A Volcano with a Record of Twenty-five Centuries--Seventy-eight Recorded Eruptions--Three Hundred Thousand Inhabitants Dwelling on the Slopes of the Mountain and in the Valleys at Its Base--Stories of Earthquake Shocks and Lava Flows--Tales of Destruction--Described by Ancient and Modern Writers and Eye-Witnesses.

Mount Aetna, one of the most celebrated volcanoes in the world, is situated on the eastern sea-board of Sicily. The ancient poets often allude to it, and by some it was feigned to be the prison of the giant Euceladus or Typhon, by others the forge of Hephaestus. The flames proceeded from the breath of Euceladus, the thunderous noises of the mountain were his gorans, and when he turned upon his side, earthquakes shook the island. Pindar in his first Pythian ode for Hiero of Aetna, winner in the chariot race in 474 B.C., exclaims:--He (Typhon) is fast bound by a pillar of the sky, even by snowy Aetna, nursing the whole year's length her dazzling snow. Whereout pure springs of unapproachable fire are vomited from the inmost depth: in the daytime the lava streams pour fourth a lurid rush of smoke, but in the darkness a red rolling flame sweepeth rocks with uproar to the wide, deep sea. Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) speaks also of the "mighty Typhon." Thueydides (471-201 B.C.) alludes in the last lines of his third book to three early eruptions of the mountain. Many other early writers speak of Aetna, among them Theocritus, Virgil, Ovid, Livy, Seneca, Lucan, Strabo, and Lucilius Junior. While the poets on the one hand had invested Aetna with various supernature attributes, and had made it the prison of a chained giant, and the workshop of a god, Lucretius and others endeavored to show that the eruptions and other phenomena of the mountain could be explained by the ordinary operations of nature.

If we pass to more modern times we find mention of Aetna by Dante, Petrarch, Cardinal Bembo, and other middle age writers. In 1541 Fazello wrote a brief history of the mountain, and described an ascent. In 1591, Antonio Filoteo, who was born on Aetna, published a work in Venice, in which he describes an eruption which he witnessed in 1536. He asserts that the mountain ws then, as now, divided into three "regions"--the first very arid, rugged, uneven, and full of broken rocks; the second covered with forests; and the third cultivated in the ordinary manner.

The great eruption of 1669 was described at length by the naturalist Borelli in the year of its occurrence, and a brief account of it was given by the Earl of Winchelsa, English ambassador at Constantinople, who was returning home by way of the Straits of Messina at the time. As the eruption of 1669 was the most considerable one of modern times, it attracted a great deal of attention, and was described by several eye-witnesses.

The height of Aetna has been often determined. The earlier writers had very exaggerated notions on the subject, and a height of three and even four miles has been assigned. It must be borne in mind that the cone of a volcano is liable to variations in height at different periods, and a diminution of more than three hundred feet has occured during the course of a single eruption of Aetna, owing to the falling if the cone to cinders into the crater. During the last sixty years, however, the height of the mountain has been practically constant at ten thousand eight hundred and seventy-four feet.

There are two cities, Catania and Aci Reale, and sixty-three towns or villages on Mount Aetna. It is far more thickly populated than any other part of Sicily or Italy. No less than 300,000 people live on the mountain.

A remarkable feature of Aetna is the large number of minor cones which are scattered over its sides. They look small in comparison with the great mass of the mountain, but in reality some of them are of large dimensions.

The best period for making the ascent of Aetna is between June and September, after the melting of the winter snows, and before the falling of the autumnal rains. In winter there are frequently nine or ten miles of snow stretching from the summit downward, the paths are obliterated, and the guides sometimes refuse to accompany travelers. Moreover, violent storms often rage in the upper regions of the mountain, and the wind acquires a force which it is difficult to withstand, and is at the same time piercingly code.

