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It was a hundred and twenty-two days of apocalypse on earth. And the chronicles handed down from father to son still speak of it as one of the greatest eruptions ever recorded in the modern era. That of 1669, on the southern slope of Mount Etna, still remains today a grandiose natural event, devastating but fascinating. A milestone in the study of local volcanology. We had already entered modern times, back then, the Modern Age of Reason was in its infancy, and with this eruption nature once again wanted to remind man who is in charge. Today much of what remains of that event can also be admired in the old urban center of Catania.

The eruption of Monti Rossi of 1669

The 1669 eruption didn’t exactly come as a surprise, in the month of March. Etna had already produced a destructive eruption only eighteen years earlier, involving the city of Bronte which was still recovering the damage, at that time. But if the western slope was under surveillance, few would have bet on the southern flank which, instead, had been slowly transformed.

The earthquakes, in swarms, began in February just above Nicolosi and confirmed that something was about to happen. The first fractures opened on March 8th, 1669, followed by further eruptive vents on the 11th. A boutonniere of craters formed in a short time on the fracture line and the emission of lava began. The river of fire split into several branches causing as much destruction in the Catania area. In a few days the following towns were involved in the eruption: Nicolosi, the ancient Malpasso (today Belpasso), the village of Mompilieri, Mascalucia, the original inhabited area of Misterbianco, San Pietro Clarenza, Camporotondo. In April the lava reached the medieval walls of Catania, breaking through them in some places and pouring into the sea. It reached the Ursino Castle, surrounding it and moving it away from the sea for a few miles. It created a vast portion of new territory that would later house the historic center of Catania. On this occasion the lake of Nicito and the river Amenano were buried – the latter therefore continued to flow underground.

The great eruption ended between July and August 1669, with the cooling of the lava and the final degassing of the volcano.

PAINTING BY G.PLATANIA inside Catania Cathedral

Eruption of 1669, the great changes of the territory

This important eruptive event caused important changes in the territory of the southern slope of the volcano. As mentioned, the historic lake of Nicito which had formed in Roman times, disappeared. And the Amenano river that watered the urban perimeter of Catania also disappeared for some time. The river later found a new underground course, emerging on the surface only close to the coast. In fact, you can admire the Amenano Fountain, today in Piazza Duomo in Catania, fed by the underground waters of the stream.

The lava that reached the Ursino Castle, until then an unassailable fortress located right on the sea, changed not only the fate of the castle itself but also that of Catania, as a city. In fact it found itself with a vast new territory to “colonise”, expanding further. The eruption filled the differences in height between the hills on the southern slope, forming real “lava plains”, such as Piano Tavola which today houses a hamlet of Catania. In Mompilieri, the lava swallowed – and paradoxically saved from the deterioration of time – the very ancient medieval church, which has now become a Sanctuary. While the ancient Misterbianco disappeared under a lake of fire. Only the bell tower of the church remained visible, then collapsing years later. The area is known in fact as “Campanarazzu” (the old bell tower).

The sites of the eruption

The craters that caused so much devastation in 1669 have become, over time, a suburban park within the municipality of Nicolosi. Entirely covered with pine trees, they are today a nature and sports trail called “Pineta di Nicolosi” which can be visited and fully experienced.

You can still admire part of the medieval church of Mompilieri by descending ten meters below the ground of the new sanctuary. You shall find that portion of the ancient environment covered, and saved, by the lava. The old neighbourhood of Campanarazzu in Misterbianco is today a stone quarry. You can visit it to go and rediscover the old seventeenth-century church that has recently re-emerged from under the rocks, almost completely intact!

Walking through the old town in central Catania you can see exactly the path of the lava streams. Vittorio Emanuele street and Garibaldi street, which lead into Piazza Duomo, have the slope given by the river of lava when it poured into the sea.  If you walk from the Pescheria to the Ursino Castle, know that you are walking right on the eruption of 1669! And looking out over the moat of the castle you will be able to see with your own eyes the difference in height formed by the lava rocks that poured into it.

To admire these locations, take Catania (its airport and central station) as a point of reference. From here you can move around the city and towards the entire southern side of the volcano using local buses and the transfer services of tour operators.

Autore: Grazia Musumeci

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