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Exploring the seismic history of the area, going back through time

     Ever since my people had moved into the area, centuries ago, earthquakes regularly added to their sorrows, devastating their towns at relatively brief intervals. The most recent, damaging earthquake took place in 1947. Some houses in Capistrano were damaged and a few were rendered uninhabitable. Large shack-like structures were hastily created to accommodate the surviving, homeless families. They lived in those primitive conditions for a few years, until the government finally built decent and comfortable dwellings for them. The area is still called, “Le Baracche” (The Shacks) remembering the primitive dwellings where those poor, homeless families lived until better accommodations were finally built.

“Le Baracche”: Shacks built for homeless families, after the 1947 earthquake.

     Another powerful earthquake took place in 1908 when the area between Messina, Sicily and Reggio Calabria was hit by a devastating quake and an ensuing tsunami which devastated the area and killed between 60,000 and 120,000 people.[i] Capistrano was damaged somewhat but not very seriously, due to the distance.

     On September 8, 1905 a strong earthquake struck Calabria from Cosenza to Reggio, in the deepest south. The exact epicenter is not known, but it must have been somewhere around Vibo and Nicastro in central Calabria, that is my area. Over 600 people were killed and about 3000 were wounded.[ii] The city of Monteleone (Today's Vibo Valentia) suffered significant damages.[iii]

     Parghelia was one of the towns town found about 5 Km. southeast of Vibo was totally devastated. We have the following account of the devastation which can equally be descriptive of many towns in the area, including my town, offered to a journalist by a local student:

It happened around 2:45 in the morning. Suddenly we were awakened by a horrendous roar. It seems as though all of hell had come upon our poor homes… Looking outside was futile as one could see nothing given the dust that was rising from the ruins. The dust slowly settled and we were finally able to see each other’s faces; We were all outside on the road, some with a shirt on, some with only pants on; some were wrapped in a bedsheet and some fully naked were hiding in a corner trying to hide their nakedness. Meanwhile one could hear desperate cries, sobbings and people begging for  help.  In a corner a woman, almost naked, was yelling desperately, and she had undone her braids and she was covering her bare breasts with her hair. Another one…was digging through a mountain of ruins from which she said she could hear her daughter’s voice who was later found alive. Another one… was holding the dead body of one of her children. A poor old man was hanging from a window with his legs stuck inside. He was begging to be freed from death and, in fact, he did die. And there were a hundred more pitiful cases.

Then came the sun…which shone its light on the slaughter. [iv]

Parghelia – Immediately after the 1905 earthquake

     No doubt significant damages occurred also in Capistrano and surrounding towns, due to their proximity to Monteleone (Vibo). No doubt my people were in a state of shock. The number of casualties in my town is unknown. The damage to people’s homes must have been significant. For certain, the experience must have been horrifying.

Newswriter, Luigi Barzini, wrote the following heart-rending description, September 1905, while visiting the afflicted area:

“In this area people are dying of hunger and thirst…the help brought in with difficulty is not enough. The healthy need bread; the wounded need meat; water is missing, the dying need medical help…twenty thousand people have lost everything and do not even have containers to get water at the fountains. They are silent multitudes that cannot detach themselves from the ruins of their homes, where their beloved died and that dazed wait without strength for the help that never comes.”[v]

     Sant’Onofrio, another well known town in the area, was visited, not long after the earthquake, by the Italian King with Ferraris one of his ministers.

     He was moved by the extent of the disaster and the suffering crowds that surrounded him. “It’s horrible” he said later to his accompanying minister. Some women approached the King and said to him, “Your majesty, we lost everything; we no longer have a home, we have no possessions, we have no relatives. You only are left and God. Help us!”[vi]


                                                      The severely damaged church of Stefanaconi, 1905

     Going back in time, I found that other earthquakes hit Calabria in 1893, and previously in 1837. The amount of damage caused to Capistrano or other areas of Calabria I have not yet determined.

