When the Earth trembles...

The Municipality of Bologna is located in an area characterised by moderate seismic activity. However, throughout the centuries, the town has been the epicentre of several earthquakes, beside being hit by the effects of earth tremors taking place many kilometres away, even though luckily they never had devastating effects on the town.

Historical seismology dates the first earthquake hitting Bologna back to August 17th, 1174, which chronicler Bartolomeo della Pugliola defined as "big", without specifying its consequences for the local community.

From several sources in the chronicles we learn that of the three tremors in the 14th century, the strongest was the one hitting the 25th July 1365. Its consequences were four casualties, many buildings and churches damaged, and towers collapsing. The town's authorities adopted measures for the restoration of the damaged buildings; they promoted many religious processions, and also a pilgrimage to the Compostella shrine.

Probably, also Leonardo da Vinci, in a note mentioning the relationship between earthquake and rivers (Leicester Code, former Hammer Code), referred to the tremors felt in the early 16th century in Bologna. In fact in the 16th century only one earthquake was recorded, but with several and violent aftershocks. The tremors of the highest magnitude, estimated around the 7th degree in the Mercalli scale, caused many chimney tops, merlons, and towers to top off. Several arches of arcades and trussed vaults of churches collapsed. In the administrative documentation issued by the Reformers of the Rule of Freedom, it is possible to infer several attempts to face the emergency of these natural calamities. Institutional bodies, besides ordering several days of procession to pray for the end of the earthquake, earmarked a sum of 50 lire, as advance payment for the restoration of the Municipal Building and the Podesta Palace, later followed by additional 334 lire, also in favour of the same buildings and the Asinelli tower (E. Guidoboni). Cherubino Ghirardacci recorded in detail the utter confusion and terror of the inhabitants running away from their houses, finding temporary shelter in the open air "under pavilions, tents, mat houses, and other huts made with tapestry and linen sheets". The Elders and "Gonfaloniere" - Standard-bearer - representing the town's government, "slept in the gardens of the palace…for fear that it may collapse over their heads…"

Also in the night of June 1st, 1779, six seismic shocks hit the town, with such violence that church bells and the clock of the Municipal Building rang. Together with these dramatic events, an increase was recorded in "apothecary" activity, in particular in the sales of medicaments against panic; many pregnant women, in that period, had still-births (R. Camassi - D. Molin).

In the 20th century an earthquake was recorded in 1929, although of irrelevant consequences. Archival documentation and the main newspapers gave ample coverage to the deployment of the Corps of Civil Engineers, but mostly of the Fire Brigade for their efforts in surveying and assessing the damaged buildings.

Today, the Municipality of Bologna has adopted a plan for Civic Protection, aiming at preventing danger derived from natural or man-made calamities and disasters and for the protection of citizens.


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India ink drawing depicting the town of Bologna during the earthquakes of 1505 (Municipality of Bologna, Photo: MV).