Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Jan 2013, update 2016, revised July 2019, added to-Jan 2020

Also see these related entries:

Geology of the Bay of Naples;
General entry on earthquakes;
Earthquakes (Calabria, 1783)
Earthquake (Ischia, 1883)
Earthquake (Messina, 1908)

ther Severe Earthquakes
in the South

The Apennine mountains are one big seismic fold-and-thrust belt, the result of the collision of two tectonic plates, the southern one riding up (thrusting) over the northern one, which "folds" beneath. That started 20 million years ago as Africa 'crashed' into Europe, an ongoing process; thus, earthquakes have occurred along the Apennines since long before there were human beings. By "other" quakes, I am not implying secondary or unimportant;  I mean "in addition to" the related items listed on the left, above. In each of the quakes listed above as well as some of the additional ones, below (1857, 1930 and 1980) at least 1,000 persons lost their lives. I have also listed two quakes since 1980, in Aquila (2009) and Amatrice (2016) of lesser intensity and loss of life but nevertheless significant and tragic. By way of comparison, the most powerful earthquake ever measured by modern seismology was the Valdivia earthquake or Great Chilean earthquake of 22 May, 1960. Various studies have placed it at 9.4–9.6 on the moment magnitude scale (MMS), which has superseded the older "Richter" scale. (The readings are often similar. Such measurement scales are tricky. These scales, Richter and now MMS, measure seismic intensity -- how much energy is released. They do not measure environmental damage, such as the Mercalli scale does.  Thus, an 8 on the MMS is not twice as powerful as a 7; it graduates logarithmically -- that 8 releases 32 times the energy of a 7). The resulting tsunami affected every bit of land in or bordering on the Pacific ocean. Waves as high as 10.7 meters (35 ft) were recorded 10,000 kilometers (6,200 mi) from the epicenter, and as far away as Japan and the Philippines.

To relate all that to more recent activity in southern Italy. A convenient place to start is:
1461, November 27. A powerful earthquake (estimated magnitude of 6.4) and series of aftershocks struck Italy's Abruzzo region along the Aterno River. The quake(s) originated in the same area as the 1703 and 2009 earthquakes. The 1461 tremors caused widespread damage to Abruzzo's capital, L'Aquila, and surrounding villages. At least 80 people are recorded to have died. The quakes also caused major, permanent damage to religious sites, including S. Maria di Collemaggio, the large church that was the site of the original Papal Jubilee and the site where Pope Celestine V is buried. (He is notable in Roman Catholic history as the pope who abdicated, earning Dante's scorn, as you may read here.)

Most damaging earthquakes however, occur on the Siculo-Calabrian rift zone. This zone of extensional faulting runs for about 370 kilometres (230 mi), forming three main segments through Calabria, along the east coast of Sicily and immediately offshore, and finally forming the southeastern margin of the Hyblaean Plateau. Faults in the Calabrian segment were responsible for the 1783 Calabrian earthquakes sequence.[11]

