Earthquake. Terremoto. It’s in my blood. As far back as I can remember earthquakes have been part of my family’s lore from Calabria, Italy.
When I first heard of the devastating earthquake in the Abruzzo region of Italy in April 2009, my heart stopped. The first beat it missed was for family and friends who might be in harm’s way. The second beat it missed was for the people who lost everything including their lives. And in place of the third beat my heart missed was a replay of all the stories of terremoto that have passed through many generations before reaching me.
In the years following the Abruzzo earthquake there have been equally and more devastating quakes: Haiti, Chile, China. Images of lost lives and landscape circled the globe. Today marks the one-year anniversary of the worst of recent quakes, the death of over 300,000 in Haiti.
With each subsequent quake, the fragments of earthquake stories handed down to me surfaced. Here are some of those fragments.
Grimaldi in the 1600s
In the early 1600s a powerful earthquake destroyed Grimaldi, the Cosentine village of my nonni. In southern Italy, tens of thousands of lives were lost. In Grimaldi, the oral tradition says, only five families survived, including my ancestors. According to the story carried by my Nonna, an old man came to the town and sat on rock. He told the remaining families to rebuild Grimaldi in a new location and they would be saved from future devastation. After this proclamation, the man suddenly disappeared. The story claims that this old man was God (Dio) sent to save them with his message. If you’re from Calabria, who else could it be.
In 1638, the original "Grimaldo" was destroyed by an earthquake, and the town was rebuilt in an area known as “Chiata” (from where the district "'mpedichiati" developed, meaning literally "at Chiata's feet"). In 1639 the rebuilding of the original Grimaldi began ("vecchio Grimaldo").
The survivors built a new Grimaldi in the shape of a cross. You can still see the basic cross shape, which has bloated with more modern developments. Here’s my photo of Grimaldi in 2008:
A hundred years after rebuilding Grimaldi to the specifications of Dio, the people of Grimaldi were saved from the 1783 earthquake that killed over 80,000 Calabresi.
In 1934, my Nonna Elvira wrote the 1783 earthquake story recited to her by her nonna Caterina (who was really her great-aunt, but that’s another story). What I found interesting from my nonna’s story is that her nonna recited it in Calabrese but because Nonna Elvira hadn’t been taught how to write Calabrese in school, she translated it into Italian. Was that because of Unification (1861) and the introduction of an “official” Italian language? I’d love to hear your wisdom on the demise and resurgence of the written Calabrian language(s).
Here’s an excerpt from Nonna’s translation about the destruction of the many towns around Cosenza during an icy February, and the salvation of the Grimaldesi. The story is over three pages long and reads like a poem or a prayer:
Che terrore, e che gran lutto,
Fra i ghiacci de febraio.
Oh! Iddio, che cosa amara, e che malanno
Mura, e travi, a nostro d’anno
Contrastava cosi forte
Che vidiamo la morte e noi d’avanti
E Cosenza con i tanti
Case e torre del suo valle
Senti quel triste ballo con gran duolo
Ne quel pianto, ne fu solo
Rende, Donnici, e Marano,
Paterno di Pigano, e Mendicino
Cerisano del la vicino
Caroleir, Casello, Franco
Dal cielo era quasi stanco, aveva distrutto
E per questi luoghi tutti
Da vicino, e da lontano
Non ce paesa sano afatto afatto
Ma Grimaldi e tutto sana
Financo da lontano, a da vicino,
Che divina maraviglia
Di quei nostri cittadini
Trovati a quei confini si salvarono
E il miracolo contrarono...
The story lists places destroyed by the earthquake, except Grimaldi “e tutto sana” -- it’s whole. For a crude translation, go to Google translate.
The 1783 earthquake changed the landscape of the south, cracking open its shell and producing hundreds of lakes. The violence of the earthquake itself was not the only killer. Tens of thousands died from malaria in the years following the quake. I like to think that’s partly why we’re short, brown people and not tall blondies.
1905: Boyhood recollections from Bocchigliero
In 1965 my great-uncle Charlie wrote a wonderful memoir. I’m lucky to have a copy, which is one of my cherished possessions. Uncle Charlie was a young boy in Calabria when the earthquakes of the early twentieth century hit. Here’s his 1905 boyhood recollections from Bocchigliero, another of my ancestral villages:
“I can still remember quite vividly the earth tremors in our home town.... Most of the people in our town were ordered to vacate their homes (including us) and we camped out of town in a large orchard for more than three weeks. ...there were many houses in our town with extensive damage....”
Strait of Messina, 1908
On December 28, 1908, a massive earthquake struck Sicily and Calabria. As part of his military service, my Nonno Joe was sent to the earthquake zone to help with the rescue efforts. He earned a medal for rescuing a woman trapped beneath the rubble of her destroyed home. The estimated death toll for this earthquake was as high as 200,000.
Here is Nonno’s medal along with an excerpt of the accompanying paper work:
Medaglia commemorativa. Terremoto Calabro-Siculo. 28 dicembre 1908.
The Italian video below marks the 100th anniversary of the 1908 earthquake:
These are a few of the earthquake fragments that make up my whole. More to come.