2012 April Book of the Month

‘The Dancing Earth’: Giovanni Alfonso Borelli’s Historia et meteorologia incendii Aetnaei anni 1669… (Reggio di Calabria, 1670), 4o.

This book about the 1669 earthquake and volcano in Sicily is by the Italian scientist Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608-1679). It was printed in Latin in 1670 at Reggio di Calabria, Italy by Domenico Antonio Ferro. Borelli was born in Naples to a Spanish infantryman and to a local woman. He is best known for his book De motu animalium (Rome, 1680), a book on the movement and inner workings of bodies, which Worth also collected. Borelli worked in Messina between the years 1643 and 1656, he lectured in maths in the city’s university. After a brief break working in and touring several other cities and universities, he returned to Messina in1667. It was during his stay there that he witnessed the 1669 earthquake and eruption of Mount Etna, in Sicily. Being a scientist Borelli took detailed notes on what he was observing and was therefore able to write this very scientific and detailed book, which is more concerned with the actual inner workings of the volcano and the reasoning behind it’s working rather than on the effects this event had on the surrounding area and on society.


The earthquake in question occurred in 1669 on the 8 March, this event was accompanied by loud noises from Mount Etna. The village of Nicolisi was badly damaged in the quake. On the following Monday there were three eruptions, all close together, at about ten at night. These eruptions were on the side of Mount Etna. The vast, burning river of lava from this volcano flowed down the side of the mountain. It damaged a great many towns, including, La Gaurdia, Mosterbianco, Le Placebi and Masealuccia. This river of lava came dangerously close to the cities of Catania and Messina resulting in a breakdown of order in both cities. The flow of lava seemed to draw closer and closer to Catania at an uneven and unpredictable rate. By the 20  March the stream or branch of lava which seemed to endanger the city most was extinguished.


Perhaps the most interesting and unique feature of this book are the handwritten annotations on the front pastedown, flyleaves and endleaves. These annotations are in both Latin and English. The main subject of these handwritten pages is the earthquake in 1693, which also took place in Sicily. The writer also mentions several other earthquakes, including the 1687 Peru earthquake which killed a minimum of 5000 and destroyed Lima, the 1688 earthquake in Jamaica and the 1706 earthquake in Naples. The focus is not so much on the science behind the event but rather the effects the event had on the surrounding area and its population, with particular reference to medical effects.


The book was previously owned by ‘Bartholomew Beale’ who signed it on the half-title. This may refer to either Bartholomew Beale (died 8 May 1674), an auditor of the imprests, or his nephew Bartholomew Beale (bap. 1656, d.1709) who was a doctor in Coventry. Given their dates, the annotations could only have been made by the nephew – if he did indeed make them, for it is far more likely that the writer was Edward Worth himself. We know that Worth had an interest in Sicily, as he owned Fazello’s Rerum Sicularum scriptores… (Frankfurt, 1579) which is about the history of Sicily, and Johannes Baptista Masculus’ De Incendio Vesuvii excitato XVII, Kal.Januar.Anno trigesimo primo saeculi decimi-septimi libri X (Naples, 1633). The annotator’s interest in medical conditions associated with the earthquake suggest it was written by Worth as he was a doctor and would therefore have been interested in such matters. The sources provide us with another clue since large sections of the annotation are copied from other texts. The writer uses several sources, including the work by Fazello mentioned above, The Philosophical Transactions and An account of the late terrible earthquake in Sicily (London and Dublin, 1693). Worth had an abridged version of the Philosophical Transactions but did not possess the third work. Although Worth does not give references to the third text (as he does with the Philosophical Transactions and the Rerum Sicularum scriptores), he clearly used a copy of this pamphlet because his manuscript text is too similar to it to be a coincidence. We know that the pamphlet was available at the time since it had been printed in Dublin in 1693 by William Norman, Eliphal Dobson and Patrick Campbel, and a copy of the London 1693 edition was available in Marsh’s Library in Dublin.


