Supplementary Appendix 36.3


The Great Calabrian Earthquakes [*]

While affecting a far less extensive area, consequently having their origin at a more moderate depth, the Calabrian earthquakes of 1783 were in their continuance longer than those of Lisbon, and in their local intensity more severe. The first violent shock took place on the 5th of February, and a second equally severe on the 28th of March following; but the country continued to be agitated by shocks of more or less severity, and separated by longer or shorter intervals, until the end of 1786, or during nearly four years.

Although the shocks were perceptible over a great part of Sicily, and as far north as Naples, the area, which was severely convulsed, did not exceed five hundred square miles, comprehending the south-eastern parts of the nearer, the whole of the further Calabria, and the neighbourhood of Messina on the opposite coast of Sicily. Nevertheless, in the month of March 1783, the Ionian islands of Zante, Cephalonia, and Sta. Maura were sympathetically convulsed, and in the latter island in particular much damage was done both to life and property.

The centre of disturbance seems to have been under the town of Oppido in the further Calabria, and it extended in every direction from that spot to a distance of about twenty-two miles, with such violence as to overthrow every city, town, and village, lying within that circle. This ruin was accomplished by the first shock on the 5th of February. The second, of equal violence, on the 28th of March, was less destructive, only because little or nothing had been left for it to overthrow.

At Oppido, the motion was in the nature of a vertical upheaval of the ground, which was accompanied by the opening of numerous large chasms, into some of which many houses were ingulfed — the chasms closing over them again almost immediately. The town itself was situated on the summit of a hill, flanked by five steep and difficult slopes; it was so completely overthrown by the first shock, that scarcely a fragment of wall was left standing. The hill itself was not thrown down; but a fort, which commanded the approach to the place, was hurled into the gorge below.

It was on the flats immediately surrounding the site of the town, and on the rising grounds beyond them, that the great fissures and chasms were opened. On the slope of one of the hills opposite the town, there was opened a vast chasm, in which a large quantity of soil covered with vines and olive-trees was ingulfed. This chasm remained open after the shock, and exhibited the appearance represented in the following woodcut. It was somewhat in the form of an amphitheatre, and notwithstanding all it had swallowed, it retained a depth of 200 feet, and was about 500 feet in length.

[Chasm near Oppido, Calabria]


At Canna-Maria, in the adjacent district, another chasm opened and swallowed up four farm-houses, several oil-stores, and some large dwelling-houses. This voracious gulf immediately closed again, so that not a vestige of the buildings remained visible. Similar occurrences took place at Sinopoli, Sta. Christina, and Terranuova. This last town stood at the end of a plain immediately above three deep gorges.

At the first shock, part of the ground on which the town was built was riven away, and glided down the slope of one of the three gorges, dragging along with it the houses which it sustained. The whole fell, in a confused mass of timber, stones, and earth, into the valley beneath, which it partially filled. In another quarter of the town the ground was rent perpendicularly throughout its entire height above the valley; and one portion of the land thus severed, with all the houses upon it, tumbled in one mass, by a perpendicular fall of upwards of 300 feet, into the gulf below.

Out of the 2000 inhabitants, of the town, 1400 were precipitated with their dwellings, and many were crushed or buried under the ruins. A few, however, marvellously escaped, by being thrown on the top of the rubbish, instead of under it. Some even landed on their feet, and were able to scramble over the heaps of ruins; while others, being only half buried, were extricated without having sustained much injury. Terranuova was thus turned topsy-turvy; the three valleys, above which it had stood, were half filled with the masses of earth and rubbish. Among other strange appearances which the ruins presented, the masonry of the well of a convent remained standing like a tower about eight or nine feet in height, and slightly inclined.

These great landslips stopped the course of a small river, and the outlets of an abundant spring, — so producing two small lakes, whose stagnant waters, rendered putrid by the numerous corpses and other organic matters, exhaled pestiferous miasms, which cut off by fever the remaining inhabitants. Landslips also occurred in several of the neighbouring valleys, and the level ground all round was much rent by fissures.

The village of Moluquello, opposite Terranuova, shared a similar fate. One half of it fell into a valley on its right, and the other into a valley on its left; so that scarcely a cart-load of masonry remained on the original site. When, after the lapse of several years, excavations were made among the ruins of Terranuova, the walls of the buildings and their contents were found to have been crushed into one compact mass.