     The most damaging earthquakes to hit Capistrano and Calabria in recent centuries took place in 1783.  On February 5, the town was severely damaged by a powerful quake.  It was later “totally” destroyed on March 28 of the same year. Fortunately, because of the constant tremors, my people had moved into the countryside away from the town and only two people were killed. They were, though, left without homes and had to later re-build from scratch.[vii]

     More in-depth research about the 1783 earthquakes revealed a shocking fact: all of Calabria had been hit by a series of  “devastating” earthquakes that year. In all, 949 major and minor quakes hit Calabria during three horrifying years in what an  author appropriately called, “An Apocalypse.”[viii] In central and southern Calabria, around 180 cities and towns were destroyed. The estimated number of deaths ranges from 30,000 to 50,000. The number of wounded is unknown, though clearly it must have been vast. The damage to property was incalculable. The quakes were so strong that some olive groves and parts of villages slid kilometers down valleys; new valleys and lakes were created and the morphology of Calabria was transformed.[ix]

     Between 1783 and 1787, because of ongoing seismological changes, 215 new lakes of various sizes were created in the area. This contributed to new epidemics which killed more people that those already killed by the earthquakes.[x]

     Several towns were never reconstructed, such as Isca, Castel Monardo, very near my town, and Oppido. The people of Isca, on the east side of Calabria, built another town, while the people of Castel Monardo built a new, exceptionally well-planned town, not far away from the first which they named Filadelfia (The City of Brotherly Love), a name offered by their illustrious Bishop, Giovanni Andrea Serrao.[xi]  The story of this city, located very near Capistrano is so fascinating that I decided to include a whole chapter on it, so as to inform the reader as to what these amazing Calabrians accomplished under the leadership of the courageous visionary Bishop Serrao soon after the 1783 earthquake.

     The ruins of various hamlets and towns destroyed in that period are still there to witness to the devastation of the earthquakes of 1783. Much of Calabria had to be re-built from scratch and a special fund was created by the government of Southern Italy called the “Cassa Sacra” (The Sacred Fund) for that very purpose.[xii]

     Pietro Colletta a writer of the time left us a vivid description of the catastrophic events of 1783. he recorded dramatic morphological changes in various areas in Southern Calabria.  He summarizes the nightmare with the following chilling statement: “Nothing remained of the old forms; lands, cities, roads, signs vanished…Many works of nature and man, built over the centuries… were in a moment destroyed.”La Piana fu dunque il centro del primo tremuoto; ma per la descritta difformità del suolo vedevi talora paesi lontani da quel mezzo più guasti dei vicini". [xiv]

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Damaged building in Mileto, Calabria, due to 1783 earthquakes.


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Ruined church in Rosarno, Calabria.


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Oppido was totally destroyed and never rebuilt.


     Elia Serrao, a nobleman from Castel Monardo, who lived through that horrendous time, shares with us chilling details in his writing, “Earthquakes in Calabria.”

      Who can recount all the effects, and the phenomena and the new and strange things that afflicted us and we saw in that most miserable of times?

     They are without number, and filled with tears and beyond any human belief. Those quakes created by superior powers be it natural or unnatural,…in every way scourged the miserable earth. They brought down even the most solid of palaces; they cracked marble slabs and rocks of great size ... Nothing resisted them, and the ground under our feet, swaying as the tempestuous sea, would not permit that humans would stay standing and fearfully pushed them back and forth. There was so much horror that each one supposed that the end of the world had come and that the earth, the water, and the rest of the heavens and of the ancient world would all mix together into chaos.

                 The earth in many places opened up and created horrendous chasms.

                 Some talk of mountains that disappered….

     Other mountains united and covered the valleys between them. The rivers that flowed over them, having no longer any exit point created new and large lakes. Furthermore, new springs appeared as old ones dried up., The night of the fifth of February, the sea on the Scilla Coast became higher and fuller and having risen to a shocking height, buried a great number of humans who had ran to take refuge by the Sea.