—1693 (Jan 11) In Sicily. Sicily lies on part of the complex convergent boundary where the African Plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian Plate. This subduction is responsible for the formation of the stratovolcano Mount Etna and great seismic activity. This quake is the most powerful one in Italian recorded history, striking Sicily, Calabria, and Malta. The main quake had an estimated magnitude of 7.4 on the MMS and a maximum intensity of XI (Extreme) on the Mercalli intensity scale, destroying at least 70 towns and cities, seriously affecting an area of 5,600 square kilometers (2,200 sq mi) and killing 60,000 people. The quake caused tsunamis that devastated the coastal villages on the Ionian Sea and in the Straits of Messina. Almost two-thirds of the population of Catania were killed. The destruction resulted in extensive rebuilding of the towns and cities of southeastern Sicily, particularly the Val di Noto, in a uniform late style that has become known as Sicilian Baroque. Many of these towns now form part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto." (image, right)
—1857, December 16. Montemurro is a small town at 723 meters (2372 feet) elevation about 160 km (100 miles) SE of Naples in the province of Potenza, south of the town of Potenza, itself. On December 16, 1857, it was the epicenter of what would come to be known for some time as the Great Neapolitan Earthquake ("Neapolitan" as in the Kingdom of Naples, not the city of Naples). On the Modified Mercalli scale, which measures perceived effects on the environment (from 1 to 12 with 12 being "total devastation"), the Montemurro quake is estimated to have been a 9; that is, violent, destructive, producing general panic and capable of collapsing walls and damaging even some well-built structures. On the Richter scale, which registers seismic intensity, it is estimated to have been 6.9 and on the recent Moment Magnitude scale, 7.0. The town of Montemurro lost 3000 persons out of its total population of 7,500. Numerous towns and villages were partially destroyed in the Italian regions ("states") of Basilicata and Campania (primarily in their provinces of Potenza and Salerno, respectively. The quake was felt as far north as Terracina, 100 km (60 miles) north of Naples. Estimated loss of life was between 11,000 and 12,000 persons, but some sources claim as many 19,000 deaths.

Robert Mallet (1810–1881), the Irish geophysicist sometimes called the father of seismology, spent two months in the stricken Italian region and in 1862 produced an extensive report for the Royal Society entitled Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology (Chapman & Hall, London. 1862). It is extremely detailed with numerous illustrations and even early photography and is a foundation work of modern seismology. In the preface, the author stressed the importance of studying this event by reminding us that "The earthquake of December, 1857, by almost the first notices that reached England, revealed itself as the third greatest in extent and severity of which there is any record of having occurred in Europe." *

*Mallett is not further specific in his reference to the first two, but there seem to be two possibilities if we exclude the Calabrian quakes of 1783 (see link in title box) since those were really a series of five earthquakes:

   (1) the 1755 Great Lisbon Earthquake. Extrapolating from reported damages, seismologists today estimate that the Lisbon quake may have been as high as 9 on the modern MMS scale (approximately the same on Richter). Estimates place the death toll, very vaguely, as high as 100,000 people, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in history;
   (2) the 1693 Sicily earthquake. It had an estimated magnitude of 7.4/5 on modern seismic scale and an 11 on the Mercali scale (which stops at 12!), destroying at least 70 towns and cities, and killing about 60,000 people.

Rescue efforts after the Vulture quake.          
    (Domenica del Corriere, Aug 3, 1930)          
1930, July 23. This quake was originally called the "Irpinia earthquake". (Irpinia is the region of the Apennine mountain range near the town of Avellino, 40 km east of Naples). The quake is now called the "Vulture earthquake" to distinguish it from the 1980 Irpinia quake in the same area (see item below this one). The term "Vulture" sounds eerie, especially given the circumstances, and is likely etymologically related to the scavenger bird called "vulture" in English and avvoltoio in Italian; in this case, however, it comes from the name of the area, itself, deriving from Mt. Vulture, the Italian name of an extinct volcano and one of the prominent features of the landscape in that area. Many of the badly damaged towns were at the foot of that mountain. On the Mercalli scale, the Vulture quake was a 10 —i.e., intense and destructive, producing large landslides and severely damaging or collapsing even well-built structures.  On the Richter  scale it was 6.7. There were 1,404 deaths. The epicenter was near the point where the Italian regions of Campania, Basilicata and Puglia come together, that is, somewhat to the east of the town of Avellino, itself. The most heavily hit town was Lacedonia, 100 km east of Naples. The town is at 732 meters (2400 feet) elevation and was almost precisely at the epicenter. Lacedonia lost 600 persons (of a total population of about 5,000). Of the total deaths of more than 1400, 75% were in the province of Avellino. In most areas, 70% of houses were destroyed, largely due to the poor characteristics of the land that the towns and villages had been built on, mainly clay and sandy soils with layers of gravel, and to the poor quality of the buildings, themselves, with houses built with river stones and held together by poor quality mortar or even by dried mud. Considering the intensity of the quake, the death toll might well have been much higher had not many villagers been sleeping in the fields during the wheat harvest. Five aftershocks were reported on July 25, which collapsed a number of already damaged buildings, but no new deaths were reported.