A list of the eruptions of Aetna from the earliest times has been given by several writers. The first eruption within the historical period probably happened in the seventh century B.C.; the second occurred in the time of Pythagoras. The third eruption, which was in 477 B.C., is mentioned by Thucydides, and it must have been the same eruption to which Pindar and Aeschylus allude. An eruption mentioned by Thucydides happened in the year 426 B.C. An outburst of lava took place from Monte di Moja, the most northerly of the minor cones of Aetna, in 396 B.C., and following the course of the river Acesines, now the Alcantara, entered the sea near the site of the Greek colony of Naxos (now Capo di Schiso). We have no record of any further eruption for 256 years, till the year 140 B.C. Six years later an eruption occurred, and the same authorities mention an eruption in the year 126 B.C. Four years later Katana was nearly destroyed by a new eruption. Another, of which we possess no details, occurred during the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, 49 B.C. Livy speaks of an earthquake which took place in 43 B.C., shortly befire the death of Caesar, which it was believed to portend. In 38 B.C. and 32 B.C. eruptions took place.

The next eruption of which we hear is that mentioned by Suetonius in his life of Caligula. This was in 40 A.D. An eruption occurred in 72 A.D., after which Aetna was quiescent for near two centuries, but in the year 253, in the reign of the Emperor Decius, a violent eruption lasting nine days is recorded. According to Carrera and Photius, an eruption occurred in the year 420. We now find no further record for nearly four hundred years. Geoffrey of Viterbo states that there was an eruption in 812, when Charlemagne was in Messina. After another long interval, in this case of more than three centuries and a half, the mountain again showed activity. In February, 1169, one of the most disastrous eruptions on record took place. A violent earthquake, which was felt as far as Reggio, destroyed Catania in the course of a few minutes, burying fifteen thousand people beneath the ruins. It was the vigil of the feast of St. Agatha, and the cathedral of Catania was crowded with people, who were all buried beneath the ruins, together with the bishops and forty-four Benedictine monks. The side of the cone of the great crater toward Taormina fell into the crater.

There was a great eruption from the eastern side of the mountain in 1181. Lava desvended in the same vicinity in 1285. In 1329 Speziale was in Catania, and witnessed a very violent eruption, of which he has left us an account. On the evening of June 28th, about the hour of vespers, Aetna was strongly convulsed, terrible noises were emitted, and flames issued from the south side of the mountain. A new crater, Monte Lepre, opened above the rock of Munsarra, and emitted large quantities of dense black smoke. Soon after a torrent of lava poured from the crater, and red-hot masses of rock were projected into the air. Four years after the last eruption it is recorded by Silvaggio that a fresh outburst took place. A manuscript preserved in the archives of the cathedral of Catania mentions an eruption which took place on August 6, 1371, which caused the destruction of numerous olive groves near the city. An eruption which lasted for twelve days commenced in November, 1408. A violent earthquake in 1444 caused the cone of the mountain to fall into the great crater. An eruption of short duration, of which we have no details, occurred in 1447; and after this Aetna was quiescent for eighty-nine years.

Cardinal Bembo and Fazzello mention an eruption which took place toward the close of the fifteenth century. In March, 1536, a quantity of lava issued from the great crater, and several new apertures opened near the summit of the mountain and emitted lava.

A year later, in May, 1537, a fresh outburst occurred. A number of new mouths were opened on the south slope near La Fontanelle, and a quantity of lava burst forth which flowed in the direction of Catania, destroying a part of Nicolosi, and St. Antonio. In four days the lava ran fifteen miles. The cone of the great crater suddenly fell in, so as to become level with the Piano del Lago. The height of the mountain was thus diminished by 320 feet. Three new craters opened in November, 1566, on the northeast slope of the mountain. In 1579, 1603, 1607, 1610, 1614, and 1619, unimportant eruptions occurred. In February, 1633, Nicolosi was partly destroyed by a violent earthquake, and in the following December, earthquakes became frequent around the mountain.

In 1646 a new mouth opened on the north-east side, and five years later several new mouths opened on the west side of the mountain and poured out vast volumes of lava which threatened to overshelm Bronte. We have a more detailed account of the eruption of 1669 than any previous one. It was observed by many men of different nations, and there are a number of narratives regarding it. The eruption was in every respect one of the most terrible on record. On March 8th, the sun was obscured and a whirlwind blew over the face of the mountain; at the same time eathquakes were felt, and they continued to increase in violence for three days, at the end of which Nicolosi was converted into a heap of ruins.

