Every year at Ascension Day (Ascensione di Cristo, or “Festa della Sensa” as the Venetians say, it is celebrated in May) the Republic of Venice celebrates itself but also it’s intimate relationship to the sea.
In the age of Renaissance the head of state, called the Doge, would be rowed out to the island Sant Elena in a boat. Upon entering the open sea, he would throw a golden ring in to the water as a sign of matrimony to the Mediterranean Sea.
This tradition stopped when the independent republic dissolved in the so called Fall of the Republic in 1797. Since the 1960’s Venice has picked up the tradition and the ritual is enacted anualy by the mayor of Venice.
The tradition is believed to be more then 1.000 years old and probably has origins in even older pagan rituals. There are various related stories and rituals of sacrificial offerings to the sea, often with the intent of making it more lenient for sea travels.
“Hundreds of tsunami stones stand along the coast of Japan, stark warnings and reminders of the devastating impact of the country’s all too frequent tidal waves. The oldest were erected more than 600 years ago; some have been washed away by ever more powerful waves.”
This is a quote and image from an online article about this cultural heritage that came to prominence as a shocking example of the negligence of cultural heritage in our age. Of course these stones can be found as well in Kesennuma, the province that was hit hardest by the 2011 Tsunami, which also caused the Fukushima Nuclear Accident. I unfortunately do not remember, in which text I first found the reference.
The article goes on with the following list:
“Japan has borne the brunt of some of the worst tsunamis in history. In 1707, a tsunami caused by the Hōei earthquake killed more than 5,000 people. The Great Yaeyama Tsunami of 1771 killed 8,439 people on Ishigaki Island and 2,548 more on Miyako. In 1896, the Sanriku earthquake sent two tsunamis crashing into coastal settlements, destroying some 9,000 homes and killing at least 22,000. More recently, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 left 15,894 dead, 6,156 injured, and 2,546 missing.”
But there are also apparently cases, where people were smart enough to do follow the advice enscribed on the century old stones:
“One particularly well-documented tsunami stone stands in the village of Aneyoshi on Japan’s northeastern coast. Aneyoshi had endured two devastating tsunamis, one in 1896 and another in 1933. The stone was placed shortly after the 1933 tsunami, a four-foot-high marker located just above the tsunami’s highest reach. It reads: “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”
When the stone was placed, the remaining residents of Aneyoshi—there were only four—moved uphill for good. Heeding the advice of the tsunami stone, they moved above the reach of the last tsunami, which undoubtedly saved them from being devastated once again in the tsunamis of 1960 and 2011.”
A common theme in Northern European flood myths are the church bells of submerged cities. This motive can be found all along the ccoasts of Brittany, Wales, England, Germany and Poland. The popular folk song “Bells of Aberdovey” relates to the legend of the sunken kingdom Gwydneu (more commonly known as Cantr’er Gwaelod) off the coast of Wales. The song is most likely not an original folksong at all but a composition from 1785 for an English Opera with lyrics in English not Welsh. The today popular Welsh version was first printed in 1905.
About the motif of submerged bells see also the art installation by Marcus Vergette in this post.
In 1783 an unsual seismic event sequence occured along the Strait of Messina between the island Sicily and mainland Italy. Katrin Kleemann from LMU Munich writes: “Between 5. February and 28. March 1783, five strong earthquakes shook Calabria and Sicily and were followed by hundreds of aftershocks in the following years. The earthquakes caused ten tsunamis.”
That same year additional earthquakes were reported from western France and Geneva on July 6., in Maastricht and Aachen on August 8., and in northern France on December 9. This was not too long after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit Lisbon in 1755.
All these events were widely communicated and written about all across Europe. It was the age of enlightment and the disasters challenged religious, philosophical and political views of the time but also sparked artistic creativity.
Societies were in high demand for images of the disasters and artists, who naturally could not work from first hand observation and experience, were forced to invent formal solutions for this problem.
One strategy was to combine different temporal levels in one painting: the moment before the event, the aftermath, and sometimes even events that had no logical connection other than in the public mind.
Katrin Kleemann writes about this image: “This hand-colored copper engraving portrays the Strait of Messina from the north at the moment the earthquake struck. To the left it depicts the coast of Calabria, to the right the harbor of Messina, and to the far right an erupting Mount Etna, although it did not actually erupt in 1783”, but in 1780 and then again in 1787.
Another striking example is the painting »Vue de la Palazzata de Messine au moment du tremblement de terre« by French artist Jean Houel.
Hans-Rudolf Meier writes: “Jean Houel published in his »Voyage pittoresque« one year after the earthquake in the Sicilian port. Houel, who had traveled in Sicily before the earthquake and had not himself seen the extent of the destruction—to say nothing of the event itself—successfully recorded before and after in one picture by depicting the palace in the margins as a ruin, but showing it still intact in the middle of the picture. Here the special quality of buildings for impressive representations of the effect of a disaster becomes evident: on a building the sudden transformation from a consummate cultural achievement to a ruin can be perceived as a symbol of transience. In Houel’s engraving the observer, similar to today’s television viewer, witnesses the moment of destruction from a secure distance. The churning sea in the foreground cannot bridge this distance either, but it is intended to suggest something of the danger—and thus the authenticity—to which the fictive recorder of the scene might have been exposing himself.
In her essay on the motive of Mount Vesuvius, Valerie Hammelbacher traces the beginning of the image of disaster in art history back to the Britsh enlightment and the philosophy of physico-theology. More often referred to as natural theology, this school of thought challenged the prior concept of natural disaster as divine punishment and instead tried to find scientific explanations while maintaining the idea of divine power. Thomas Burnets treaty “The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation” (1691) ushers in the age of physico-theology. According to Burnets and his colleagues, any natural phenomenon is logical, useful, immaculate and thus beautiful. This includes a disaster like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which could now become a topic for fine arts. Consequently, natural disasters were a popular, technically challenging yet rewarding motiv for painters in the following decades. In his painting from 1780 English painter Jospeh Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) depicted the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as a sacred epiphany.
After the famous earthquake of 1755 that destroyed much of the city and could be felt all across the Mediterranean and much of continental Europe, the people of Lisbon had to rebuild the city. Portugal’s chief minister Sebastia Jose de Carvalho e Mello (1699 – 1782) was particularly influential in modernizing the old city. He conducted a survey among local priests to find out as much as possible about how people experienced the disaster. He also changed the layout of the city significantly.