Rebuilding After An Earthquake: Lessons From 17th Century Sicily

Greater liberty at lower scales of activity typically produces better results.

In my previous pieces I wrote on three relations that appear evident in Italian society: that between the religious and the secular, between culture and agriculture, and between earthquake and architecture. In demonstration of the last relation, I offer in this piece a discussion of the earthquake that struck the Val di Noto in Sicily in 1693 and its subsequent reconstruction, and what it might reveal to us in a time in which earthquakes and our responses to them continue to be an important part of life in Italy. I engage these topics as a geographer, which means that the materiality of landscape, the natural and built elements of the places in which we live, is very much front and center in my thinking.

You might think that people who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries were radically different from us, but if you look at the representations of themselves that they created, and often mounted on the facades of their buildings, you realize that they were very much like us, essentially human in their facial expressions while at the same time modern in the technologies that they enjoyed, eyeglasses for instance. So too was a building, then as it was now, built of stone or masonry, having doors and windows, and having roughly the same proportions that contemporary buildings have. In fact, many buildings from this period are still standing and highly functional, a cultural richness that blesses Italy and other parts of Europe.

The Val di Noto

Before I start my discussion of the earthquake and its aftermath, let me say a bit about the Val di Noto itself. The “val” in the region’s name does not refer to a valley, from the Latin “vallis”, which is feminine, but to a wall, from “vallus”, which is masculine; hence in Italian you say: il Val di Noto rather than la Val di Noto. So the reference is to a human structure rather than a natural one, and is more metaphorical than literal. At one point in history, the triangle that is Sicily was divided into three regions: the Val di Mazara being the western lobe, the Val di Noto being the eastern one, and the Val Demone lying to the north. There were no physical walls around these regions; the divisions were administrative and political rather than material.

The walls within Val di Noto, however, were very much real, and on 11 January 1693, they came tumbling down with tremendous force. In fact, the earthquake on the 11th was the second tremor in a series, with a weaker one preceding it by two days. The second tremor was the stronger of the two and it caused a great deal of damage throughout many cities and towns, including Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, to name the municipalities that constitute the current Unesco World Heritage site, which bears the official title: Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (South-Eastern Sicily). Thousands of people were killed or injured and countless buildings were destroyed, and it took decades to recover from the tragedy and to rebuild the region. The tragic event sent shock waves throughout Europe, compelling philosophers to fear for the future of humanity.

Fortunately, the local economy before the earthquake had been quite strong since the Val di Noto was able to capitalize on a trend for citrus in countries to the north, particularly England. So capital was not a problem. What was needed was organization and that came in the form of Giuseppe Lanza, the Duke of Camastra, who was appointed to lead the reconstruction by the Viceroy of Madrid, since Spain ruled Sicily at the time. Lanza was a highly capable administrator, most crucially in the sense that he delegated most of his power to people who occupied lower orders of activity, who in this case were the builders and artisans of each city and town that needed to be rebuilt. In this way, the construction sites, “cantieri” in Italian, became the essential nucleuses of reconstruction, such that historians of the earthquake and the recovery that followed refer to “la cultura del cantiere” or “the culture of the construction site”. Local residents were artists, artisans, designers, builders and planners rolled into one.

An example of recovery

They drew from a basic architectural grammar, namely the Baroque style that developed in and around Florence and Rome and before travelling south by way of the circulation of books containing design and construction techniques. So each locale arose by the efforts of hundreds of groups of builders and artisans using local materials, tastes and methods to recreate or replace the streets and buildings that had been destroyed by the earthquake. The result was a recovery that was low on bureaucracy and high on efficiency and creativity, with the results conforming to an overarching style yet varying according to local conditions and influences.

The approach used by Lanza should not seem so unusual to us today because it is somewhat similar to the concept and practice of public-private partnerships that currently drive the transformation of cities throughout the world. Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, after a few decades of disastrous reconstruction efforts in Europe and North America, public-private partnerships arose to take the place of state-dominated urban renewal projects that were responding to blight caused more by economic, political and social dysfunction than by natural catastrophe. Despite this difference, however, the wisdom was the same: greater liberty at lower scales of activity typically produces better results because the people doing the work are better able to respond to the needs and desires of the local community.

The problem with the earlier period of urban redevelopment was that it was too often driven by ideological tastes and concerns that ignored the needs of everyday people, and reconstruction was executed in a top-down fashion at a very large scale. Le Corbusier was one of the strongest exponents of this approach, but the problem existed everywhere throughout the postwar industrialized world. In the 1960s countless residential and commercial buildings arose as symbols of artistic concepts or national or ethnic identities, but were very poor places in which to live and work. Enormous apartment buildings that contained no space to accommodate a grocery store were commonplace disasters. It is a past to avoid repeating.

In future pieces, I will report on my visits to some of the cities in Marche and Umbria to shed some light on how those reconstruction efforts are progressing.