On the morning of the 11th a fissure nearly twelve miles in length opened in the side of the mountain, and extended from the Piano di St. Leo to Monte Frumento, a mile from the summit. The fissure was only six feet wide, but it seemed to be of unknown depth, and a bright light proceeded from it. Six mouths opened in a line with the principal fissure, and discharged vast volumes of smoke, accompanied by low bellowing, which could be heard forty miles off. Toward the close of the day a crater opened about a mile below the others, and ejected red-hat stones to a considerable distance, and afterward sand and ashes, which covered the country for a distance of sixty miles.

The new crater soon vomited forth a torrent of lava, which presented a front of two miles. It encircled Monpilieri, and afterward flowed toward Belpasso, a town of 8,000 inhabitants, which was speedily destroyed. Seven mouths of fire opened around the new crater, and in three days united with it, forming one large crater 800 feet in diameter. The torrent of lava had continued to flow, and it destroyed the town of Mascalucia on March 23d. On the same day the crater cast up great quantities of sand, ashes, and scoriae, and formed above itself the great double coned hill called Monti Rossi, from the red color of the ashes of which it is mainly composed. On the 25th very violent earthquakes occurred, and the cone of the great central crater was shaken down into the crater for the fifth time since the beginning of the first century A.D. The original current of lava had divided into three streams, one of which destroyed San Pietro, the second Camporotondo, and the third the lands about Mascalucia, and afterward the village of Misterbianco. Fourteen villages were afterward swept out of existence, and the lava made its way toward Catania. At Albanello, two miles from the city, it undermined a hill covered with corn fields, and carried it forward a considerable distance; a vineyard was also seen floating on its fiery surface.

When the lava reached the walls of Catania, it accumulated without progression until it rose to the top of the wall, sixty feet in height, and it then fell over in a fiery cascade and overwhelmed a part of the city. Another portion of the same stream threw down 120 feet of the wall and carried death and destruction in its course. On April 23d the lava reached the sea, which it entered as a stream 1800 feet broad and forty feet deep. On reaching the sea the water, of course, began to boil violently, and clouds of steam arose, carrying with them particles of scoriae. The volume of lava emitted during this eruption amounted to many millions of cubic feet. Fewara considers that the length of the stream was at least fifteen miles, while its average width was between two and three miles, so that it covered at least forty square miles of surface.

For a few years after this terrible eruption Aetna was quiescent, but in 1682 a new mouth opened on the east side of the mountain, and lava issued from it and rushed down the precipices of the Val del Bue. Early in January, 1693, clouds of black smoke poured from the great crater, and loud noises resembling the discharge of artillery, were heard. A violent earthquake followed, and Catania was shaken to the ground, burying 18,000 of its inhabitants. It is said that in all fifty cities and towns were destroyed in Sicily, together with approximately 100,000 inhabitants.

The following year witnessed another eruption, but no serious disaster resulted. In March, 1702, three mouths opened in the Contrada del Trifaglietto, near the head of the Val due Bue. In 1723, 1732, 1735, 1744, and 1747, slight eruptions occurred. Early in the year 1775 Aetna began to show signs of disturbance; a great column of black smoke issued from the crater, from which forked lightning was frequently emitted. Loud detonations were heard and two streams of lava issued from the crater. A new mouth opened near Rocca di Musarra in the Val del Bue, four miles from the summit; and a quantity of lava was ejected from it. An extraordinary flood of water descended from Val del Bue, carrying all before it, and strewing its path with large blocks. Recupero estimated the volume of water at 16,000,000 cubic feet, probably a greater amount than could be furnished by the sudden melting of all the winter's snow on the mountain. It formed a channel two miles broad, and in some places thirty-four feet deep, and it flowed at the rate of a mile in a minute and a half during the first twelve miles of its course. The flood was probably produced by the melting not only of the winter's snow, but also of older layers of ice, which were suddenly liquified by the permeation of hot steam and lava, and which had been previously preserved from melting by a deposit of sand and ashes, as in the case of the ancient glacier found near the summit of the mountain in 1828.