     Many workers with their oxen and other animals where found large distances away from where they were working while others were swallowed up by sudden chasms.

     Many houses, many farms…traveled large distances and were found far away from their original location.

     Oh how many valiant men, how many beautiful women, how many handsome young people were oppressed by a sudden and miserable ruin.

     Oh how many superb buildings, how many temples, how many monasteries, which were the marvels of the world, were flattened to the ground.

     How many memorable families, how many great inheritances, how many famous riches were left without inheritors![xv]


     In our area Serrao, in another writing titled, “Earthquakes in our Province” describes a pathetic scene of humans in great anguish and desperation.

     “The look of our province in that such enmitous time was so miserable. One would see desolate and broken lands.

     One could hear the moans of those who were left under the ruins. Some ran and in running found their death.

     Others tried to pull out of the ruins their languishing ones and the possessions dearest to them! The fathers and the mothers hugged their children as though they were about to lose them. Others offered peace and tried to reconcile with their enemies. Some confessed their sins in public…

     So as not to go back to very small detail, other than remembering our miseries, I will say in a few words that all was filled with death, confusion, pain, horror, ruin and desolation.”(xvi)

     Though the 1783 earthquakes may have been the most cataclismyc to hit all of Calabria, previous earthquakes had been very violent as well, though they may have only damaged severely our area.

     Moving back through the historical strata one finds more destruction and horror. The year 1659 was another destructive year for Calabria and for my area in particular.

“The year 1659 was a bitter year for all of Calabria and will be memorable for a long time. The fifth hour of the fifth day of November … the ground of the whole province shook with great violence. Castel Monardo, Polia, Monterosso e Capistrano were left with vivid remembrances of the event with their cadavers.” [xvii]

     Giovanni Manfrida, in his book, Capistrano Ieri ed Oggi, confirms the painful truth that Capistrano was indeed destroyed by the earthquake. [xviii]

     Just twenty one years before in 1638 Central Calabria all the way into the Reggio Province had been hit by another fierce earthquake which caused much damage and destroyed an unknown number of cities and towns.

     An esteemed writer and scholar of the time known as Father Kircher, who was visiting Calabria when the earthquake struck describes the results of the earthquake in very descriptive and agonizing language.

"Having hired a boat, in company with four more, (two friars of the order of St.   Francis, and two seculars,) we launched from the harbour of Messina, in Sicily; and arrived, the same day, at the promontory of Pelourus. Our destination was for the city of Euphaemia, in Calabria, where we had some business to transact, and where we designed to tarry for some time.

"However, Providence seemed willing to cross our design; for we were obliged to continue three days at Pelorus, on account of the weather; and though we often put out to sea, yet were often driven back. At length, wearied with the delay, we resolved to prosecute our voyage; and, although the sea seemed more than usually agitated, we ventured forward.

"The gulf of Charybdis, which we approached, seemed whirled round in such a manner, as to form a vast hollow, merging to a point in the centre. Proceeding onward, and turning my eyes to Aetna, I saw it cast forth large volumes of smoke, of mountainous sizes, which entirely covered the island, and blotted out the shores from my view. This together with the dreadful noise, and the sulphurous stench which was strongly perceived, filled me with apprehensions, that some more dreadful calamity was impending. "

"The sea itself seemed to wear a very unusual appearance: they who have seen a lake in a violent shower of rain, covered all over with bubbles, will conceive some idea of its agitations. My surprise was still increased, by the calmness and serenity of the weather; not a breeze, not a cloud, which might be supposed to put all nature thus into motion. I therefore warned my companions, that an earthquake was approaching; and, after some time, making for the shore with all possible diligence, we landed at Tropea, happy and thankful for having escaped that threatening dangers of the sea.