Addendum: Transcription of Worth’s annotations on the endpapers of Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, Historia et meteorologia incendi Aetnaei anni 1669 (Regio Iulio, 1670), 4o.

The most Terrible Eruption of AEtna in the effects of it was that which happened in January 1693. Attended which such an Earthquake as shook the whole Island of Sicily: The June before the Mountaine had for 3 days together utter’d most hideous noises & roarings which the inhabitants look upon as a warning of an approaching eruption to follow. On the 7th of January 1692/3about 10 at night the mount began to roare againe & continued so to do till the 9th – when about 12 a clock they began to cease or rather to lessen, within an hour after those of Catanea began to feel the earth tremble for about 3 minutes & then ceas’t for about a minute, but then after the shaking was over the noise did redouble much more terrible than before & the whole Top of the mountaine appear’d in flames. But the most Terrible Shock was that which happened the 11th which lasted not above 6 minutes but was felt through out the whole Island. The whole famous City of Catanea then sunk down to rights with the noise as it were of some thousands of Canon all discharged at once as some fishermen in the Bay who were spectators of this Tragedy relate, where the City stood appeares now a lake with some great heaps of rubbish standing above the water- Saragosa or Syracusa was destroyed by the same Earthquake. The City of Noto, The City Augusta, Lentini, Calatgirone, Minco, Monreal, Palermo, Pasceni, Patuzolo, Furla, Sciorti, Militello, Luochela, Palonia, Buchino, Scodia, Chivramonte, Monterusso,Vizzini swallow’d up, Modica swallowed up on the 9th Bisenti, Fracofonte Carlontini, Ragusa, Specafurno, Scichilo, swallowed up & a Lake now where the town stood, Cefamero, Santo Croce, Giamontano, Lieodia about a mile & half from which there is a hill on which there is a new Vulcano opened. Jaci, La Motta, Messina. This was also felt at Sea & severall Ships & small vessels were drown’d all along the Coast of the Island & even in harbours, on the 10th the Tyde was 3 foot higher than it was ever heard of before. And which was neare as Terrible as the Rest during the time of this Earthquake but especially of the 10th day from morning until night there was the most Terrible Tempest of Thunder, Lightening Raine & hail that was ever heard of. The Number of the inhabitants that perished in this Calamity are reckoned to amount to 120000, over & above a vast number that were bruised by the fall of houses & Churches wherof there may be dead since to the number of 20000. This Terrible Earthquake was felt at the same time at Malta, where it made great desolacon likewise, & in Calabria- The Earthquake mencioned by Fazello which happened the 10th Dec. 1542. shook the whole Island but especially those Cities which were ruined by this –

‘Nos autem Tenebras cogitemus tantas, quantae quondam Eruptione Aetnaeorum ignium finitimas regiones obscurasse dicuntur ut per biduum nemo hominem homo agnosceret. Cum autem 3o die sol illuxisset, tum ut revixisse sibi viderentur. Cicero de Nat. Deor. Lib. 2.’

This Earthquake which happened the yeare 1693. The first shake was at 5 a clock the next night after the 9th of January, which was like the shaking fitt of an Ague in this most of the edifices in the Country were thrown down a great part of Catanea & many other cities were demolished, & a great many buildings in Val di noto; Syracusa was also much shattered but not ruined. This was preceded by a pleasing serenity in the air, which was warmer than was usually observ’d to be at that time of the year, yet it was not to be any excess.

