The Earthquakes and Eruptions of 1669

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This fresco of the 1669 eruption by Giacinto Platania can be found in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Catania

The 16th and 17th centuries were hard on Etna inhabitants. Multiple, very damaging, prolonged eruptions resculpted the territory, devastated the landscape, displaced residents, wiped out villages, and buried valuable agricultural space. One eruption was particularly destructive.

Following several days of strong earthquakes, a collapse in Mount Etna’s central crater on March 11, 1669 forced open a lateral fissure between the summit and Nicolosi (700 m AMSL).

The resulting eruption and lava flow lasted approximately five weeks, covering more than 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) of Etna’s southeast flank. The lava flows arrived at the sea in Catania and south of the city to Piano Tavola and the Simeto River.

The path of the lava destroyed substantial portions of the cities of Nicolosi, Camporeale, the western half of Mascalucia and San Pietro Clarenza, much of San Giovanni Galerno, and the southern neighborhoods of Catania.

As devastating as the eruption was to the infrastructure, economy, and topography of southeast Etna, there were very few deaths (despite contrary reports). The frequency and duration of earthquakes leading up to the March 11 eruption had caused enough of an alert that the population prepared to flee their homes. The speed of the lava was also very slow, moving 1,575 feet per day.

Today, at the seaside, visitors can walk out on the cooled lava. Looking back at the mountain, the sciara (lava flow) is visible, though it has been adapted, like the rest of Mount Etna, into an idyllic fusion of small farms and urban centers.

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