Hebrew Note From 1446 Reveals ‘Lost’ Earthquake In Italy

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A geologist working for Italy’s Department of Civil Protection made a rare discovery — a description in medieval Hebrew of a previously unknown series of destructive earthquakes in 1446 that rocked the central part of the Italian peninsula — while carrying out research in the Vatican Apostolic Library in Rome.

The handwritten, eight-line note — dated Tishrei 5206 (September-October 1446) — hidden inside the flyleaf of a prayer book details a swarm of earthquakes in the Marche region from March to September of that year that devastated the village of Camerino and several nearby towns, Paolo Galli said.

“While I was searching for news concerning one of the most catastrophic series of earthquakes in (Molise and Benevento), Italy in 1456 … by chance, I found an unknown manuscript dealing with an unknown earthquake that occurred farther north 10 years before,” Galli wrote.

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The article, “All the people of Israel are friends: An unknown mid‐fifteenth century earthquake in the Marche region (Central Italian Apennines) recorded in a coeval Hebrew manuscript,” was published in the current issue of the journal Seismological Research Letters.

Camerino is located in the Apennine Mountains about 194 kilometers (120 miles) northeast of Rome between the valleys of the Potenza and Chienti rivers.

The description of the 1446 earthquake was “extremely brief, but vivid and full of pathos,” said Galli, adding that the note describes an earthquake with its epicenter near Camerino that toppled houses, the governor’s courtyard and destroyed cities and villages “that have become a mound of stone.”

The document relates to how the region’s Jews helped their co-religionists who survived the disastrous tremors. Men and women, Galli said, “came here in Camerino dressed in white pale dresses with their horses and mules and donkeys loaded with bread and food and wine, in order to hold the hand of the poor.”

Galli had been looking through the Vatican library’s manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to find more information about the sequence of tremors in 1446 when he came across the prayer book.

“The earthquake of 1446, or rather, the earthquakes of 1446, represent the most catastrophic seismic sequence that occurred in the late Middle Ages in central-southern Italy,” he explained.

The damage described in the prayer book note suggests that Camerino experienced intense shaking, measuring an eight on the Mercalli-Cancani-Sieberg intensity scale, Galli said, which is approximately equivalent to a six on the Richter magnitude scale. This level implies severe damage and partial collapse to half of the town’s buildings, along with the fall of columns, monuments and walls.

Galli suggested the Camerino earthquake might have been a “twin” to a 1799 sequence in the region, where a magnitude 6.2 earthquake caused similar intense tremors.

“Of course, this is only a hypothesis, but by comparing the epicentral area and the level of damage in Camerino and its surroundings, it is possible that the effects described in our manuscript describe, albeit briefly, something similar to the event of 1799,” he noted. 

Galli added, “The wealth of historical sources in Italy is undoubtedly one of the richest, but it is equally subject to gaps both in terms of time and in places. Unlike the Kingdom of Naples, for example, the production of documentation related to earthquakes has certainly been poorer in the Papal States, of which the Marche Region was a part in the 15th century.”

Of the about 450 documented earthquake observations from Italy in the 15th century, Galli said, roughly half are from that series of quakes in 1446. The historical record includes a treatise on the earthquakes written by Giannozzo Manetti. But the description by the Florentine diplomat and humanist contains few technical details, such as the location of the earthquake epicenters.

The note “not only helps us partially fill a gap in the seismic history of Italy but also prompts us to reflect on how we still do not know about seismogenesis even in times covered by written sources,” Galli said.

Compiling a fuller record of past earthquakes can help inform predictions on future ones.

“Even a single new entry in the catalog, like this one, helps us to understand the seismic cycle occurring in each different region,” Galli said.





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