"But our triumphs at land were of short durations; for we had scarcely arrived at the Jesuits' College, in that city, when our ears were stunned with a horrid sound, resembling that of an infinite number of chariots, driven fiercely forward; the wheels rattling, and thongs cracking. Soon after this, a most dreadful earthquake ensued; the whole tract upon which we stood seemed to vibrate, as if we were in the scale of a balance that continued wavering. This motion, however, soon grew more violent; and being no longer able to keep my legs, I was thrown prostrate upon the ground. In the mean time, the universal ruin round me doubled my amazement."

"The crash of falling houses, the tottering of towers, and the groans of the dying, all contributed to raise my terror and despair. On every side of me, I saw nothing but a scene of ruin; and danger threatening wherever I should fly.  I recommended myself to God, as my last great refuge. "

"At the hour, O how vain was every sublunary happiness! Wealth, honour, empire, wisdom all mere useless sounds, and as empty as the bubbles of the deep! Just standing on the threshold of eternity, nothing but God was my pleasure; and the nearer I approached I only loved him the more."

"After some time, however finding that I remained unhurt, amidst the general concussion, I resolved to venture for safety; and running as fast as I could, I reached the shore, but almost terrified out of my reason. I did not search long here, till I found the boat in which I had landed, and my companions also, whose were terrors were even greater than mine. Our meeting was not of that kind, where every one is desirous of telling his own happy escape; it was all silence, and a gloomy dread of impending terrors."

"Leaving this seat of desolation, we prosecuted our voyage along the coast; and the next  day came to Rochetta, where we landed, although the earth still continued in violent agitations. But we had scarcely arrived at our inn, when we were once more obliged to return to the boat; and, in about half an hour, we saw the greater part of the town, and the inn which we had put up, dashed to the ground, and burying the inhabitants beneath the ruins."

"In this manner, proceeding onward in our little vessel, finding no safety at land, and yet, from the smallness of our boat, having but a very dangerous continuance at sea, we were bound. Here, wherever I turned my eyes, nothing but scenes of ruin and horror appeared; towns and castles leveled to the ground; Stromboli, though at sixty miles distance, belching forth flames in an unusual manner, and with a noise which I could distinctly hear."

"But my attention was quickly turned from more remote, to contiguous danger. The rumbling sound of an approaching earthquake, which we by this time were grown acquainted with, alarmed us for the consequences; it every moment seemed to grow louder, and to approach nearer. The place on which we stood now began to shake most dreadfully: so that being unable to stand, my companions and I caught hold of whatever shrub grew next to us, and supported ourselves in that manner."

"After some time, this violent paroxysm ceasing, we again stood up, in order to prosecute our voyage to Euphaemia, which lay within sight. In the mean time, while we were preparing for this purpose, I turned my eyes toward the city, but could see only a frightful dark cloud, that seemed to rest upon the place. This the more surprised us, as the weather was so very serene."

"We waited, therefore, till the cloud had passed away: then turning to look for the city it was totally sunk. Wonderful to tell! Nothing but a dismal and putrid lake was seen where it stood. We looked about to find some one that could tell us of its sad catastrophe, but could see no person. All was become a melancholy solitude; a scene of hideous desolation. "

"Thus proceeding pensively along, in quest of some human being that could give us a little information, we at length saw a boy sitting by the shore, and appearing stupefied with terror. Of him, therefore, we inquired concerning the fate of the city; but he could not be prevailed on to give us an answer."

"We entreated him, with every expression of tenderness and pity, to tell us; but his senses were quite wrapped up in the contemplation of the danger he had escaped. We offered him some victuals, but he seemed to loath the sight. We still persisted in our offices of kindness; but he only pointed to the place of the city, like one out of his senses; and then running up into the woods, was never heard of after. Such was the fate of the city of Euphaemia."

"As we continued our melancholy course along the shore, the whole coast, for the space of two hundred miles, presented nothing but the remains of cities; and men scattered without a habitation, over the fields. Proceeding thus along, we at length ended our distressful voyage by arriving at Naples, after having escaped a thousand dangers both at sea and land.

