The Val Di Noto: Earthquakes As Parasites

Central to the nature of the parasite is its capacity to drive the evolution of a place, and that place can be a person, a city, a valley, a country or even the world itself

In a previous piece, I briefly discussed how the idea of parasitism developed by the French philosopher, Michel Serres, could be used to interpret the historical development of a place, particularly its landscape. In this piece, I will do something similar, only my focus will be not on Lombardy’s Valtellina but on Sicily’s Val di Noto.

In the first case, parasites of various kinds, human and nonhuman – monks, grapevines and other agents – caused a kind of infection in the valley that led to the development of kilometers of dry stone walls on the valley’s northern hillside. In the second case, which I will discuss here, an earthquake caused thousands of stone buildings to come tumbling down, but also informed the way in which they were put back up. Central to the nature of the parasite is its capacity to drive the evolution of a place, and that place can be a person, a city, a valley, a country or even the world itself. Let me say more about this idea and then I will apply it to what happened in the Val di Noto in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Parasites driving the evolution of places

According to Serres, parasites drive the evolution of a place in three ways: they analyze, paralyze and catalyze. By analyze, Serres mean ‘select’, by paralyze he means ‘eliminate’, and by catalyze he means ‘combine’. A simple but powerful example is found in the practice of agriculture. Faced with wild terrain, early human beings analyzed the land by selecting a suitable parcel, paralyzed it by eliminating undesired plants and stones, and catalyzed it by combining the soil with the seeds of desired crops. Parasites act in their own interest, but in so doing have a marked effect on the host, in this case the land, upon and within which they inhabit. Whether parasites are good or bad depends upon the perspective of the entity making the assessment, but this is not the primary task of the geographical historian (or historical geographer), whose main question is always how a place came to be as it is.

In the Val di Noto, the Baroque architecture that existed before the earthquake was fairly sparse and not particularly exciting. The four facades that adorn Piazza Vigliena in Palermo, known informally as Quattro Canti, were competently designed and executed but rather staid and dull when compared to the works upon which they were based, the spectacular and dramatic Baroque churches and palaces of Roma and Firenze. What made these works on the peninsula so outstanding was the fervent need to resist and counteract the threat posed by the Protestant Reformation. Thus the Catholic Counter-reformation can be understood as a kind of fever that rose in response to a parasitic infection, the Protestant Reformation, which no doubt saw itself as a cleansing and purifying response to the disease that they felt had corrupted Christianity, namely the corrupt practices of the Roman Church, most notably the selling of indulgences, yet another parasite. Here we see another feature of Serres’ parasite theory: it is serial in nature, with a host being paralyzed by one parasite, another parasite parasitizing that parasite, and so on down a never ending chain of parasitism.

The earthquake of 1693

So when an earthquake struck the Val di Noto in 1693, it shook dozens of cities and towns throughout the region, eliminated virtually all of their buildings, and forced local inhabitants to pick up the pieces and rebuild them. In the way of the parasite, the earthquake analyzed (selected), paralyzed (eliminated), and catalyzed (combined) agents, elements, features and activities of the Val di Noto, and in so doing drove its evolution.

All of this happened quite literally. Even though the earthquake caused massive destruction, there remained in the rubble many architectural pieces that were still useful. The inhabitants who took upon themselves the enormous labor of rebuilding were of course parasites themselves, swarming through and scouring the debris to analyze (select the good pieces), paralyze (eliminate what was not reusable), and catalyze (put the old pieces together with new ones to reconstruct the buildings). Thus the new buildings arose in a new style, a new version of the Baroque, one that retained elements of the past but which also bore signs of a new aesthetic that communicated the trauma caused by the earthquake. The parasite that struck the island was not theological, as was the case on the peninsula, but seismic, and the energy of this attack and resistance against it is evident in the Val di Noto’s new architecture.

Gone was the stiff formality of Quattro Canti, whose designs celebrated noble figures posed with regal dignity. In its place arose the faces of ordinary people, some of them laughing, others grimacing, still others seeming to hold their tongue, but all of them animated with an everyday and popular sense of irony or equanimity, with faces that were much more naturalistic and animated than any of the faces on the figures found in the facades of Quattro Canti.

The parasitic chain has continued to this day

The reason for this change was the enormous infiltration of artisans and craftsman from throughout the island into the region, who busily got to work on reconstructing its fallen towns and cities. They took standard Baroque designs found in bound volumes that had arrived from Roma and Firenze and interpreted and executed them using old and new materials, old and new tools and techniques, and most importantly, old and new perspectives, those that reflected what life was like before the earthquake and those that reflected what it was like after.

So the earthquake and the people who responded to it were forms of parasites, analyzing, paralyzing and catalyzing the Val di Noto, the host that housed and sustained them. Of course, the parasitic chain did not end in the 18th century but has continued to this day. That is a story that will have to wait for a future piece.