In some of the valleys where the landslips had occurred, oaks, olives, vines, and corn were seen growing at the bottom of the ravines, having apparently sustained as little injury as the vegetation remaining on the ground 500 feet higher and three quarters of a mile distant, whence the travelled earth had been launched. In one ravine, a huge mass, 200 feet high, and with a base of 400 feet, which had been detached by a former earthquake, travelled bodily down the slope of the valley to a distance of four miles.

Among the many curious fissures formed by the great shock, there was one which remained open by the side of a small pass over the hill of St. Angelo, near Soriano, and not far from the little river Messima. Though not of large dimensions, it is remarkable for its crescent form, as shown in the prefixed woodcut.

[Cleft in Hill of St. Angelo, near Soriano.]


On a level piece of ground at another place, named Jerocarne, there were formed numerous fissures which remained open. They ran in all directions, giving the ground the appearance of having been shivered like glass. These remarkable rents are shown in the above woodcut.

[Fissures near Jerocarne.]


Some of the fissures found in other places were of very large dimensions, and may have been partially enlarged by the successive shocks — particularly that of the 28th of March. A calcareous mountain named Zefirio, at the southern extremity of the further Calabria, was cleft in twain, leaving a rent nearly half a mile long, and with an irregular breadth of many feet. In the district of Plaisano, there was formed a ravine nearly a mile long, 105 feet wide, and 30 feet deep.

In this same district there were opened two large gulfs — one at a place called Cezulle, three-quarters of a mile long, 150 feet broad, and above 100 feet deep; another at La Fortuna, nearly a quarter of a mile long, 30 feet wide, and 225 feet in depth. In the district of Fosolano there were opened three similar gulfs — one measuring about 300 feet square by 30 feet deep; a second about 750 feet square; and a third nearly half a mile long, 15 feet broad, and 30 feet deep. In the territory of San Fili there was formed a cleft half a mile long, 2½ feet wide, and 25 feet in depth.

A similar cleft was formed in the district of Rosarno. The town of that name, built on a sandy hill near the river Metramo, was almost entirely overthrown — the castle of the prince, the churches, and the houses, forming one great heap of ruins. The river ceased to flow for a short time. In the neighbourhood of this town was exhibited in a marked manner the curious phenomenon which presented itself in several other parts of Calabria — namely, the formation of numerous circular openings in the ground, as shown in the following woodcut.

These holes were in general about the size of a carriage-wheel — some larger, some smaller. Many of them were filled with water to within a foot or two of the surface, and presented the appearance of wells. But a large number were filled with dry sand, having in some cases a convex, in others a concave surface. On being laid open, these cavities were found to be funnel-shaped; a portion of moist sand in the centre showing the tube through which the water had risen.

[Circular Openings near Rosarno.]


The following woodcut represents a section of one of those conical openings.

[Section of Conical Opening.]


A small circular pond of a like character was formed in the neighbourhood of Polistena, a rich and populous town separated into two parts by a river. This town was completely overthrown, not a house having been left standing. A part of the bank of the river gave way, dragging down the houses with it. One half of the inhabitants perished, and the other half found refuge in wooden barracks beyond the walls. There were numerous large fissures formed near the town, one of which is represented in the annexed woodcut.

[Fissure near Polistena.]


Besides the small circular openings above mentioned, there were formed several larger hollows filled with water. Near Seminara, there was opened a large chasm, whence water issued and formed a lake 1785 feet in length, 937 in breadth, and 52 in depth. It was named Lago del Tolfilo, and all attempts to drain it have proved unsuccessful, owing to its being fed by springs rising from the bottom.

Another lake of still greater dimensions, was formed near Sitizzano, but in a different way. A valley was filled up, nearly to the level of the high grounds on either side, by great landslips from the bounding hills. A barrier was thus formed athwart the course of two streams, whose waters ere long accumulated into a lake of great depth, nearly two miles in length and a mile in breadth. No less than fifty other lakes of smaller size were formed, either by the opening of chasms or the filling up of valleys, besides numerous small ponds.

Instead of the circular holes before mentioned, there were in several places formed conical mounds of sand, supposed to have been thrown up by jets of water, similar to those which had formed the funnel-shaped hollows.