     Father Kircher describes Aeuphemia as having sunk and replaced by a lake. That was an assumption based on what he saw. In reality we now know that the town had been destroyed by an unforgiving tsunami that covered the town and an unknown number of its people with its high waters. 

     The layers before the 1600’s become more vague and the details more sparse. We do know that the town of Castel Monardo, very close to Capistrano was destroyed three times before the 1500’s and that great damage was also caused in that town in 1184.[xix] We can safely assume that the same fate befell Capistrano and nearby towns as they shared the same fate each time earthquakes hit the area.


[i] Risk Management Solutions Special Report. The 1908 Messina Earthquake: 100-Year Retrospective.

< > ( 4 April, 2010).

[ii] "I Grandi Disastri in Italia," Cronologia <> (18 June 2010).

[iii] "Il Terremoto in Calabria 1905" Sempre in Penombra. <>

[iv] M. Quasimodo, "Terremoto e soccorsi in Calabria", (Breve Relazione dei Fatti di Calabria), Tipografia Vitale, Napoli, 1905, ristampa Walter Brenner, Cosenza, 1991, pp.7 –9.

Quoted by Antonio Bagnato, in  "Appunti sul Terremoto del 1905 nel Vibonese" <>  (18 June, 2010)

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Giovanni, Manfrida, Capistrano Ieri ed Oggi. (Soveria Mannelli: Calabria Letteraria Editrice, 1987) 46.

[viii] Paolo Rumiz, "L’anno Zero della Calabria."  (Repubblica Magazine, 11 August 2009, 31)

[ix] E. Jacques et al., Faulting and Earthquake Triggering During the 1783 Calabria Seismic Sequence, (Geophys. J. Int., 2001) 147, 499-516. <> (4 April, 2010). 

[x] Antonio Tagarelli, "Il Terremoto del 1783 e la Malaria." <> (June 7, 2010).

[xi] The biblical name given to Filadelfia was proposed by Bishop Serrao "so that the inhabitants would remember their Greek origins, so as to remember and imitate the virtues of their ancestors and above all so that they would love each other as brothers and friends, having also the same sentiment toward all of humanity."


[xii]Rosa Maria Cagliostro, "1783-1796: La Ricostruzione delle Parrocchie nei Disegni di Cassa Sacra" (Soveria Mannelli (CZ): Rubettino Editore, 2000) 23-26. < > (4 April, 2010).

[xiii] [9] P. Colletta , Storia del Reame di Napoli,  Capolago, 1838. Cited in Storia di Mileto: dall'età Postromana al Terremoto del 1783, Sistema Bibliotecario Vibonese web site. <> (4 April, 2010)

[xiv] [9] P. Colletta , Storia del Reame di Napoli, Capolago, 1838, Capolago, 1838. Cited in Storia di Mileto: dall'età Postromana al Terremoto del 1783, Sistema Bibliotecario Vibonese web site, <> (4 April, 2010)

[xv] Elia Serrao, “I Tremuoti in Calabria” in Gaspare Serrao, Castel Monardo e Filadelfia nella loro Storia. Filadelfia: Tipografia Artigiana, pp. 143-144.

[xvi] Elia Serrao, “I Tremuoti in Provincia” in Gaspare Serrao, Castel Monardo e Filadelfia nella loro Storia. Filadelfia: Tipografia Artigiana, 145.

[xvii] D’amato, V.,  Memorie Historiche di Catanzaro, cited in, Gaspare Serrao, Castel Monardo e Filadelfia nella loro Storia. Filadelfia: Tipografia Artigiana, p. 121.

[xviii] Giovanni Manfrida, Capistrano Ieri ed Oggi. Calabria Letteraria Editrice, 46.

[xix] Gaspare Serrao, Castel Monardo e Filadelfia nella loro Storia. Filadelfia: Tipografia Artigiana, 119.