Conza della Campania            
1980, November 23. This one is now the "Irpinia earthquake". It centered on the town of Conza della Campania (commonly shortened to Conza) in the province of Avellino at an altitude of 594 meters (1948 feet), 85 km east of Naples. (The photo, right, is of that small town after the earthquake. Most buildings toppled down the mountainside. The ones that remained on the hill were left partially or totally destroyed. The hilltop site for the town was abandoned; post-earthquake reconstruction built the modern town of Conza a short distance away.) This Irpinia quake measured 6.9 on the modern seismic scale and 10 on the Mercalli scale. It killed 2,914 people. Towns in the province of Avellino were devastated. I remember the quake and exactly what I was doing when it hit. I was watching television in Naples, miles from the epicenter. At first, I mistook the initial movement for passing traffic four floors below at street level. That perception lasted just a few seconds. It was a "rolling quake" that built up and diminished over 90 seconds. (The severe sway that I felt was exaggerated because I was on the top floor, but I really did think for a second that the building was just going to fall over!) The quake hit at about 7.30 in the evening, and almost everyone fled out onto the streets. Many of them stayed out there all night, indeed for some nights after the quake. There were also a considerable number of aftershocks.

The local news reports were mostly guesswork at first. One paper speculated that 10,000 people might have died. The damage and deaths were spread over a very large area. Out of 679 towns in the eight provinces of Avellino, Benevento, Caserta, Matera, Napoli, Potenza, Salerno e Foggia (in the three Italian regions of Campania, Basilicata and Puglia), 506 suffered damage. I have read a claim that "dozens of structures in Naples were flattened, including a 9-story apartment building". That is misleading. It is true that an apartment building, indeed, collapsed on via Stadera in the Poggioreale section of Naples, killing 52 persons. That, obviously, is a tragedy, but if "dozens of structures were flattened," the others must have been smaller buildings where no one was living, because, to my knowledge, that apartment building was the only inhabited one to collapse and kill people in the city of Naples. (There were about 20 other deaths in Naples related to the earthquake; that is, from partial collapses of building facades, falling objects, etc.) Most of the damage and death occurred "in the provinces," as they say; that included such towns as Sant'Angelodei Lombardi in the province of Avellino, where 482 persons (out of a population of about 5,000) died including 27 children in an orphanage. The town was totally destroyed. Since most deaths in these situations are the result of buildings collapsing on people, if the quake had occurred a few hours later when people were inside and asleep, the death toll would have been much greater.

The structural damage, however, to buildings in Naples, however, caused great concern and created in its wake years of disruption in the life in the city. Almost every building in the narrow streets in the Spanish quarter and in the historic center of Naples was cross-braced to the building across the street by metal pipe scaffolding. The effect was that of a dense thicket of metal holding up these centuries-old buildings, a million miles of pipe holding up the city. That gave a rickety and perilous appearance to the whole affair as of shaky dominoes getting ready to topple.

A word about those old buildings. They're solid. Many of them go back to well before 1783, the year of the great Calabrian Earthquake (see that link at the top of this page). That was the event that caused the Kingdom of Naples to become the first government in Europe to mandate the design and construction of buildings to withstand earthquakes, a mandate that, admittedly, had more effect in larger towns and cities than in villages in the countryside. Even the buildings from before that period in the city of Naples held up very well. Some were damaged, and a few were abandoned, but by and large, the massive, solid trachyte rock foundations and tuff block construction of the upper floors resisted well. When the pipe scaffolding was taken down some years later, the buildings didn't fall over. They're still there. The building on via Stadera that did collapse with loss of life was, according to sources of the day, a cement cracker-box, an example of shoddy and fast post-WWII construction, typical of much construction after the war. (In the dramatic quake reports of the day, the building was dubbed the "Tower of Death". It "pancaked" straight down, crushing those within. Amazingly, two identical apartment buildings nearby did not go down.) The cause of the devastation in the provinces was partially the same as in the 1930 quake; that is, many of the structures were antiquated and fragile. That was abetted, unfortunately, by the post-war habit of putting up sub-standard structures. International aid to the stricken areas was gratifying. National aid was massive, but corruption connected with the distribution of aid was also part of the aftermath. It was scandalous.