Among the many curious effects produced by this earthquake, there were observed several instances of the peculiar twisting of pieces of masonry, similar to that which occurred in the case of the spire at Inverness, and to those noticed by Mr. Darwin at Concepcion. One of the most remarkable was at a small town named Stefano del Bosco. At the ends of the facade of the convent of St. Bruno there stood two obelisks, the stones of which were displaced in this peculiar manner, as shown in the above figure; the angles of the upper stones being brought to coincide with the faces of the stones below them.

[Obelisks at St. Bruno.]


Another still more curious effect was produced in some of the towns and other places where loose masses happened to be lying on the ground at the time. These were, by the force of the shock, tossed high into the air, and several paving-stones, thus projected, landed with their faces downwards.

Of the fissures formed in the ground a good many closed again by slow degrees, after sundry extraneous substances, and even animals, had fallen into them; so that, if the rocks ever happen to be exposed to view, future geologists will find in them veins filled with organic remains, perhaps mingled here and there with stray works of art.

A rather remarkable phenomenon occurred at St. Lucido, similar, however, to what has occurred during earthquakes elsewhere. This was a great eruption of mud. About two miles from Laureana are two ravines which had a swampy soil. Immediately before the first great shock there oozed out from this soil quantities of calcareous mud, which rapidly accumulating, rolled down the ravine in two great streams.

These, afterwards uniting, flowed onwards with increased force from east to west. The mass attained a breadth of 225 feet, and a depth of nearly 15. It advanced for nearly a mile before it stopped, sweeping everything before it in its course, overwhelming animals and trees. It contained fragments of reddish earth, having a sulphurous smell, and by degrees hardened into a solid mass, losing half its height in drying.

The effects produced by the great landslips were in some cases of a very striking kind. The annexed woodcut shows the appearance presented by those which resulted at Casalnuovo.

[Landslip near Casalnuovo.]


The town of this name was situated in a pleasant plain at the foot of a mountain. It had previously suffered from an earthquake, and, in rebuilding it, the inhabitants had adopted extraordinary precautions, to guard against the consequences of a similar visitation. The houses were low, the walls well braced, the streets were wide and adorned with trees, while vines climbed upon the fronts of the houses, so that the place had a most agreeable appearance. All these precautions, however, proved futile and vain. The whole town was levelled with the ground.

Among others the Marquis Gerace, a highly respectable nobleman, was, with all his family and servants, crushed to death under the ruins of his villa. The entire plain sank. The sloping grounds resting upon the sides of the mountain slid down, leaving large gaps in their place, and covering with great masses of rocks and earth the plains below. Throughout the entire distance between Casalnuovo and Sta. Christina, a space of eighteen miles, the whole ground was rent in an extraordinary way with fissures, chasms, and small ravines.

By another landslip an extensive olive ground and orchard near Seminara slid through a distance of 200 feet into a valley beneath, 60 feet deep, carrying with it a small inhabited house, which remained entire, preserving its inmates without injury. The olive-trees growing on the land likewise sustained no damage, and bore an abundant crop of fruit the same year. In another part of the high ground from which this orchard was detached, there was formed a deep chasm, into which a neighbouring river immediately flowed, entirely abandoning its former channel.

A still more extraordinary journey was performed by another piece of ground, composing two farms near Mileto. This tract, a mile and a half long, and half a mile broad, travelled bodily down the valley to the distance of a mile, carrying with it, uninjured, a cottage and several large olive and mulberry trees, most of which remained erect and sustained no harm. A similar immunity to houses occurred at Catanzaro. In the quarter of that town called San Giuseppe, the ground sank to various depths from two to four feet, but the houses built upon it, for the most part, remained standing upon it without injury.

The most calamitous of the landslips occurred on the sea-coast of the Straits of Messina, near the celebrated rock of Scilla, where huge masses fell from the tall cliffs, overwhelming many villas and gardens. At Gian Greco a continuous line of precipitous rocks, nearly a mile in length, tumbled down. The aged Prince of Scilla, after the first great shock on 5th February, persuaded many of his vassals to quit the dangerous shore, and take refuge in their fishing boats — he himself showing the example.

That same night, however, while many of the people were asleep in the boats, and others on a flat plain a little above the sea-level, another powerful shock threw down from the neighbouring Mount Jaci a great mass, which fell with a dreadful crash, partly into the sea, and partly upon the plain beneath. Immediately the sea rose to a height of twenty feet above the level ground on which the people were stationed, and, rolling over it, swept away the whole multitude.

