Chapter 9, Ancient Ischia

Chapter 9, Ancient Ischia

Monti-Aurelio Family of I’sola Ischia

By all accounts my grandmother endured some lonely times in her life but she had a fighting spirit and drive to live a happy and comfortable life. Looking back into the history if Ischia provides some insight as to where this driving spirit came from.

Ischia, the Pithecussa of the Greeks, the Aenaria of the Romans, and the Iscla of the 9th cent. In1928 Ischia had about 31,500 inhabitants, who are principally engaged in the culture of the vine (almost entirely white wine) and other fruit, and to a certain extent in fishing. The entire island may be regarded as the debris of a submarine volcano, the centre part of whose crater was near Fontana. Subsequent lateral eruptions gave rise to fourteen smaller craters, which may be recognized by the cones of the Mont. Agnone, Monte Rotaro, Monte Tabor, and the promontory of Lacco, all on the N. side of the island, where warm radio-active springs still gush forth. Similarly the castle-rock at Ischia is probably due to some such lateral outburst.

In consequence of an eruption of Monte Epomeo the island was deserted about 470 B.C. by the Syracusan garrison left on the island by Hiero  and a similar eruption in the 8th cent. B.C. probably caused the Chalcidians, after a brief sojourn at Ischia, to remove to Cumae. Eruptions took place also in 300 and 92 B.C., and in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd cent. Of our era. According to the ancient poets the giant Typhoeus, transfixed by the thunderbolt of Jupiter, lay buried beneath this mountain, like Encelapdus under Etna, periodically groaning and causing fearful eruptions of fire.

After the fall of Rome, Ischia suffered many attacks and devastations at the hands of the different lords of Italy, especially the Saracens in 813 and 847, the Pisans in 1135, and the emperors Henry VI. and Frederick II. It revolted with Sicily against the Anjou dynasty, but it was again subdued by Naples in 1299, and was thenceforward permanently united with it. The last eruption took place in 1302, when a stream of lava descended to the sea on the N.D., near the town of Ischia.

The castle, now in a half ruined condition, was built by Alphonso I. of Aragon about 1450. The Marchese di Pescara, the celebrated general, was born in 1490 at the castle of Ischia, which was afterwards gallantly defended by his sister Constance against Louis XII. of France. As a reward her family were invested with the governorship of Ischia, which they retained till 1734. In 1525 Pescara’s widow, Vittoria Colonna, celebrated alike for her talent and beauty, the poetical friend of Michelangelo, retired to Ischia to mourn her husband’s loss. So, too, did Maria of Aragon in 1548, widow of the Marchese del Vasto.

Upon the sloping hills were hundreds of villas occupied by wealthy families whose homes were in Naples or elsewhere on the mainland. The little town, one of the best spa areas in Europe, is frequented in summer by numerous visitors, on account of its cool and healthy situation, its fine sandy shore, and its warm alkaline and saline springs, which are especially effective in curing rheumatism and gout. It is also a pleasant and restful resort in spring and autumn, attracting poets, artists and writers of fame.

The local people of Casamicciola were primarily engaged in viticulture (almost entirely white wine) fruit and vegetable growing, and fishing. It is so called the ‘green island’ due to the beautiful gentle gardens, delicate fruits and vine clad vineyards. Form afar one sees the great crops of cedars, oranges and lemons. Also Giovanni Elisio, in his book, says that the island of Ischia is abundant with various fruits, of most excellent grain and generous wine.  There are also pleasant forests of chestnuts. The Gurgitello, the principal sprig, rises in the upper part of the town, at the Piazza Bagni Gurgitello, with a temperature of 147 Fahr., and its water is used for bathing, douches, inhalation, etc., in the extensive bath-establishments of Belliazzi and Manzi near by. The Mone della Misericordia, or bath for the poor, on the Marina, which also is supplied by the Giurgitello, provides accommodation for 400 bathers and occupies the site of a building erected near the spring in 1604.

On March 7th 1881 Casamicciola suffered an earthquake. The first shock occured at 1.30pm on a Friday afternoon and the second an hour later. The second shock caused a noise like a subterranean thunder and then the crash of falling houses. The cause of the damage was a local phenomenon of underground subsidence causing sudden sinking of the ground, in consequence of corrosive action of the mineral springs. Two hundred people died.

With a township mourning its loss, another shock occurred on 28th July1883, six days after the feast of Santa Maria Maddalena Penitente. The most devastating earthquake in Casamicciola, which lies on a fault line, took the lives of one half of the inhabitants. The shocks began at half past nine on a Saturday night, an hour when the majority of upper class people were at the theatre.

The wooden structured building was literally torn open allowing the audience to escape. The confusion in the theatre, accompanied by a deafening noise was fearful. Lights were overthrown and set fire to the building. A dense cloud of dust filled the air. Cries of pain and terror were heard on all sides. A general rush was made to the shore and every floating thing was taken by assault. A gentleman who was staying at the Hotel Piccola Sentinella escaped with his life before the building completely collapsed killing every inside. A person living near the already ruined bathing house says he escaped amid falling walls and balconies, the terrified people shouting to the sea.It was estimated that around 5000 people died. The Prefect of Naples telegraphed that the town of Casamicciola had ceased to exist. The Government sent steamships from Naples with soldiers, physicians and food. These in turn took hundreds of injured back to the hospitals in Naples.  The Bishop of Casamicciola, Dan Fillipe, of Rome, and the Prefect of Cagliari were reported dead. There were nearly 2000 visitors in Ischia, including deputies, professors, a baroness, commander and a marchioness.

Some bodies were recovered and identified, interred in the high lying Campo Santo at the foot of Monte Rotano to the east. Others were entombed in the villas and houses of the town, which had completely collapsed. They would never be discovered again. Liquid lime was simply poured over the rubble. One of the families to suffer loss in this tragedy was that of our great grandparents, Monti and Aurelia.

Just imagine Vincenzo’s mother with her two year old son and Guiseppa with her two daughters Maria, just a few months old, and Vincenza. How did they cope with their babies in the aftermath of this ‘terramota’?



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