[My original recollection of the 1980 quake is here.]

2009, Aquila, April 6. The quake was in the mountainous region of Abruzzo, about 160 km /100 miles north of Naples. The area borders the Lazio region to the west and the Adriatic sea on the east. The main shock was rated 5.8 or 5.9 on the older Richter magnitude scale and 6.3 on the newer moment magnitude scale (MMS). The epicenter was near the city of L'Aquila, which together with surrounding villages suffered the most damage. The quake was felt throughout central Italy; 308 people are known to have died. It was, thus, at the time the deadliest earthquake since the 1980 Irpinia earthquake (noted above). In a bizarre afternote, six scientists and one ex-government official were convicted of multiple manslaughter for downplaying the likelihood of a major earthquake six days before it took place. They were each sentenced to six years' imprisonment, which fact caused a major fuss in scientific circles. "Shades of Galileo! Inquisition!" The counter-argument was that they were not convicted for "failure to predict" (which would have been ridiculous) but for "downplaying the danger." (No Italian geologist with half a brain ever says "Nothing to worry about, folks," simply because there is ALWAYS something to worry about! (The entire Italian peninsula is where the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collide, causing, for example, the Apeninne mountain range.) In any event, the conviction was overturned. There was, as usual, criticism of poor building standards that led to the failure of even many modern buildings (supposedly "anti-seismic").

2016, Amatrice, August 24.  An earthquake, measuring approximately 6.2 on the MMS and slightly less on the older Richter scale) hit central Italy with the epicenter near Accumoli, approximately 75 km/47 miles southeast of Perugia and 45 km/28 mi) north of L'Aquila. The area is near the borders of the Umbria, Lazio, Abruzzo and Marche regions. Approximately 300 people were killed. The best-known town in the area and one that was struck particularly hard was Amatrice; thus, the reference is commonly to the "Amatrice earthquake" of 2016. As usual, it was a series of quakes starting with the strongest and, in this case, followed by at least 40 strong aftershocks for a number of days. The tremor and a number of aftershocks were felt across the whole of central Italy including Rome, Florence, Bologna, and as far south as Naples. All said, the first response was noteworthy for being timely and efficient. About 250 persons were pulled alive from the rubble, including a ten-year old girl who spent 17 hours buried alive in the ruins of Amatrice. Over 4,000 people were involved in the search and rescue operations, including 70 teams with rescue dogs. Three days after the main quake, the mayor said, "The town is gone. We have to start over." As with almost every other hill-town quake in Italy, in spite of good response by first responders, there were cynical comments about the supposedly "reenforced" buildings that collapsed. Golly, something must have happened to the money. They bought sand instead. Those are the people who should be in jail.

2016, post-Amatrice. update  Oct 30, 31...etc. After a brief respite from the effects of the August quakes, sporadic “cluster quakes” continue to plague the same general area. One was a 6.6 on the Moment Magnitude Scale (approximately the same as the older Richter scale) and stronger than the main Amatrice quake in August (see item directly above this one). The 6.6 quake centered on Norcia, about 45 km/27 miles SE of the city of Perugia in the region of Umbria. No deaths were reported, but only because the area had already been declared unsafe and most people had already left. Damage to structures was substantial, including the destruction of the Norcia basilica (image).


[See also "earthquake memories" from August 2016]    [also "related entries at top of this page]

                            to science portal
                       to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023