In November, 1758, a smart shock of earthquake caused the cone of the great crater to fall in, but no eruption followed. In 1759, 1763, 1766, and 1780, eruptions were noted, and on May 18, 1780, a fissure opened on the southwest side of the mountain and extended from the base of the great crater for seven miles, terminating in a new mouth from which a stream of lava eminated. This encountered the cone of Palmintelli in its course, and separated into two branches, each of which was about 4,000 feet wide. Other mouths opened later in the year, and emitted larger quantities of lava, while in 1781 and 1787 there were slight eruptions. Five years later a fresh ourbreak occurred; earthquakes were prevalent, and vast volumes of smoke were carried out to sea, seeming to form a gigantic bridge between Sicily and Africa. A torrent of lava flowed toward Aderno, and a second flowed into the Val del Bue as far as Zuccolaro. A pit called La Cisterna, forty feet in diameter, opened in the Piano del Lago near the great cone, and ejected smoke and masses of old lava saturated with water. Several mouths opened below the crater, and the country round about Zaffarana was desolated.

In 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, 1802, 1805, and 1808 slight eruptions occurred. In March, 1809, no less than twenty-one mouths of fire opened between the summit of the mountain and Castiglione, and two years afterward more than thirty mouths opened in a line running eastward from the summit for five miles. They ejected jets of fire, accompanied by much smoke. In 1819 five new mouths of fire opened near the scene of the eruption of 1811; three of these united into one large crater, and poured forth a quantity of lava into the Val del Bue. The lava flowed until it reached a nearly perpendicular precipice at the head of the valley of Calanna, over which it fell in a cascade, and being hardened by its descent, it was forced against the sides of the tufaceous rock at the bottom, so as to produce an extraordinary amount of abrasion, accompanied by clouds of dust worn off by the friction. Mr. Scrope observed that the lava flowed at the rate of about three feet an hur nine months after its emission.

Eruptions occurred in 1831, 1832, 1838, and 1842. Near the end of the following year, fifteen mouths of fire opened near the crater of 1832, at a height of 7,000 feet above the sea. They began by discharging scoriae and sand, and afterward lava, which divided into three streams, the two outer of which soon came to a standstill, while the central stream continued to flow at the rapid rate of 180 feet a minute, the descent being an agle of 25 degrees. The heat at a distance of 120 feet from the current was 90 degrees F. A new crater opened just above Bronte, and discharged lava which threatened the town, but it fortunately encountered Monte Vittoria, and was diverted into another course. While a number of the inhabitants of Bronte were watching the progress of the lava, the front of the stream was suddenly blown out as by an explosion of gunpowder. In an instant red-hot masses were hurled in every direction, and a cloud of vapor enveloped everything. Thirty-six persons were killed on the spot, and twenty survived but a few hours.

A very violent eruption, which lasted more than nine months, commenced on the 26th of August, 1852. It was first witnessed by a party of six English tourists, who were ascending the mountain from Nicolosi in order to witness the sun rise from the summit. As they approached the Casa Inglesi the crater commenced to give forth ashes and flames of fire. In a narrow defile they were met by a violent hurricane, which overthrew both the mules and the riders, and forced them toward the precipices of Val del Bue. They sheltered themselves beneath some masses of lava, when suddenly an earthquake shook the mountain, and the mules fled in terror. They returned on foot toward daylight to Nicolosi, fortunately without having sustained injury. In the course of the night many rifts opened in that part of Val del Bue called the Balzo di Trifaglietto, and a great fissure opened at the base of Giannicola Grande, and a crater was thrown up, from which for seventeen days showers of sand and scoriae were ejected.

During the next day a quantity of lava flowed down into the Val del Bue, branching off so that one stream flowed to Calanna. The eruption continued with abated violence during the early months of 1853, and did not fully cease until May 27th. The entire mass of lava ejected is estimated to be equal to an area six miles long by two miles broad, with an average depth of about twelve feet.

In October, 1864, frequent shocks of earthquake were felt by the dwellers on Aetna. In January, 1865, clouds of smoke were emitted by the great crater, and roaring sounds were heard. On the night of the 30th a violent shock was felt on the northeast side of the mountain, and a mouth opened below Monte Frumento, from which lava was ejected. It flowed at the rate of about a mile a day, and ultimately divided into two streams. By March 10th the new mouths of fire had increased to seven in number, and they were all situated along a line stretching down from the summit. The three upper craters gave forth loud detonations three or four times a minute. Since 1865, there have been occsional eruptions, but none of great duration, nor has there been any loss of life in consequence.

