“In my voyage from Malta to this place, wherein I have used all the diligence the season hath given me leave, I touched at Catania in Sicily… that so I might be the better able to inform your majesty of that extraordinary fire, which comes from Mount Gibel… for its monstrous devastation, and quick progress, may be termed an inundation of fire, a flood of fire, cinders, and burning stones, burning with that rage as to advance into the sea six hundred yards, and that to a mile in breadth, which I saw;… to see in the sea this matter like ragged rocks, burning in four fathom water, two fathom higher than the sea itself, some parts liquid and moving, and throwing off, not without great violence, the stones about it, which, like a crust of a vast bigness, and red-hot, fell into the sea every moment, in some place or other, causing a great and horrible noise, smoak and hissing in the sea; and thus, more and more coming after it, making a firm foundation in the sea itself.”
– Heneage Finch, second Earl of Winchelsea,
Naples, the 27th of April, 7th of May, 1669.
This lurid account is from an eyewitness report to King Charles II of the utter devastation suffered on the island of Sicily from the eruption of Mt. Etna, a holocaust which began on today’s date, March 8, in the year 1669, and continued in varying degrees of severity for many weeks after. Mount Etna has been Europe’s highest and most active volcano for centuries. Looming over the city of Catania on the island of Sicily, it has been growing for about 500,000 years and has experienced a wide assortment of eruption styles, including violent explosions and gigantic lava flows. More than 25% of Sicily’s population lives on Etna’s slopes to this day, and it remains the main sources of income for the island, due to the rich volcanic soil making it prime agricultural real estate.
The Eruption Which Began on March 8…
The eruption of 1669 began on March 8 when the sun was strangely and ominously obscured by a whirlwind which swept across the summit of the mountain. The for three days after, the entire island of Sicily was racked by convulsions. Then on March 11, a gigantic fissure over twelve miles long and six miles wide was ripped into the side of the mountain which sent out a blinding red-white light. From this there opened six cavernous mouths which sent out monstrous towers of flame and smoke. From out of all of this a new crater was formed out of which roared a river of molten lava two miles wide. This onrushing flow had by March 23 engulfed the village of Mascalucia, killing hundreds of trapped inhabitants.
The Attempts to Stop the Lava Flow
The lava flow began to head for the city of Catania. Due to the many times in the past that lava flows had wrecked their city, the inhabitants had made preparations, having constructed walls that towered sixty feet high. To this were added a row of inner walls.
But even this did not stop the relentless destruction. The burning molten rock reached the city (above, an illustration from the treatise by Giovani Alfonso Borelli, 1608-1679). walls, and rose higher and higher until it flowed over the top. And in some places, it simply burned through the walls altogether. A full third of the city was destroyed in hours. Before this happened, brave men of the city attempted to divert the flow. Lead by Baron Papalardo, dozens of Catanians, wearing cowhides soaked in water to shield themselves from the heat used iron hooks, crowbars, even picks and shovels to hack through one of the walls and managed to divert the flow away from Catania and towards the city of Paterno. But Paterno’s inhabitants were less than keen on this idea, and attacked the Baron and his men with swords. The Baron and his would-be city savers were thus obliged to retreat to their burning and smoldering city. In the end, over 20,000 people were listed as having been killed in the 1669 eruption, although the actual numbers may well have been as high as 60 to 100,000.
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“Darkest Hours” by Robert J. Nash, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1976
Lava surrounding Catania =
Borelli print =