[Disaster at Scilla.]


This immense wave then retired, but returned with still greater violence, bringing with it the bodies of the men and animals it had previously swept away, dashing to pieces the whole of the boats, drowning all that were in them, and wafting the fragments far inland. The prince with 1430 of his people perished by this disaster. — See the prefixed woodcut.

It is doubtful whether these great sea-waves were caused by the fall of the huge mass of rock into the sea, or by some upheaval beneath its bed. The sea in the straits, and all along the coast of Calabria, was much agitated during the convulsion, and great numbers of fish were cast ashore. On the Sicilian coast, near Messina, the sea is said to have appeared, at the time of the great shock, as if it had been boiling — probably owing to the discharge of vapours from beneath.

It was on the north-eastern shores of Sicily, however, that the greatest amount of damage was done. The first severe shock, on the 5th of February, overthrew nearly the whole of the beautiful city of Messina, with great loss of life. The shore for a considerable distance along the coast was rent, and the ground along the port, which was before quite level, became afterwards inclined towards the sea, the depth of the water having, at the same time, increased in several parts, through the displacement of portions of the bottom. The quay also subsided about fourteen inches below the level of the sea, and the houses near it were much rent.

But it was in the city itself that the most terrible desolation was wrought — a complication of disasters having followed the shock, more especially a fierce conflagration, whose intensity was augmented by the large stores of oil kept in the place. An authentic account of this calamity has been preserved in a report sent by the Senate of the city of Messina to the King of Naples, bearing date the 8th of February. It runs as follows:

Letter from the Senate.

Sire, — Messina’s frightful situation from the effects of the earthquake, which began on the 5th of the month at half an hour after noon, and which still continues, leads the Senate to believe that you will forgive their communicating to you directly an account of this disaster, instead of transmitting it to your Majesty, according to custom, through the hands of His Excellency the Viceroy.

Your Majesty’s feeling heart will, we doubt not, be touched by the deepest sorrow at the harrowing spectacle of a splendid city instantaneously changed, by a terrible and unexampled event, into a heap of ruins. The concussions of the earth, coming in succession every quarter of an hour, with inconceivable violence, have overthrown, from top to bottom, every building whatever. The royal palace, that of the archbishop, the whole of the maritime theatre, the pawn-repositories, the great hospital, the cathedral, the monasteries and nunneries — nothing has escaped destruction.

The religious recluses are seen running through the streets in dismay, to seek, if possible, some place of refuge and safety, with the small number of persons escaped like themselves, almost by a miracle, from this overthrow. The sight is doubtless fearful; but there is one yet more terrible — that of the largest proportion of the citizens, dead and dying, buried beneath the ruins of their dwellings, without its being possible, from the want of labourers, to render assistance under such circumstances, to withdraw from beneath the rubbish those still breathing. Shrieks and cries, groans and sighs — all the accents of grief are everywhere heard; while the impossibility of redeeming from death those wretched victims, renders still more harrowing the voice of despair that appeals in vain for help and compassion.

A new scourge has been added to all these calamities, and augments their horror. From amid the ruins of the overthrown buildings there is seen all at once to arise a raging fire. Unhappily — the first shocks having begun about dinner-time — the fires, then lighted in the kitchens, had kindled various combustible substances found among the remains of the crumbling houses.

The king’s lieutenant instantly hastened to the spot with his troops; but the absolute want of labourers and needful appliances rendered all efforts unavailing, and it was impossible, not only to extinguish the fire, but even to stop the progress of the flames, which continued to devour the sad remains of a city, once the glory of her sovereigns, and the most flourishing in the kingdom.

To so many simultaneous disasters have to be added a thousand others beyond description horrible. The corn magazines having been overthrown, bread, that most needful of aliments, fails. The Senate have been obliged immediately to remedy this evil, by detaining in harbour the vessels laden with this commodity.

But how make bread when the shops and utensils adapted to this trade are buried under the ruins, while the bakers have either perished or fled? The water-courses having been turned aside, the public fountains are drained, and the mills can no longer grind corn. This aggravation of disasters has reduced almost to despair the remaining inhabitants, who demand with loud cries bread for their sustenance.

