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Lecture: "The Printed Cataclysms. Media and Elaboration of Natural Disaster in 17th Century Milan"

This Lecture by Massimo Petta takes place on October 16th, 2011 in Karl-Jaspers-Centre, Library , 2.00 p.m. - 4.00 p.m.  

The paper is aimed at analysing how natural disasters were represented and elaborated in an urban society, taking Milan as a case study. In order to achieve this goal, the paper is focused on a wide range of media that widely spread information about the onsets of the power of nature (the so-called avvisi [newssheets], but also engravings and books): in particular, it analyses how the main features of those media and the structures of the messages spread by them gave shape to the elaboration carried on by their audience (the Milanese urban society). The paper proposes a chronological overview of Milanese avvisi concerning natural events, paying particular attention to the features of the medium-avviso, which shaped the text-news while spreading. The paper proposes a chronological overview of Milanese avvisi concerning natural events, from the debut in the second half of the 16th century to the end of the 17th, paying particular attention to their already mentioned features. Firstly, the paper highlights that in the text of avviso the elements not concerning directly “the fact” are marginal: so, in the accounts the natural disasters, discourses like millenarian interpretations, religious readings, and also scientific explanations have scarce space and relevance. On the contrary, the objective narration of fact (backed by sources) and the material quantification of the damages and the casualties are the core of the avviso. Following the European-scaled spread of the news of the landslide of Piuro (Plurs), the paper could also underline the corruption of the message through transmission. Since this calamity had a great impact, it has been a popular news topic for many years and its late and far releases and reprints came to incorporate religious or sermonic elements (especially in the German area). Beside the printed public information, the image of the terrible power of nature was spread in other ways. The volcanic eruption was the subject of a spectacular “ludic-visual” representation: in 1630 a 26-meters-high pyrotechnical machinery representing Etna was built to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne. This event was crucial for many aspects. It was a moment of “collective acculturation”: the whole city, regardless to the socio-cultural gaps, had the opportunity to indirectly acquaint with a volcano. This spectacular event also fed a widespread interest towards the topic of “natural events”, thus deeply shaping the “collective elaboration” of the disasters, intertwining it inextricably with a “ludic” background. Then the paper analyses the iconographic elements, their erudite origins (e.g. Etna as a topos image of Milan) as well as their popular roots, and their success among both the large public (both the cultivated spectators and not), a success that was not confined to a local dimension: as a matter of fact, it led to the reprise by G.L. Bernini of the theme of the erupting Etna

volcano in 1662 in Rome (a touchstone for the Baroque festivals). Looking at the reception by a large public, the success achieved by the amusing representation of the natural disaster in 1630 stimulated a generalized curiosity towards this topic, which was satisfied by the public information (avvisi), as proved by the shortly following Vesuvius eruption (1632).The combination of a spread of news of natural disasters by objective avvisi from far away places and the ludic representation of this kind of events determined both a void of emphasis and detached view of those powerful phenomena and the expulsion of supernatural elements from the discourses about them. In conclusion, the messages spread by media led to an elaboration of the natural disasters, which, removing every “millenarian suggestion”, relativized of the ones that actually stroke Milan (earthquakes in 1642 and 1695) and promoted a self-representation (truthful, all things considered) of a city thorn apart by the fury of the elements.