Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mount Etna Erupts

On January 11, 1693, Mount Etna erupted.  Sicily suffered an earthquake with this eruption that caused 60,000 deaths, and precipitated a 5-10 meter tsunami. 

Sir Walter Scott traveled through southern Italy in 1831, but did not witness an eruption.  He did, however, help to preserve some accounts of these eruptions in "A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts ...", which was published in 1812.  These tracts relate to the reign of Charles II.  Mount Etna erupted in 1669, destroying the town of Nicolosi, and killing 20,000.  This eruption caused a substantial flow of lava, and an earthquake.  The lava reportedly took eight years to cool.  Here is one of the tracts about the eruption from an eyewitness:

'A true and exact Relation of the late prodigious Earthquake and Eruption of Mount Etna, or Monte Gibello, as it came in a Letter written to his Majesty, from Naples, by the Right Honourable the Earl of Winchelsea, his Majesty's late Ambassador at Constantinople, who, in his Return from thence, visiting Catania, in the Island of Sicily, was an Eye-witness of that dreadful Spectacle. Together with a more particular Narrative of the same, as it is collected out of several Relations sent from Catania. Published by Authority, 1669.


The author of this tract, which was published by authority, is thus commemorated by Horace Walpole:—Heneage Finch, second Earl of Winchelsea, was " first cousin of the Chancellor Nottingham, and made a figure at the same period. He was intimate with Moncke, and concerned in the Restoration; soon after which he was sent ambassador to Mahomet the Fourth. Moncke had given the earl the government of Dover-castle, which was continued to him ; and when King James was stopped at Feversham, he sent for the Earl of Winchelsea, who prevailed on the king to return to London. The earl voted for giving the crown to King William, by whom he was continued lord lieutenant of Kent. He died soon after in HJSJ). On his return from Constantinople, visiting Sicily, he was witness to a terrible convulsion of Mount Etna, an account of which he sent to the King."—Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors, apud Works, I. 420.

May it please your Majesty,

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, and was there kindly invited by the bishop to lodge in his palace, which I accepted, that so 1 might be the better able to inform your majesty of that extraordinary fire, which comes from Mount Gibel, fifteen miles distant from that city; which, for its horridness in the aspect, for the vast quantity thereof, (for it is fifteen miles in length and seven in breadth) 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; and that which did augment my admiration was, 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. I staid there from nine a clock on Saturday morning to seven next morning, and this mountain of fire and stones, with cinders, had advanced into the sea twenty yards at least, in several places ; in the middle of this fire, which burnt in the sea, it hath formed a passage like to a river, with its banks on each side very steep and craggy, and in this channel moves the greatest quantity of this fire, which is the most liquid, with stones of the same composition, and cinders all red-hot, swimming upon the fire, of a great magnitude ; from thi& river of fire doth proceed under the great mass of the stones, which are generally three fathom high all over the country, where it burns, and in other places much more, there are secret conduits or rivulets of this liquid matter, which communicates fire and heat into all parts more or less, and melts the stones and cinders by fits in those places where it toucheth them, over and over again ; where it meets with rocks or houses of the same matter (as many are) they melt and go away with the fire; where they find other compositions they turn them to lime or ashes, (as I am informed.) The composition of this lire, stones, and cinders, are sulphur, nitre, quick-silver, sal-amoniac, lead, iron, brass, and all other metals. It moves not regularly, nor constantly down hill; in some places it hath made the vallies hills, and the hills that are not high are now vallies. When it was night I went upon two towers in diverse places, and could plainly see at ten miles distance, as we judged, the fire to begin to run from the mountain in a direct line, the flame to ascend as high and as big as one of the highest steeples in your majesty's kingdoms, and to throw up great stones into the air; I could discern the river of fire to descend the mountain of a terrible fiery or red colour, and stones of a paler red, to swim thereon, and to be some as big as an ordinary table. We could see this fire to move in several other places, and all the country covered with fire, ascending with great flames in many places, smoaking like to a violent furnace of iron melted, making a noise with the great pieces that fell, especially those which fell into the sea. A cavalier of Malta, who lives there, and attended me, told me, that the river was as liquid, where it issues out of the mountain, as water, and came out like a torrent with great violence, and is five or six fathom deep, and as broad, and that no stones do sink therein. I assure your majesty, no pen can express how terrible it is, nor can all the art and industry of the world quench or divert that which is burning in the country. In forty days time it hath destroyed the habitations of twenty-seven thousand persons, made two hills of one, one thousand paces high a-piece, and one is four miles in compass, as your majesty will see by the draught that 1 take the boldness to send herewith ; it was the best I could get, but hath nothing of the progress into the sea; the confusion was so great in the city, which is almost surrounded with mountains of fire, that I could not get any to draw one, but I have taken care to have one sent after me for your majesty. Of twenty thousand persons which inhabited Catania, three thousand did only remain ; all their goods are carried away, the cannons of brass are removed out of the castle, some great bells taken down, the city gates walled up next the fire, and preparation made for all to abandon the city.


The night which I lay there, it rained ashes all over the city, and ten miles at sea it troubled my eyes. This fire in its progress met with a lake of four miles in compass, and it was not only satisfied to fill it up, though it was four fathom deep, but hath made of it a mountain.

I send also to your sacred majesty a relation in print which the bishop gave me, wherein the beginning is related, and several curious passages. I must humbly beseech your pardon for the hindering your majesty so long from your better employments : And I beseech you, great sir, ever to believe I love and reverence your person above all expression : For I am

Your majesty's
most obedient, most humble,

and most faithful

subject and servant,


WlNCHELSEA.

Naples, the 27th of April,
7th of May, 1669. '

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