Some bemoan their goods and chattels, others their parents. In spite of the zeal and activity shown by the magistrates in restraining robbers, there are yet found wretches, without either humanity or religion, who, regardless of this Divine wrath displayed before their eyes, have pillaged not only private houses but also the public edifices and the pawn-repositories.

Naught then, save the powerful protection of your Majesty, can redress such manifold misfortunes, so rapid in their succession, and give new existence to this city, which requires to be wholly restored. The Senate beseech your Majesty instantly to transmit the needful succours of men and money, to clear the roads covered by ruins and corpses. The Senate equally entreat your Majesty to send to this city provisions of all sorts, for the subsistence of the inhabitants dispersed in the plains, and who, destitute of food, will be obliged to take flight, to the great detriment of your royal treasury.

This last touch is inimitable.

The annexed woodcut shows the appearance presented by a part of the city after this dreadful occurrence.

[Earthquake at Messina, 1783.]


According to official reports made soon after the events, the destruction caused by the earthquakes of 5th February and 28th March throughout the two Calabrias was immense. About 320 towns and villages were entirely reduced to ruins, and about 50 others seriously damaged.

The loss of life was appalling — 40,000 having perished by the earthquakes, and 20,000 more having subsequently died from privation and exposure, or from epidemic diseases bred by the stagnant pools and the decaying carcasses of men and animals. The greater number were buried amid the ruins of the houses, while others perished in the fires that were kindled in most of the towns, particularly in Oppido, where the flames were fed by great magazines of oil.

Not a few, especially among the peasantry dwelling in the country, were suddenly ingulfed in fissures. Many who were only half buried in the ruins, and who might have been saved had there been help at hand, were left to die a lingering death from cold and hunger. Four Augustine monks at Terranuova perished thus miserably. Having taken refuge in a vaulted sacristy, they were entombed in it alive by the masses of rubbish, and lingered for four days, during which their cries for help could be heard, till death put an end to their sufferings.

Of still more thrilling interest was the case of the Marchioness Spadara. Having fainted at the moment of the first great shock, she was lifted by her husband, who, bearing her in his arms, hurried with her to the harbour. Here, on recovering her senses, she observed that her infant boy had been left behind. Taking advantage of a moment when her husband was too much occupied to notice her, she darted off, and, running back to her house, which was still standing, she snatched her babe from his cradle.

Rushing with him in her arms towards the staircase, she found the stair had fallen — so barring all further progress in that direction. She fled from room to room, chased by the falling materials, and at length reached a balcony as her last refuge. Holding up her infant, she implored the few passers-by for help; but they all, intent on securing their own safety, turned a deaf ear to her cries. Meanwhile her mansion had caught fire, and ere long the balcony, with the devoted lady still grasping her darling, was hurled into the devouring flames.

A few cases are recorded of devotion similar to that of this heroic woman, but happily attended by more fortunate results. In the great majority of instances, however, the instinct of self-preservation triumphed over every other feeling, rendering the wretched people callous to the dangers and sufferings of others. Still worse was the conduct of the half-savage peasantry of Calabria. They hastened into the towns like vultures to their prey. Instead of helping the sufferers, they ransacked the smoking ruins for plunder, robbed the persons of the dead, and of those entangled alive among the rubbish, perpetrating still more atrocious crimes.

Several cases occurred of persons being rescued alive from the ruins after the lapse of many days. Some were delivered at the end of three, four, or five days, and one even on the seventh day after interment. Those who were thus rescued all declared that their direst sufferings were from thirst.

During these great Calabrian earthquakes the volcano of Stromboli was unusually quiet, and did not regain its wonted activity until they had ceased. Mount Etna threw out a considerable quantity of vapour at the beginning of the commotions, but there was no other sign of activity in that volcano.

The annals of earthquakes have brought to light a remarkable relation between those of Syria and those of Southern Italy and Sicily — namely, that a period of convulsion in the one country corresponds to a period of repose in the other.


[*] Mungo Ponton, Earthquakes and Volcanoes: Their History, Phenomena, and Probable Causes, rev. ed. (London 1870), 98–120.

Map of locales from Edwin J. Houston, The Wonder Book of Volcanoes and Earthquakes (New York 1907), 246:



Translation © 2019 Doug Stott