February 1783, Goethe and the earthquake on the shore of the Strait of Messina

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By John

The February 5, 1783at approximately the nineteenth hour, i.e. 48 minutes after noon, “Messina fell in a flash, and it was one and the same to see it standing and to see it completely ruined. A frightening rumble, or crash, resembling the clap of thunder, was the harbinger of a horrible earthquake.” This is what the abbot said Alberto Corrao in “Memory on the Messina earthquakes that occurred in this year 1783”. Wolfang Goethe, who was a psychic, felt that earthquake, on a strangely quiet and sultry night, in Weimar. He suddenly woke up and called the servant. “Listen”, he told him, “an earthquake happened…”.

Now recalling that fatal date, we would like to mention “Cartography of an earthquake: Messina 1783”, a fundamental volume published in 1988, authors Nicola Aricò, and Enrico Bellantoni, Giovanni Molonia and Giuseppe Salemi. This is a “special issue” of the international magazine “Storia della città”, by Electa, published on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of the 1908 earthquake. It is an expertly edited volume, which essentially consists “of a precise and analytical cartography of the transformations urban planning of Messina in the last two centuries”. Starting, in fact, from the earthquake of 1783.

“I don’t think I’ll fall foul of anyone who sets the duration of the shock at approximately three minutes,” considered Corrao. “All the citizens soon saw death hanging over their heads.” The first was followed by several other tremors of varying intensity…”. Screams and moans in every corner of the city, everywhere buried alive begging for help.” On the beach of the port of Messina, but also in the countryside, extensive cracks formed. The ground subsided especially around the port; in the falcata area, near the Lanterna, intense jets of water rose from the open ground in several places; and meanwhile the plagues of looting were spreading. Huge damage also occurred in Calabria, especially between Pizzo and Siderno.

We had to wait a long time for calm to return to the affected areas. In fact, the earthquakes continued to rage, “subverting the lands themselves”, wrote Pietro Colletta in History of the Kingdom of Naples, “bringing into the open materials and men who had been buried days before”. Nature finally seemed to calm down two years after that dark February 5th.

There were around thirty thousand victims; not too many if you consider the vastness of the devastated territory. Because the earthquake did not surprise people while they were sleeping, as would have happened in 1908. The disaster devastated Messina, and the recovery was slow and laborious; despite the care – commented Corrao – of King Ferdinand Bourbon, of our most zealous Prelate, of the Senate… in our city, among other things, the Royal Palace, the Palazzata, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Great Hospital were ruined, or were seriously damaged, the Cathedral and its large bell tower, the Royal boarding schools. And again, many churches and monasteries, valuable private homes, works by eminent sculptors and architects.

As for the initial public interventions, Andrea Gallo, a scholar from Messina, in a letter sent to Monsignor Gavelli, compiled “two months and ten days after the earthquakes”, decisively contradicts the good Abbot Corrao.

“In Messina”, declared Gallo, “after the terrible scourge of February 5th, which completely ruined the factories almost to their foundations, we lived for two months and are still living in disorder, confusion and misery… Nothing of help has been given to these wretched people either by their own villagers or by those appointed by the Government, nor has a single penny been distributed to them. The little supplies that the bishop of Catania sent, part remained in the power of those who had to divide it and part was given to those who needed it least… The citizens lie in vile hovels”.

The Gallo’s grievances don’t end like this, but we stop here. However, not before having cited Augusto Placanica, author of the golden volume Goethe among the ruins of Messina. “That earthquake”, we read, “led the European intellectuality of the late eighteenth century to measure itself against its own conscience and its own tradition of thought”.