The tsunami in Naples in 1343 as told by Petrarch

by Francesco Li Volti

An incredible story, and above all fascinating, is the one concerning the tsunami that took place in Naples on 25 November 1343, as witnessed by Petrarch.

Petrarch in Naples

Francesco Petrarca was in Naples on behalf of Pope Clement VI to negotiate the release of some prisoners. It is his second visit to the city, after the one two years earlier in which he wanted to be examined by the Neapolitan king Roberto D'Angiò before his coronation as poet in the Campidoglio. A few days earlier Petrarch noted that the sky of Naples had turned black and that lightning and thunderstorms foretold the worst.

"The window looking west is open I saw the moon before midnight hiding behind the mount of San Martino, with a face full of darkness and cloud.the".

Petrarch writes that a bishop on an island in the Gulf of Naples (it was probably William of Ischia) had been preaching for days a terrible tragedy that would befall Naples. On the morning of November 25, the unexpected happened: a large tidal wave devoured fishermen and entire boats in an instant. Petrarch hid in the rooms of the friars of the church of San Lorenzo and together with him the men of faith began to pray.

"All that spatio of people drowned or about to drown was full: some with their heads, some with broken arms and others who came out of their bowels, nor the cry of the men and women who lived in the houses near the sea was less frightening. of the thrill of the sea".

When Petrarch, towards sunset, went to bed to fall asleep, the weather got even worse. In his fifth book of "Epistolae familiareshe describes in a direct way what is happening: he feels the windows and the walls of the room shake; the nightlight, which by habit he always keeps alight next to him, goes out by itself; he perceives the shaking bed and the deafening screams of the population.

"A noise and an earthquake woke me, which not only opened the windows and put out the lamp, which I want to keep at night, but moved the room where I was from its foundations.".

Suddenly there was silence and everything seemed to have come to an end; then a very strong roar coming from the sea started hell instead. The prior equipped the friars, and Petrarch himself, with torches, there were people genuflected intent on praying. 

"And while in the darkness one was looking for the other, nor could it be seen except for the benefit of some lightning, we began to collide with each other; and when we were all thrown on the ground, we did nothing but invoke the mercy of God with very loud voices ».

The terrible night had passed; Early in the morning Petrarch got on his horse and together with other friars headed for the port. The scenario was terrible: the sea had swallowed everything, houses, people, animals. There were no longer some houses and churches, the same thing also on the coast of Amalfi and Minors. The tidal wave had caused thousands of deaths, but incredibly there was a raft that remained in perfect condition. That small and insignificant raft, on which they had miraculously survived, housed 400 convicts. An irony of fate that did not escape the humor of the Tuscan poet who wrote: "So that it may be understood that in the dangers of death the surest are those who have the most vile life". 

He was so shaken by this tragedy that on his return Petrarch swore that this would be the last time he would set foot in Naples and in any place overlooking the sea.. Queen Giovanna, just sixteen, she ran barefoot to see what had happened; it was here that he invented the story of the Egg of Castell'dell'Ovo.

To date it has been possible to discover that that tsunami was caused by the bradyseism of the marine volcano Marsili, as it has an explosive nature and its eruption could cause a tsunami that would hit the neighboring coasts in about half an hour.


Epistolae familiares, Francesco Petrarca, 1343

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