Tales of catastrophe – Remembering 23rd November 1980

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the violent earthquake that devastated Irpinia in 1980, the DisComPoSE team organized on 23rd November 2020 an on line seminar with the participation of Gabriella Gribaudi (Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Naples “Federico II”) and Nicola de Blasi (Professor of History of the Italian language at the same university). The earthquake mentioned above was one of the greatest catastrophes in republican Italy that scarred southern Italy not only from an urban, economic and political point of view, but also from a criminal perspective in that the camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) became more powerful during the period of reconstruction.

This seminar gave the DisComPoSE team the opportunity to reflect on the memory of the catastrophe with high school students and their teachers and to inaugurate a cooperation between the DisComPoSE researchers and a number of high schools in the Campania region with the aim of implementing a series of educational workshops on the identification and management of historical sources.

Prof. Gribaudi, who is an expert in oral history, first offered an overview of the geographical extent and damage of the 1980 earthquake, which is the subject of investigation of her book La memoria, i traumi e la storia. La guerra e le catastrofi del Novecento. The earthquake struck a large area of southern Italy covering Campania, Basilicata and part of Puglia, affecting nearly 700 municipalities and causing about 3,000 deaths. Even buildings in Naples were seriously damaged. The considerable delay of relief efforts, especially in rural areas, led to an increase in the number of victims.

The Professor focused attention on the narrative of the event and the public memory of the earthquake and, in particular, on the political conflict aroused by the disaster, the late intervention of the institutions and the negative aspects of reconstruction. A historical-anthropological analysis, focused on the polyphonic memories of survivors, allows us to highlight aspects of the catastrophe related to the human experience of the event. The trauma, in fact, abruptly interrupted the fluidity of life, and marked the memory of the witnesses, dividing it into a “before” and “after” the disaster.

The Professor then introduced the political-institutional problems connected to the reconstruction of the places destroyed by the earthquake. The solutions adopted included, on the one hand, the willingness of the local authorities to rebuild entirely the damaged site – on the model of the earthquake that struck Friuli in 1976 – as happened in the case of the village of Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi (Avellino), one of the places most affected by the earthquake. On the other hand, sometimes it was decided to build the site in a different location from the original one, as in the case of Conza della Campania or Laviano ,where the uprooting created a sense of not-belonging not only for survivors of the earthquake but also for new generations, who grew up without a memory of the event.

The speech delivered by Prof. Nicola De Blasi focused on the linguistic aspects linked to the earthquake. In particular, he shared the results of two projects connected with San Mango Sul Calore, a village severely struck by the disaster of 1980: his recent contribution to the book Il secolo breve di San Mango sul Calore e il terremoto del 23 novembre 1980, and Mnemoteca – a digital space that records the intangible memories of the village – inaugurated in 2015. The autobiographical recollections in these works have a value that is both historical and linguistic. In particular, Professor De Blasi suggested that language contributes to the memory of a past which deserves to be remembered per se, not only nostalgically, and this applies especially to dialect. As a matter of fact, in San Mango – as in the rest of the Irpinia area – the earthquake worked as an accelerator of a process already in place: the loss of dialect as a social glue. This happened also for practical reasons: the building of the new village according to a modern architectural style, on the one hand, brought with it the end of a lifestyle based on neighbourhood cooperation and, on the other hand, erased several objects from the former urban landscape. For example, a word such as “(v)afio”,describing the steps of the walkway of access to houses on the first floor, disappeared with the advent of the new buildings. In addition, straight after the terrible earthquake many poems in dialect and dictionaries have started to be written by locals in the affected areas of Campania and Basilicata. Prof. De Blasi claimed that this phenomenon can be read as a sign of the fact that the language of the past can also work as a means of healing the wounds of a catastrophe.

Some researchers from the University “Federico II” took part in the debate. Among them, Pasquale Palmieri who spoke about the relationship between the theme of memory and the dynamics of communication. In particular, he underlined that the 1980 earthquake is often associated by the witnesses of the event with a popular football match (Inter-Juventus) broadcast by radio on the evening of 23rd November. In this communal ritual, the mass media thus becomes a vehicle that shapes the collective memory, overcoming the distance between private and public memory.

Chiara De Caprio shed light on the importance of sources to safeguard the memory of natural disasters of the past. In particular, she highlighted the variety and complexity of these sources, since, in the aftermath of a catastrophe, several voices overlap. On the one hand, there is the official communication and, on the other, there are individuals with their stories of suffering and hope. In most cases, all of these personalities draw conventional images and metaphors from a shared catalogue of expressions while writing their memories and documents. This makes it necessity to compare all these sources to fully understand the complexity of the different points of view. As De Caprio emphasized this effort can enrich both our critical sense and any reflection about the behaviour to adopt (emulating or not that described in these texts from the past) on the occasion any future catastrophe.


Francesco Montuori highlighted the frequent appearance of interesting linguistic phenomena on the occasion of natural calamities. Sometimes earthquakes provoke an acceleration of some dialectal dynamics and constitute the occasion for the creation and diffusion of new words. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, the expression “è successa una Casamicciola”, concerning the earthquake occurring in the Ischia municipality of Casamicciola in 1883, was born and then spread and has been used to describe other similar disasters throughout the last century. In addition, the researcher stressed the interest for the linguist of the official political speeches, which characteristics from the political and journalistic language.

This post is also available in: Italian Spanish

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