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15th century Hebrew prayer book fills gap in Italian earthquake record

[Nov. 7, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

1,500 year old bible
An innocuous note, scrawled on the pages of a 15th-century Hebrew prayer book, has provided a vital piece of the puzzle in Italy’s earthquake history. (CREDIT: Sotheby's via JTA)

In the labyrinthine stacks of the Apostolic Vatican Library, a discovery by Paolo Galli has unearthed a forgotten chapter of Italy's seismic activity. An innocuous note, scrawled on the pages of a 15th-century Hebrew prayer book, has provided a vital piece of the puzzle in Italy’s earthquake history.

The note, a witness to devastation, is a rare record of an earthquake that once struck the Marche region in the central Apennines. Galli’s finding, revealed in the pages of Seismological Research Letters, underscores a poignant reminder of the unknowns that still shroud our understanding of seismogenesis, even in an era rich with written accounts.


As Galli delves into the depths of historical archives, he confronts a glaring contrast: "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." This disparity is starkly evident when comparing the robust earthquake documentation of the Kingdom of Naples to the scant records from the Papal States—Marche's ruling entity in the 1400s.

The brief but vivid account on the prayer book’s leaf, penned in the town of Camerino during the fall months of 1446, speaks volumes through its mere eight lines. It recounts an earthquake so fierce it reduced houses, a governor’s courtyard, and entire cities and villages to mere "mounds of stone."


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In an evocative depiction of community and resilience, the note depicts men and women, donned in white, arriving in Camerino with beasts of burden carrying essentials to succor those impoverished by the disaster—a testament to the enduring human spirit in the face of calamity.

This singular note stands alone in historical record, marking the occurrence of a significant quake in Marche during the 15th century. A contemporary petition from the nearby locality of Petrino, beseeching aid for fortification repairs, hints at the quake’s reach but remains an ambiguous piece of evidence.


Italy's earthquake chronicles from the 1400s are far from comprehensive, with only 450 documented site observations, half of which stem from the notorious seismic events of 1456 in the south-central Apennines. It was in pursuit of more details about this sequence that Galli stumbled upon the Camerino note while sifting through medieval manuscripts.

Detail of folium 1 recto of manuscript Ross.499 in the Vatican library, reporting the news of the earthquake that struck Camerino and its neighboring settlements in 1446 (CREDIT: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)

“The earthquakes of 1456 represent the most catastrophic seismic sequence that occurred in the late Middle Ages in central-southern Italy,” Galli states, reflecting on the gravity of that period. Despite plentiful accounts, including a treatise by the eminent humanist Giannozzo Manetti, precise details on the earthquake’s characteristics remain elusive.


The devastation chronicled in the Camerino prayer book implies the town suffered intense shaking, possibly ranking around an 8 on the Mercalli-Cancani-Sieberg intensity scale—a measure indicative of severe damage. Galli posits that the Camerino quake could have been a precursor or "twin" to the 1799 seismic sequence in the same region, which was characterized by similar intensity and destruction.

The labyrinthine stacks of the Apostolic Vatican Library. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

“This is only a hypothesis,” Galli cautions, “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 resemble, albeit briefly, something similar to the event of 1799.”


He extrapolates that the earthquake's impact, the reduction of settlements around Camerino to rubble, points to a potential epicenter akin to that of the 1799 event. Additionally, the lack of far-field information in the account implies that the seismic activity originated from a shallow-depth fault, as was likely the case in the later quake.

Vista of Camarino Italy. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Through a historical lens, this anecdotal note transcends its initial obscurity, offering scholars and scientists a tangible link to the seismic enigma of Italy's past. Galli's discovery prompts a reconsideration of the historical record and invites a broader reflection on the untold number of natural events that remain undocumented, waiting to be unearthed from the annals of history.


Galli’s work not only contributes to the scientific understanding of Italy’s seismicity but also illuminates the profound intersections of human experience, history, and the unyielding forces of nature. It is a narrative that has emerged from the shadow of time to remind us that the Earth's tales, though sometimes hidden, are interwoven with our own and are just as complex and enduring.


For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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