Sunday, April 28, 2013


Henry Tresham (1750-1814), Messina After The Earthquake, Nave of Ruined Church, 1783.

May 11, 1786

Today we bade farewell to our valiant vetturino and rewarded him for his conscientious services with a liberal gratuity.  We parted in friendship, after he had found us a local factotum who was to take us at once to the best inn and show us the sights of Messina.  Our host of last night was eager to get rid of us as quickly as possible and lent a helping hand with the transport of our baggage to a pleasant lodging nearer the living part of the city, that is to say, outside it.  After the enormous disaster in which twelve thousand people were killed, there were no houses left in Messina for the remaining thirty thousand.  Most of the buildings had collapsed and the cracked walls of the rest made them unsafe.  So a barrack town was hastily created in a large meadow north of the city.  To get a picture of this, imagine yourself walking across the Römerberg in Frankfurt or the market square in Leipzig during the Fair.  All the booths and workshops are open in the street. 

Vue de l'Optique composition (Hand colored copper engraving used in the Laterna magica technique) showing sea ships and boats endangered in the rough waters of the Messina Strait disturbed by the 1783 earthquake.
Only a few of the larger buildings have entrances which can be closed, and even these rarely are, because those who live in them spend most of their time out of doors.  They have been living under these conditions for three years, and this life in shacks, huts and tents, even, has had a definite influence on their characters.  The horror of that tremendous event, the fear of its repetition, drive them to take their delight in the pleasures of the moment.  The dread of a new catastrophe was revived about three weeks ago, on April  the twenty-first, when a noticeable tremor shook the grounds.  We were shown a little church which was crowded with people at the time.  A number of them, it is said, have not yet recovered from the shock. 

An early map of the 1783 Calabria volcano and earthquake-areas plotted in the mid-19th century (from BERGHAUS 1845-1848).

A kindly consul volunteered to take care of us and acted as our guide; and, in a world of ruins, this was something to be grateful for.  When he heard that we wished to sail soon, he introduced us to the captain of a French merchant vessel, who was about to sail for Naples – an opportunity which was doubly desirable because the white flag would be a protection against pirates.

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) , Goethe In Italy, 1978.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (1786-1788), translated by W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, New York, Pantheon Press, 1962.

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