Reggio 1908, memory and redemption

Photo of author

By John

Canon Rocco Vilardi recounts how in Reggio Calabria, on the day of 27 December 1908, the temperature was mild and siroccoous. The sea, from whose depths the tragedy would soon be unleashed, placid, almost flat, of an almost unreal color. Some satirical newspaper had just published an irreverent, almost blasphemous poem, which asked Baby Jesus to send an earthquake. No one yet knew the confession that Cardinal Gennaro Portanova, archbishop of the city from 1888 until his death on 25 April 1908, had made to a friend a few days before his death: «I have a premonition that my end is not far away. So the sight of the ruins of this poor city won’t torment me. If ruin comes and I will no longer be of this world, bring some of your energy among the unfortunate.”

«The next day, one hundred and fifteen years ago – writes Stefano Iorfida, president of Anassilaos – at dawn on 28 December 1908 (it was 5.20.27 local time), a seismic shock that lasted “just” 37 or 40 secondsdivided into three distinct phases, equal to 7.1 on the Richter scale (11th degree on the “catastrophic” Mercalli scale), followed after about five or ten minutes by a tsunami whose waves on the Calabrian coast reached a maximum height oscillating between 6 and 11 meters in the stretch from Gallico Marina to Lazzaro, with a maximum of approximately 13 meters in Pellaro, destroyed the two ancient cities of the Strait and other small and large centers between the two banks, especially on the Reggio side”.

A few years ago, in 2021, the fault that most likely caused the catastrophe was discovered in the seabed between Sicily and Calabria. «It – wrote Giovanni Barreca, who is responsible for this discovery – runs along the axis of the Strait and can be identified about 3 km from the coast of Sicily. At the latitude of Messina, the rift curves towards the East, penetrating the Calabrian hinterland and then continuing along the fluvial branch of the Catona torrent, a river incision between Villa S. Giovanni to the North and Reggio Calabria to the South. The fault is inclined towards the East and reaches a maximum length of 34.5 km”. This is the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Europe at least since it has been possible to record the phenomenon, perhaps preceded between 361 and 363 AD by an equally serious earthquake as also appears from the epigraph, found at the current Bank of Italy at which entrance there is a cast (but the original is in the Archaeological Museum), dating back to 374 AD, which mentions the reconstruction of the baths of Reggio which collapsed due to an earthquake.

The level of urban destruction was immense not only due to the violence of the tremors but also due to the weakness of the buildings which had many elevations; for the construction of buildings on alluvial soil; for the high foundations, especially after the 1783 earthquake, on fill soil. In short, it was the news of an announced catastrophe also due to the culpable incompetence of men as appears from the collapse of the “Mezzacapo” barracks, an overall modern building, in which over 270 soldiers died. The earthquake caused the death of approximately 80 thousand people (maybe a hundred thousand according to other estimates), led to the irreparable loss of a huge architectural and artistic heritage and had serious economic and social consequences for the affected territories. «This is the balance sheet of the Calabrian-Sicilian earthquake of 28 December 1908 which in scientific literature and the mass media – Iorfida always points out – it is called the “Messina Earthquake” from the name of the city that perhaps suffered the greatest destruction and deaths (so again in the stamp value issued in 2008) but which in reality would be better defined as “Calabro-Sicilian” as it is defined in the commemorative medal that the Royal Italian Government created in recognition of all those who did their utmost to provide aid to the affected populations from the disaster. We are not saying this out of a form of parochialism that would be out of place a hundred or more years later but to re-establish a historical truth also because in the immediate hours that followed the earthquake both the rescue operations and the attention of the government and international public opinion turned above all to the city of Messina and in the following years Messina itself was able to start, thanks to this push, its reconstruction program more quickly than Reggio».

If an event from 115 years ago has become urgently relevant again, it is also thanks to the exhibition, still ongoing at the Aragonese Castle “1908/Objects found. Memories from the Strait Earthquake” created by the Municipality with the collaboration of the Academy of Fine Arts, which exhibits jewelery and other material found among the rubble of the destroyed buildings which restores, more than any words, the “human” image of the catastrophe. PJust today, as part of this exhibition, the special philatelic postmark will be presented to the people of Reggio which is also a tribute to the dead, too many deaths of that tragic dawn and at the same time a warning for the future. «From then on – concludes Iorfida – Italy was equipped with stringent anti-seismic regulations and, from this point of view, we could also be calm but some recent events that have occurred in our country worry us (the collapse of the school in San Giuliano di Puglia , on 31 October 2002, recently renovated, where 27 children and a teacher died and on 6 April 2009 the earthquake in L’Aquila which partially destroyed the “Student House”, with many students deceased). Often, error and greed, the desire to build everywhere can circumvent the strictest rules on paper and we don’t want to realize this once the fact has been achieved.”

There exhibition at the Aragonese Castle, scheduled until February 28th, represents a collective memory meticulously reconstructed with images, videos, historical artefacts found after the tragic earthquake of 1908, which trace an exhibition itinerary in which the visitor is transported into a past but never forgotten historical narrative. «It is certainly a very complex work, to be seen with children, family, friends even during the festive period because the past should not be put aside in a drawer – states director Sacchetti in full agreement with the president of the Academy of Fine Arts Marilena Cerzoso –. Those who visited the exhibition, curated by teachers Marcello Francolini, Remo Malice, Francesco Scialò, Pietro Colloca, Davide Scialò, Rosita Commisso, Davide Negro and with the involvement of numerous students from the Academy of Fine Arts, were catapulted into that narrative sound, historical, photographic which not only remembers the tragedy but also shows the young generations the strength and feelings of solidarity and the desire for rebirth.”

A narrative ability between reality and research that conveys an important message: «The great crises, yesterday as today, must show us the way to a better future». The municipal councilor Irene Calabrò is convinced of this and notes: «The Municipality wanted to give a different slant to this museum exhibition, valorising the artefacts re-emerged from the rubble of the earthquake and until now kept in Rome by the Bank of Italy, of which the Administration it only regained possession last year after a long bureaucratic process involving the Ministries of Economy, Finance and Culture. It is a story to highlight the objects of that time, an expo that recovers the traditions and customs of the time of a community, ours, victim of that painful event. At the same time, however, it marks a new reading that looks to the future and to hope. Many objects on display spark not only a memory, but also future inspiration.”