From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 64
Terremoto (Earthquake)
The fear of a terremoto or earthquake has plagued the human inhabitants of the Garfagnana for thousands of years. The Giovianini were not fearless when Charlemagne arrived in their valley nor are they fearless when it comes to earthquakes. Although, they don’t seem to worry until the earth actually starts to shake.

The last big one to cause serious damage to Gioviano was in 1920 when the roof of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta was heavily damaged, and the ancient bell tower collapsed into a heap of rubble. With this chapter in mind, I recalled that my parents had felt the Palazzo move beneath their feet some years ago resulting in a new crack in the wall in the sala grande (large living room) above the door to their bedroom. Another tremor caused a very beautiful hand-painted ceramic tile by Cecconi to crash to the floor and break.

One afternoon, we went to Borgo to visit with our geometra (land surveyor), to make sure that there was enough money in our account to pay taxes and other expenses such as insurance on the carrozzina and on our houses. While we were there, I asked him to make sure that there was enough insurance to cover the damages should a big earthquake hit. He shrugged his shoulders and said that if that kind of disaster occurred, the insurance companies wouldn’t cover the damages anyway, so why worry.

You can’t escape the possibility of earthquakes on the entire Italian Peninsula. The Apuanian Alps upon the flanks of which Gioviano perches are only 2,000,000 years old and still growing, as are the Apennines across the valley. That sounds extra young to me, especially for Monte Prato in the Apennines to have grown 6,735 feet and Monte Pisanino to have been uplifted 6,380 feet in so short a period of time. I did a little calculation and the average growth of Monte Prato has been 4/100 of an inch per year or 40 inches in 1,000 years. When something as big as an entire mountain range is moving upward at that rate of speed something has to give, and when it does, WATCH OUT!

You might want to skip this chapter if you grew up as Southern Baptists in East Texas—especially if you were amongst those who tried to convince me as a child that the whole universe was created in 4,004 B.C., that the wine Jesus drank didn’t have alcohol in it, and that we are not the product of the process of natural selection that we call evolution.

You would be surprised at the number of people who are still convinced that the earth is flat, that it revolves around the sun every 24 hours, and that earthquakes are God’s way of punishing lots of innocent people because someone somewhere happened to be born gay. They are the product of the “Leave every child behind” syndrome that is infecting our American educational system. We are also victims of the “Left Behind” cult that prays for a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East so that Jesus will come back and pluck the members up to heaven, leaving the rest of us behind.

So, now that I have thrown my little fit, let’s continue learning about the geological phenomenon called earthquakes that unfortunately occur in and around Gioviano from time to time. In fact, there have been 230 measurable seismic events in the Garfagnana in the modern era. The epicenter of the 1920 quake, which registered 10th on the Mercalli Scale or between 7 and 7.3 on the Richter Scale, destroyed a great deal of the historic center of Villa Collemandina. Fortunately for Gioviano, the damage was far less severe.

Over the centuries, the people of the Garfagnana had learned to build their dwellings to be more earthquake resistant by constucting their towers shorter and more robust. This is the reason that Castruccio’s tower atop Ghivizzano is much shorter and fatter than the towers of San Gimignano of the same era. Wooden lintels were used oftentimes rather than stone ones, as wood tends to flex during a quake whereas stone may crack or crumble. Rounded arches for openings have more strength than square ones which is why so many of the ancient doorways in Gioviano are arched. The stone houses have little if any mortar, just dry stones packed with a pasty mud-like substance which tends to make the walls more elastic than otherwise.

In nearby villages, I have climbed to the top of two medieval bell towers with the bell ringers who climb onto the ancient bells and swing back and forth until they start to ring. In both cases, I was terrified. The towers themselves swung back and forth according to the movement of the bells which sometimes weigh thousands of pounds each. Is it possible that the reason the campanile in Gioviano crumbled was because it was too stiff and failed to give along with the movement of the earth?

Dated 1303, the two original bells that were in the ancient tower when it fell were salvaged and hung in the new tower that was completed in 1931. It took a decade of arduous labor by the Giovianini, carrying bricks, mortar, and stones up the steep path from the valley floor to the highest point in Gioviano. The most difficult feat was transporting a new and even heavier bell up the steep slope with human labor alone. I think that the Egyptians had it easier because at least the sleds which they used to transport the building blocks of the pyramids only had to traverse level ground from the quarries.

Does the fear of earthquakes make me “wanna go home?” Not in the least. “Che sarà sarà, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, che sarà sarà.” In the meantime I am going to stuff myself with as much mouth-watering food as I can before returning to Texas, and I might even sample a glass or two of vino nero (black wine), which is what the Giovianini call red wine.

Updated December 22, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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