Some persons that were travelling the Country the evening before observ’d a great flame or light at about an Italian miles distance so bright that they took it for a reall fire & tho they went directly toward it, yet, it seem’d to keep at the same distance from them at the same time the Earthquake began it disappear’d. The quake was Sensible even to the horses they were upon that were affrighted therat. The next day the 10th the air was darkened & tinged with a deep yellow. The second choque was the 11th about the 21th houre & lasted about 4 minutes & was different from the first & is likened by Pliny & Aristotle to a pulse or a stroke from its resemblance to a beating of an artery. It being a perpendicular lifting up of the earth, & was at once over the whole Island & the Island of Malta also participated in its fury. It was impossible to keep upon one’s legs or in one place on the dancing earth, nay those that lay along on the ground were tossed from side to side. In open places the Sea sunk down considerably & in proporcion in the ports, & the water bubbled up all along the shore. The earth opened in severall places a hands breadth or Palm, others like great Gulfs from which openings there sprung forth such a quantity of water in the valleys as overflowed a great Space of ground. The water of many wells which at first were salt became fresh. Arethusa was brackish for a great while & now that it is become sweeter it sends forth double the water. In the City of Termini all the running waters are dryed up, a small river among the rest the hott baths are on the Contrary augmented by a 3rd part. Not farr from the Country of Cassano 2 mountaines betwixt which a river run, cast from their tops 2 vast rocks which mett so exactly as to close up the valley & stop the Current of the River, which not finding any passage has made a Lake 3 miles round of a considerable depth. The South winds have blown very much, which have bin observed to be impetuus in the most sensible earthquakes. From the 11th of Jan. to the 14th of Sept. there have bin considerably & strong South winds preceded by a noise like Cannon at a distance, darkness & obscurity of the air has alwaies bin over us but not like that of the 10th & 11th Jan. The heat is intollerable. Since the 1st of Aug. which was a most Tempestuous day, the shakes of the Earthquake have bin less sensible & seldomer & not so universall, but sometimes in one place sometimes in another. The mischief has bin greater in chalky loose earth than in rocky as was visible by 3 places in Syracusa. They have had this effect on humane bodies to cause foolishness, madness, dullness, stolidity, Hypochondriack melancholy, cholerick distempers & by the infection of the air a great mortality. Small pox among children very fatal. The number computed to be killed 59963 out 254936, Letter to Malpignius inserted in Phil. Trans. inserted in Phil. Trans. no. 207.

Altitudo Etna a Litttore Catanensi vsque ad summitatem 30 milliaria exequat. Sed a Littore Tauromenitano 20 milliaria. Latitude 37. 40` Longit. 30.21. m. p.1.

In tres Regiones dividitur mons. Altissima regio nuda omnino salebrosa et Arenis horrida per 6 vel. 8 milliaria extenditur vsque ad Supremum Cacumen atque definit montem valde Acclivem vulgo vocatur Pileus. In cujus Sumitate vasta erat vorago quam veteres Cratesem vocabant AEtnaeum.2 Media Regio Sylvosa, Quercibus fagii, Pinis abietibus abundat 10 milliaria continet p.2

Infima Regio gaudet admirabili soli fertilitate irrigatur ab innumeris fontibus & ab insignibus fluminibus Symetho, Amena, Aci, Asineo et Onobala. extenditur undique a montis radicibus verfus summitatem. 12.milliar.

Montis summitas nive semper occupatur vnde fontes frequentisimi atque fluminia quae esse ex Liquiscente nive constat ex eo quod aestate non decrescunt. sed majori copia defluunt. p.4

Infima Regio, vicis, pagii, oppidisque abundat p.2 & 1.

AEtna Cacumen prospicitur in alto maxi a 200 milliaria. p.5

Altitudo AEtna perpendicularis non ultra 3 milliaria supra maris Superficiem. p.6

Atmosphaeram non extendi supra terra Superficiem ultra 2 milliaria Secundum mentem Keppleri atque hujusci authoris. p.6

Mané ante solis exortum in Crepusculi claritate qui in summo AEtna vertice pervenerunt, siciliam universam, ejusque urbes atque oppida tam clasè ac distinctè conspicere possunt, vt videantur penè mantibus ea posse contrectari praeterea intevalla remontissima, vt oppida Circa Neapolini, atq insulae adjacentes, ut sunt Aolia & Melita &c. p.6

Respiratio aquè benè absolvitur in Cacumine montis AEtna ac in locis subjectis. p.8.

