A Patriotic Catastrophe

Still, a century later, the death toll of the earthquake that destroyed Messina and Reggio Calabria on December 28 1908 can make the head spin. 50,000 victims? 80,000? Perhaps 130,000? Or even 200,000? We will only ever be able to guess. The destruction wrought on that terrible morning was so apocalyptic that even the archival records we might use to make a realistic calculation were obliterated. Messina and Reggio were all but wiped from the map. It was reckoned that 98% of the buildings in the Sicilian city were destroyed or so badly damaged that they had to be demolished. This was the most lethal natural catastrophe Italy has ever suffered.

The earthquake struck at just after 5.20 am, when most of the population were still in bed, and therefore at their most vulnerable to collapsing buildings. The tremors were followed by a tsunami comprising at least three waves that reached a height of between two and three metres above sea level in the port of Messina and flooded the lower part of the city. Then came the fires, burning without restraint in five quarters. The mortality rate in some smaller centres was even more appalling: at Pellaro on the Calabrian coast the tsunami completely razed the town and moved an iron bridge over thirty metres.

Nature, no doubt, had visited the worst of its cruelties on the Straits. But there were plenty of human culprits too. The search for someone to blame began within hours. Rickety palazzi had been constructed from inferior materials—despite anti-seismic building legislation that dated back to the earthquake of 1783. Help was slow to arrive. Russian and British vessels arrived in Messina long before the Italian navy could muster its resources. Journalists of all political affiliations raged against the confusion, heartlessness and incompetence of the army’s rescue efforts.

Italians became obsessed with news of the catastrophe. Since the turn of the twentieth century, they had acquired a hunger for the press. These were the years when the Corriere della Sera’s sales grew exponentially; its correspondents telegraphed news from the remotest corners of a rapidly shrinking world. The other technological marvels of the age—motor cars, hydroelectricity, howitzers—inspired excitement and awe. But suddenly, the earthquake exposed the frailty of modern civilization. As one government minister explained on his return from Messina: ‘The vision of the Apocalypse had become a reality a reality before our very eyes’.

Railway and telegraph communications were destroyed. For many days after the earthquake, thousands of dead bodies were scattered over and under the rubble. Reliable news was hard to come by, but the public who snapped up newspaper special editions were fed visions of semi-naked survivors making love amidst the ruins, fighting over scraps of food, or falling victim to savage looters. The word sciacallo—‘jackal’, i.e. ‘looter’—entered the Italian language.

Journalists groped for metaphors to convey the horror. The disaster zone was the scene of a deathly carnival; it was a gigantic cemetery. Italy was undergoing a paroxysm: ‘The excessive nervous shock has burnt out and snapped the nerves just as an excessive electric current burns out and snaps the carbon of electric wires of electric lamps,’ wrote Paolo Scarfoglio on Il Mattino on 7 gennaio 1909.

But the catastrophe’s most powerful metaphor emanated directly from the ruins themselves: the nightmare stench of decaying human flesh. Within a few days it could be detected at several kilometres distance. In Messina, the smell was strong enough to cause nausea and fainting. Soldiers digging for buried survivors stuffed camphor-soaked cotton in their noses. No journalist failed to report the unholy odour.

It was still widely believed that such stinking exhalations could spread disease. Pasteur’s theory of germs did not command universal acceptance. The authorities even briefly considered bombarding the ruins and burying them in quicklime to combat the smell of decay.

It need hardly be said that this was no time for gastronomy. As Giacomo Gobbi Belcredi reported for Il Messaggero: ‘the oppressive stench of the corpses, now being pulled apart by dogs, doesn’t exactly get the gastric juices working’. But for the same reason, food became charged with negative symbolism, and the authorities were often charged with crass culinary insensitivity. It was reported that officers lodging on a ship in the port of Messina indulged themselves in an eight-course banquet. When a starving refugee asked for bread he was apparently told he would get leftovers if he were lucky.

Lieutenant General Mazza, the man in charge of the rescue effort, was said to have had a pastry chef sent from Palermo because he was not satisfied with the quality of the desserts on board his command ship. The story, like so many others in those febrile post-disaster days, was probably a necropolitan myth.

Italy was angry, confused, and dismayed. But it was also moved. An unprecedented mood of patriotic grief and solidarity gripped the nation. As the news spread, volunteers journeyed southwards to help with the rescue and rebuilding. Others sheltered refugees and orphans. The King and Queen joined in the effort; the royal children and ladies in waiting were shown sewing clothes for the victims.

Civic committees sprang up in Italian cities and towns to gather and direct funds and other contributions. A nascent civil society—rifle, automobile and cycling clubs, mutual aid societies, congregations, choral societies, groups of workers and apprentices—organized benefit events and collections. Many Italian cities held passeggiate di beneficenza, charity walks, in which convoys of carts paraded through the streets to the sound of a band so that citizens could throw in clothes, blankets and other goods for the survivors.

In Rome on 3 January, and then in Milan on 10 January, ‘plebiscites of pain’ were held: citizens placed donations in tricolour-wrapped ‘ballot boxes’ that deliberately recalled the plebiscites that had sanctioned the country’s unification fifty years earlier. Every child in the northern city of Bergamo was given a moneybox in which to deposit coins for the victims.

In a country that is so often said to lack national identity, the patriotic response to the catastrophe of 1908 is perhaps its most striking aspect.

John Dickie, a historian and journalist, is a reader in Italian studies at University College, London. He is the author of Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Delizia!The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (Simon & Schuster 2008), and Una catastrofe patriottica. 1908: il terremoto di Messina (Laterza, 2008), a study of the Messina earthquake published only in Italian.

Article taken from the latest number of the Italian magazine Slowfood (38)

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