the evening of 10 March before the first of several fissures in the mountainside appeared shortly after midnight. More opened up in the course of the next day.

The wide stream of molten lava made for a spectacular sight after nightfall but it destroyed every settlement in its path, while other buildings collapsed under the weight of boulders and ash.  Villages up to 5km (3.1 miles) away were covered by up to 12cm (4.7ins) of ash and ash deposits were recorded in Calabria on the Italian mainland, and even as far away as Greece.

Catania itself began to come under threat just over a week after the first rupture appeared on the southeastern flank but volcanologists believe the progress of the lava slowed when it reached a lake and consequently did not reach the walls of the city until around 16 April, having travelled about 15km (9.3 miles).

Some accounts have it that Catania was destroyed but it is thought now that, while many buildings near the boundary were severely damaged, most of the city was left intact.  Although the walls were eventually breached by the lava, it took a further 15 days for that to happen, and the barrier they presented was enough to divert the main flow towards the Ionian Sea.  

The 1669 eruption is captured in art by Giacinto Platania in a fresco in Catania's duomo
The 1669 eruption is captured in art by Giacinto
Platania in a fresco in Catania's duomo
The evacuation of the city was considered, but thanks to barriers being constructed within the walls from the remains of buildings that had been destroyed, the lava advanced only about another 200m.

Where Catania did suffer was from an influx of homeless refugees, up to 20,000 in number, swarming in from settlements razed to the ground by the lava, whose presence led to a breakdown of law and order and caused the artisan classes and the aristocracy to flee.

It is thought that the confusion over the extent of damage and casualties may be because Catania was hit by a further natural catastrophe only 24 years later when an earthquake and tsunami killed up to 60,000 Sicilians, including a third of the population of Catania.

In fact, only 77 deaths have been recorded in Etna’s entire known history, largely because its activity is generally well anticipated and its lava eruptions slow enough to allow residents to escape to safety.

Etna's eruptions attract thousands of visitors for their spectacular nighttime views
Etna's eruptions attract thousands of visitors for
their spectacular nighttime views
Travel tip:

Mount Etna’s regular eruptions make for spectacular sights, particularly after night has fallen, while the mountain dominates the region even during its periods of relative quiet.  It has a base diameter of 40km (25 miles) and is more than 3,330m (10,825ft) tall, although its height varies depending on activity.  Despite its high level of activity, tourist excursions to see the craters and to appreciate the diversity of flora and fauna at the lower levels are very popular. Visitors must be mindful that temperatures at elevated levels are much colder than at sea level even in the height of summer. Indeed, during the winter months, a number of the mountainside villages become ski resorts.

Catania's beautiful Basilica della Collegiata
Catania's beautiful Basilica
della Collegiata
Travel tip:

The city of Catania, which is located on the east coast of Sicily facing the Ionian Sea, is one of the ten biggest cities in Italy, and the seventh largest metropolitan area in the country, with a population including the environs of 1.12 million. Twice destroyed by earthquakes, in 1169 and 1693, it can be compared in some respects with Naples, which sits in the shadow of Vesuvius, in that it lives with the constant threat of a natural catastrophe.  As such it has always been a city for living life to the full. In the Renaissance, it was one of Italy's most important cultural, artistic and political centres and enjoys a rich cultural legacy today, with numerous museums and churches, theatres and parks and many restaurants.  It is also notable for many fine examples of the Sicilian Baroque style of architecture, including the beautiful Basilica della Collegiata, with its six stone columns and the concave curve of its façade.

Also on this day:

1544: The birth of poet Torquato Tasso

1847: The birth of politician Sidney Sonnino

1851: The opera Rigoletto premieres in Venice

1924: The birth of psychiatrist Franco Basaglia

(Picture credits: Etna looming over Catania by notiziecatania from Pixabay; Basilica della Collegiata by Luca Aless via Wikimedia Commons)


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