The Casamicciola earthquake of 1883, when Ischia was razed to the ground

by Federico Quagliuolo

Even today, in the common language, the way of saying "Casamicciola happens here" or "I make a Casamicciola"To indicate one disproportionate reaction o a disastrous fact. It refers to the Casamicciola earthquake of 28 Lutlio 1883, one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the island: it was in fact a disaster that made it unusable the 80% of buildings, killing the 30% of the island's inhabitants in just 15 seconds.

It was such an event dramatic and serious who brought the world's leading scholars to the island, including the very young Milanese professor Giuseppe Mercalli, the man who invented the famous scale of evaluation of the damage of an earthquake. In the case of Ischia, it was al 10th grade, a stone's throw fromapocalypse.

Lacco Ameno
The ruins of Lacco Ameno

A summer apocalypse

With divine cruelty, the earth decided to tremble in the midst of one cool Ischia summer night. It was the hours 21.30 of an evening of July 28, 1883. The mass tourism as we have known it in the last 50 years, but the Neapolitan islands still exercised a great charm, with their pristine views, and they were holiday destination for many bourgeois e Italian and foreign nobles, thanks also to the healing properties of the island's spas. The earthquake was in fact maliciously nicknamed "the earthquake of the rich”Because the island in those days hosted more than 1500 tourists, mostly people wealthy and highly placed.

In the past few days they arrived two warning shocks, which were filed by the authorities as random events. Giuseppe Mercalli emphasized the total irresponsibility of politics and the population in not having investigated further.

The earthquake lasted just 15 seconds. The Romans would have said that it was yet another movement of Typhus under the island, scientists charged it to the sleeping Monte Epomeo, which was once the mouth of a volcano. What is certain is that the shock was a lot sudden, unexpected and violent, which came as a slap that shook the whole island. And nobody saw anything, not even from the sea, because one got up dust cloud so high from "look like a huge sandstorm that nobody recognized on the ship“, As he testified a steamer nearby which, just ironically, He was called Typhon. It was this ship that ran to Naples for announce the tragedy and ask for help.

Among the many on vacation on the island there was also a very young Benedetto Croce, who was just 17 years old and who lost his whole family in front of his eyes.

I remember that we had finished lunch, and we were all gathered in a room overlooking the terrace: my father was writing a letter, I was reading in front of him, my mother and my sister were talking in a corner next to each other, when a roar was heard dull and prolonged, and in the very instant the edifice crumbled over us. In a flash I saw my father stand up and my sister throw herself into my mother's arms; I instinctively jumped onto the terrace, which opened up under my feet, and lost all consciousness.  […] My father, my mother and my sister were found only in the following days, dead under the rubble: my sister and my mother embraced. I had broken my right arm in the elbow, and fractured my right femur in several places; but I felt little or no suffering, indeed as a certain consolation to have, in that disaster, also received some damage: I felt as a remorse of having saved myself only among mine, and the idea of being crippled or otherwise offended I was indifferent“.

Benedetto Croce tells of the Casamicciola earthquake
Terremoto di Casamicciola su una rivista spagnola
The Casamicciola earthquake in a Spanish magazine

The chaos of relief efforts

The Island of Ischia was not in the least equipped for an event of this magnitude, even if the earthquakes on the island were not new: right in 1881 there had been a first forewarning, with 300 deaths and a lot of damage. The Casamicciola earthquake, with its 2,313 victims and about 6,000 injured, however, he was unpredictable in his own apocalyptic scope. He remained ironically just an unscathed house in the town.

During and after the Casamicciola earthquake many fled madly towards the countryside Ischia, inland, while others they jumped into the sea and stayed in the water for hours. There are episodes of people who they threw themselves down from the balconies, others from the windows of the house and, with fractured limbs, yes they dragged into ravines under the rubble or beaches. It was very difficult for the rescuers to succeed trace back all the people who, for days, remained hidden in the countryside, without food and without water.

The July 31, after two days of excavating in the rubble, one was hired dramatic decision by the Minister of Public Works Francesco Genala: stop the relief excavations because of the exhalations from putrefied bodies that could cause one to start epidemic. It is therefore not known how many people remained buried alive under the rubble: the correspondent of the Piemontese Journal of the time told in the newspaper that "along the streets you can hear screams and plaintive voices coming under every stone“.
THE unburied corpses, remained under the summer sun of July, they were piled up along the streets and torn apart from the animals, then they were thrown into a pit and sprinkled with lime to avoid further trouble.

It is said that, on 1 August 1883, the island remained almost completely uninhabited. They were needed more than 20 years to rebuild the houses and make restart the island's economy.

Casamicciola casa
What remained of a house after the Casamicciola earthquake

A solidarity contest

The wave of emotion that raised the Casamicciola earthquake was profound throughout Italy, which remained with bated breath reading news and chronicles written almost daily by the correspondents of all national and international newspapers: the super media coverage, which today is ordinary for every tragic event, was probably one of the main reasons why the Casamicciola earthquake of 1883 entered the collective imagination. They were organized fundraising throughout Italy, many artists performed in Naples, Florence, Rome and Milan donating the entire proceeds of the shows to charity, Matteo Schilizzi he donated a large sum and personally purchased means and provisions for the earthquake victims: in total they were collected 6 million lire which, converted into euros, are equal to about 27 million modern euros.
King Umberto I, who was in Monza, also canceled any commitment to go and see the facts of Ischia in person. He went to the island a few days later, looking to comfort and speak firsthand with the wounded massed in the middle of the street or in military tents, since the island was completely unusable.
The king left 150,000 lire from his own pocket to buy basic necessities for the needy, equivalent to approx 677 thousand euros. For this gesture, it was decided that the first new born in Casamicciola it would be called "Umberto Liberatore ".

On the other hand, King Umberto had no idea that he would return to Campania a few months after the Casamicciola earthquake to witness another dramatic story end of the century: the cholera of 1884.

Lapide Umberto
The tombstone of Umberto I in Lacco Ameno commemorates the coming of the sovereign on the occasion of the Casamicciola earthquake. Photograph by Federico Quagliuolo

The Casamicciola earthquake was not the first nor the last

There geological history of the island of Ischia it is very complex. The geology studies on the island, which they began with the installation of the Observatory in Casamicciola after 1883, noted that the island had abnormal characteristics, starting as early as Mount Epomeo: it is very strange that an island of about 40 square kilometers has one mountain almost 800 meters high. The same green tuff of the island is the son of a complex and very long volcanic activity, as well as the huge amount of thermal sources indicates that it is still bubbling under the Green Island a very warm heart.
The same Port of Ischia it is in a natural lake which, presumably, was once a crater.
THE earthquakesmoreover, in their long history starting from the first official survey in 1557, they almost always had like Casamicciola epicenter. In the nineteenth century there was then a very remarkable series of telluric movements: earthquakes were recorded in 1827, 1828, 1841, 1863, 1880, 1881 and, finally, in the 1883. The last two were of dramatic intensity. And, just in more recent times, in the 2017, Casamicciola has experienced yet another shock.

And today, between bathers and painful memories, Ischia remains an island that floats between the apocalypse and paradise.

-Federico Quagliuolo

The story is dedicated to Patrizia Montenovi for her generous donation. You too can support Storie di Napoli, you will help us remain independent!

Giuseppe Mercalli, The island of Ischia and the earthquake of 28 July 1883

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