The Pope’s Story

Rome 1962

Vol. 15

Pages 375-379

(...) Why is it that natural disasters of the worst type, spread anguish and fear among the population. (...)For the eternal city, the disaster was only the prelude to other troubles. In the evening of January 14th, 1703, Rome was shaken by an earthquake that was accompanied with torrents of water and stones. The shake was brief, but very violent, making the church bells sound out unaided. The bell on the table of the Pope also rang while he was listening to the report from the memorial secretary. Pope Clement ran to his chapel where many of his congregation were waiting to confess. Also in the other churches of the city, many citizens of every class were gathered to pray. The following day, the Pope went down into St Peters Church two hours before sunrise to hold Mass in the presence of a huge following. Then he called the Cardinals together in the consistory, and he told them to stop the fury of God by exercising penitence. In Rome, where even the most substantial structures were showing cracks, the fear was so great that, disregarding the rain, many people spent the night in huts in the countryside, or in carriages.

The news was soon at hand of serious damage caused by the earthquake throughout the Pontiffs state, especially in Norcia, Spoleto, Rieti ed Urbino. The Pope dispatched much help to those places. New and less significant tremors followed when the Pope, on January 16, went to Laterano to proclaim indulgence and to order a rogatorie procession. Today, wrote the Count Lamberg in his diary, everyone has taken confession, gone without food and trekked to St Peters in such crowds as I have never before seen, not even during the Year of the Saint. The comedies and the carnival masks were forbidden and, instead of these frivolities, the Pope ordered many missions among the people. The earthquake, said a contemporary, was a great preacher. In addition to St. Peters, on January 26th Clement XI visited the city’s four main churches to take confession. In the following days the rogatorie processions crossed the city and were also repeated after the 29th, so that all could participate. The Pope also instituted a special congress to remedy the material damage.

On the day of the Purification of Saint Mary there was the usual benediction of the candles in the Sistine Chapel. In the middle of the ceremony at 9 o’clock in the morning, there occurred such a violent earthquake that all those present took flight. Only the Pope kept his calm and lay at the foot of the alter. Then he went to pray in St Peters church, though even there the column of the Berniniano tabernacle was shaken and some stones fell from the Cupola. In the afternoon he visited the holy stairs near to the Vatican. The damage made by the earthquake of February 2nd was considerable in all areas of the city and the Church of St Lorenzo particularly suffered. Three arches of the 2nd ring of the Coliseum collapsed and the stones were later used to build the port of Ripetta. Some cracks were also revealed in the Basilica of St Peters, in the Vatican and in the Quirinale. Fontava calculated the expense for necessary repairs at 700,000 scudi.

During the night of 2/3 February the Romans, already agitated, became overcome with a new and greater fear. In order to carry out burglaries in the ensuing panic, thieves circulated the rumour that, ‘in two hours time all of Rome would perish’. Everyone fled into the gardens and to the public squares. Indescribable scenes took place everywhere. Crying out for mercy, half dressed inhabitants got down on their knees, full of consternation that their final hour had come. Mothers repeatedly kissed their children, families and friends embraced. Many publicly confessed their sins and others proclaimed their misdeeds, on the streets. The air resounded with the outcry : Holy God, have mercy upon us!

The Pope took immediate steps to calm the population and to secure properties. At the same time, he ordered an inquiry to find the instigators of the false claim, but it all came to nothing. It took much to calm the people. For a long time, many continued to sleep in the open and in their gardens; such as Cardinal Ottoboni and other nobles. Clement XI set no limits to the frequent rogatorie processions. Because he saw the earthquakes as a punishment of sin, the Pope made a series of resolutions to improve the moral state of his capital. He enforced the observation of Sunday as a day of rest, and of fasting. He announced to the congregation on February 19, that from time henceforth annually on the 22nd , a Thanksgiving Mass would be held for the salvation of the city, setting the hour in which must be sung the Te Deum during this purification event in the Papal Chapel, with the previous day to be upheld as a day of strict fast. This tradition is still kept by Romans today. Also, in the Breviary (Book of Prayers) there was to be inserted a prayer against earthquakes, and later on a similar prayer was introduced into the Mass. Moreover, the Pope requested scientific investigations to discover if it was possible foresee the occurrence of an earthquake.

While the prayers and the penitent fasting continued, it seems that the earth was not completely settled. At the end of March and again during the beginning of April, new small shakes occurred. On April 15th, there occurred a large cyclone, followed by a new shake on May 24 which, although slight, made many people again flee to the countryside.

The continuing story of Rome tells that on October 10, a new hurricane and other earth tremors occurred. Even greater than in the Eternal City was the damage caused in the other parts of the Pontiff State, especially in Norcia, Foligno, Spoleto and L’Aquila. The Pope sent great assistance to these areas. The special group he commissioned provided military tents from Castel Sant’Angelo and Civitavecchia for those camped in the open. Money, as well as food, was distributed. Spoleto, which suffered heavy damage, was the recipient of particular relief and the Governor of the City, in wishing to remember the particular generosity of the Pope, erected a monument in his honour. In the same year large amounts of money were also sent to Norcia, Terni and Narni, to help the population recover from the disaster.

In November of 1705 and in the April of 1706, Rome again suffered earth tremors. (....) Then yet again, at the beginning of 1711 further earth tremors occurred, but Rome was spared (....) Reflections of war and of natural disasters you can find in the population statistics of the Vatican State. In the time of Clement, the Eternal City counted 149,477 inhabitants. However, remembering that the Year of the Saint was celebrated at this time, it is perhaps better to consider the census of 1701 which reveals a population of 141,798. By the end of 1707 the total population had decreased to 132,728, even if afterwards it slowly started to increase before dropping again.