It will be seen from the foregoing account that there is a great similarity in the general character of the eruptions of Aetna. Earthquakes presage the outburst; loud explosions are heard; rifts open in the sides of the mountain; smoke, sand, ashes, and scoriae are discharged; the action localizes itself in one or more craters; cinders are thrown out and accumulate around the crater in a conical form; ultimately lava rises through the new cone, frequently breaking down one side of it where there is least resistance, and flowing over the surrounding country. Out of the seventy-eight eruptions mentioned above, a comparatively small number have been of extreme violence, while many of them have been of a slight and harmless character.

Italy does not contain a more beautiful or fertile province than Calabria, the celebrated region which the ancients called Magna Grecia, where once flourished Crotona, Tarentum, Sybaris, and so many other prosperous cities. Situated between the volcanoes of Vesuvius and Aetna, Calabria has always been much exposed to the destructive influence of earthquakes, but the most terrible shock ever felt in the province was that of February 5, 1783. The ground was agitated in all directions, swelling like the waves of the ocean. Nothing could withstand such shocks, and not a building upon the surface remained erect. The beautiful city of Messina, the commercial metropolis of Sicily, was reduced to a heap of ruins.

Upon March 4, a fresh shock, almost as violent as the first, completed the work of destruction. The number of persons who perished in Calabria and Sicily during these two earthquakes is estimated at 80,000 and 320 of the 365 towns and villages which Calabria contained were destroyed. The greater number of those who lost their lives were buried amid the ruins of the houses, but many perished in fires that were kindled in most of the towns, particularly in Oppido, where the flames were fed by great magazines of oil. Not a few, especially among the peasantry dwelling in the country, were suddenly engulfed in fissures. Many who were only half buried in the ruins, and who might have been saved had there been help at hand, were left to die a lingering death from cold and hunger. Four Augustine monks at Terranova perished thus miserably. Having taken refuge in a vaulted sacristy, they were entombed in it alive by the masses of rubbish, and lingered for four days, during which their cries for help could be heard, till death put an end to their sufferings.

Of still more thrilling interest was the case of the Marchioness Spadara. Having fainted at the moment of the first great shock, she was lifted by her husband, who, bearing her in his arms, hurried with her to the harbor. Here, on recovering her sense, she observed that her infant boy had been left behind. Taking advantage of a moment when her husband was too much occupied to notice her, she darted off, and, running back to her house, which was still standing, she snatched her babe from his cradle. Rushing with him in her arms toward the staircase, she found the stair had fallen, barring all further progress in that direction. She fled from room to room, chased by the falling materials, and at length reached a balcony as her last refuge. Holding up her infant, she impored the few passers-by for help; but they all, intent on securing their own safety, turned a deaf ear to her cries. Meanwhile her mansion had caught fire, and ere long the balcony, with the devoted lady still grasping her darling, was hurled into the devouring flames.

A few cases are recorded of devotion similar to that of this heroic woman, but happily attended by more fortunate results. In the great majority of instances, however, the instinct of self-preservation triumhed over every other feeling, rendering the wretched people callous to the dangers and sufferings of others. Still worse was the conduct of the half savage peasantry. They hastened into the towns like vultures to their prey. Instead of helping the sufferers, they ransacked the smoking ruins for plunder, robbed the persons of the dead, and of those entangled alive among the rubbish. They robbed the very injured who would have paid them handsomely for rescuing them. At Polistena, a gentleman had been buried head downward beneath the ruins of his house, and when his servant saw what had happened he actually stole the silver buckles off his shoes, while his legs were in the air, and made off with them. The unfortunate gentleman, however, managed to rescue himself from his perilous position.

Several cases occurred of persons being rescued alive from the ruins after a lapse of three, four, and even five days, and one on the seventh day after interment. Those who were thus rescued all declared that their direst sufferings were from thirst.

Return to San Francisco Horror Table of Contents
Return to California AHGP E-Books Index
Return to California AHGP