The Origine of the manner of Earthquakes from the Pyrites alone according to the sentiment of Dr Lister, for he supposes earthquakes to proceed from a Sulphorous vapour kindled & pent up in the bowels of the earth, which when it is kindled it endeavours to expand itself; now he is opinion that the Pyrites is the [propermincra] of Sulphur & that sulphur is produced from it & nothing else. Phil. Trans. No. 157.

An Earthquake at Constantinople Oct. 26. 1669. At Ancyra in the Lesser Asia. One that shook the earth for 47 days together. Anno 1669. Ibid.

One in England a pretty gentle one. Sept 1692.

The Erupcons of the burning mountains, such as Etnas, Vesusius, Hecla &C are of 2 sorts the one more moderate, which does not much disturb the Country adjacent, that other one more violent & furious & of longer continuance attended with grevious & terrible earthquakes. The one happens at Mount Vesuvius once in 2 or 3 months & lasts 3 or 4 days, the latter is observed to happen at the same place once in about 80 yeares. The Last of this kind, was in Anno 1632 & from the burning or not burning of this mountain Naples accounts itself in danger or not of Earthquakes, for without doubt the matter is perpetually burning under the mountain, & those vast clouds of smoak which daily issu out at the top if the Cavity happen by any rocks or inward impediment to be stopt, then it forces its way like kindred Gunpowder & causes an Earthquake. Phil. Trans. No. 202. Or rather the passage of this incensed & inclosed matter from one Cavity or grotto to another. Observed at Naples that when Vesuvius ceases to burn then the Sulfatare (which is at about the same distance from Naples that Vesuvius is but on the other contrary side) sends out its fumes more violently & vice versa, so that it is more than likely that Naples stands over a burning arch through which these 2 neighbours do communicate with one another, & which do sometime or other threaten that Noble fine City with the fate which Sannazanius which was born there prophesied –

‘Et te, quis putet hoc? Altrix mea, Durus Arator.

Vertet, & urbs, dicet, haec quoque clara fuit.’

An Earthquake in Peru Octob. 20. 1687. which did great damage & destroyed severall towns & many people – 3 choques felt one at 4 another at 5 a 3d at six in the morning.

An Earthquake at Jamaica Sunday the 19 Feb. 1686/7 at 8 in the morning.

But the most Terrible & dismal in the effects was that which happened there the 7 of June 1692 betwixt 11 & 12 at noon. Ye shakes were 3 following the one suddenly at the heels of the other, accompany’d all the while with a hollow rumbling noise like that of Thunder tho the day was cleare & bright not so much as a hand breadth of cloud to be seen in the sky. The Houses of Port Royal 2 parts of 3 of 3 parts of 4 and the ground whereon they stood & most part of those who inhabited them, sunk at once unde water & those that were left standing were so shattered that but [but] few of then were fitt, or thought safe to live in. The ground heaved & swelled like a rowling sea, & persons that thought to make their escape by running could not keep their leg but were tumbled down on their faces. The ground would crackle & open & shut quick & fast in some of which openings many people were swallowed up, some to middle only, at the largest of those openings great houses & streets were sunk. Tho there are more houses left at Port Royal then in all the Island, besides. It scarce left a Planters house or a sugar work standing all over the Island. The shakes seem’d to be most violent in the mountaines where after the great shake there continued shaking for above 2 months after, so it presumed the Cause of the Earthquake les there. A large mountain neare Port morant about a days journey over is said to be quite swallowed up & in the place of it a Lake of 4 or 5 Leagues over. It should seeme that the whole Island is sunk . Port Royal a foot & at Liguane the wells do not require so much Rope as before by 2 or 3 foot. The water in the wells of a fathom five or 6 during the great shake was forced out of the Top of the wells to a good height. The water felt is as well as the land for the ships that were then riding at anchor in the port were broke from their anchors & severall of the lesser lost. The sea at the time of the great shake retired insomuch that the bottome of it for 2 or 300 yards appeared dry & in a minute or twos time the Sea returned & overflowed a great part of the shoar. At one place the Sea is said to retire about a mile. ‘Tis thought there were lost in this Earthquake 2000 people in all parts of the Island. There have bin many lesser shakes since & its observed that these shakes come generally in calm weather. After raine they are also observ’d to be smaller then at other times. St Christophers one of the Caribbee Islands was formerly much troubled with earthquakes till the Eruption there of a great mountain of Combustible matter, which still continues & since that they have never bin felt there. The sickness that followed this Earthquake whether occasioned by the ill vapours that ascended out of the earth, from bad diet lodging during the raines & want of other accommodations & medicines its thought there dyed about 3000 people. Phil. Trans. No. 209.

On the 3rd of November 1706. There happened in the Kingdom of Naples a very sad & Great Earthquake. In which the following places were totally sunk or swallowed up (vizt) Fara di San Martino, La Sama, La Rochetta, Castiglione, La Torre delli Passari, Palena, Pischio, Constanze Rocca & all its inhabitants, is sunk that there’s no appearance where it stood. Sulmona, Gambarale, Roccavalli, Monopella, Fornello, Serra, with its inhabitants. Others were sadly shattered & laid in Ruines vizt. Popoli, Periano, Caramanico, Valle Oscura, Bonanotte, Pettoravi, Aqua Viva, Tocco, Mirandola, Civitella, Castel di Sangro, Isernia, Guardia Greca, Ossogna, Fara Cippolara, Petrora, San Martino, Casoli, Greso, Tomicello, Cima, Trivento, Amiterno. The Persons killed & wounded in this Earthquake are computed to amount to upwards of 30000.

Rome Nov. 20. The Earthquakes have done greater damages of late in the Kingdom of Naples then ever before was heard of, above 9 Cities, 24 Towns, & a multitude of Villages are thereby ruined which afford every where a Miserable Spectacle.

Sources: Primary

[Anon], (1669), ‘An Answer to Some Inquiries Concerning the Eruptions of Mount Aetna, An. 1669. Communicated by Some Inquisitive English Merchants, Now Residing in Sicily’ in Philosophical Transactions (1665-1678) vol 4, pp 1028-34.

Anon. (1693) An account of the late terrible earthquake in Sicily;with most of its particulars (Dublin and London).

R.B [Nathaniel Crouch] (1694) The General History of Earthquakes (London).

Royal Society (1716), Philosophical transactions and collections, to the end of the year 1700; abridg’d, and dispos’d under general heads.In three volumes. By John Lowthorp, .. (London), II, 410.

Winchelsea, Heneage Fince, earl , (1669), A true and Exact Relation of the late Prodigious Earthquake… (Dublin).

Sources: Secondary:


Settle, Thomas B. (1970-1980), ‘Borelli, Giovanni Alfonso’, in Charles Coulston Gillispie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York), II, pp 306-14.`

Reeve, Christopher (2008), ‘Beale, Bartholomew’ in ‘Beale , Mary(bap. 1633, d.1699)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008.

Rodríguez de la Torre, Fernando (1995) ‘Spanish sources concerning the 1693 earthquake in Sicily’, Annali di Geofisica XXXVIII, no. 5-6, 523-39.

Vaccari, Ezio ( 2008) ‘“Volcanic Travels” and the Development of Volcanology in 18th Century Europe’, Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences Fourth Series, vol 59, Supplement I, no. 3, 37-50.

Willmoth, Frances ( 2007), ‘Rumblings in the air: understanding earthquakes in the 1690s’, Endeavour vol 31. no. 1, 24-9.


Text: Mr Hugh Delaney, transition year student, The King’s Hospital, Palmerstown, Dublin.

Transcription: Mr Hugh Delaney and Dr Elizabethanne Boran.

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