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Remembering the Irpinia Earthquake Thirty Years Later

Remembering the Irpinia Earthquake Thirty Years Later

Laura E. Ruberto (November 21, 2010)
Laura E. Ruberto
Cairano (AV), buildings damaged in the 1980 Irpinia Earthquake and never repaired (photo taken June, 2010)

Marking the material culture of one of Southern Italy’s worst natural disasters, the Irpinia Earthquake of November 23, 1980.


November 23, 2010, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Irpinia Earthquake, a quake that hit some of the poorest and most rural parts of Campania, Basilicata, and Puglia, killing 2,735 people. It hit 679 towns in 8 provinces and left upwards of 400,000 homeless. The earthquake also created a political rupture that cut across economics, culture, and history in ways that are still felt in the daily life of the people who live and work in those areas, as well as in the tens of thousands who emigrated because of it.
Such catastrophes often forge renewed ties across migratory lines, with the influx of remittances and other forms of assistance coming from the diaspora. Certainly this kind of aid was visible in the weeks and months following the tremor (in fact, the Irpinia Earthquake of 1980 long ago taught me this lesson in transnationalism, as I talk about briefly in this previous post).    

An example of Italian American aid to earthquake victims.
"The Irpinian residents of Erie (PA) help rebuild the town of Altavilla"
(Il Progresso Italo-Americano, December 14, 1980)

Such geopolitical crossings inform many aspects of megadisasters—human-made and natural alike. Material culture—especially those concrete objects that create the tenor of our everyday lives—likewise become part of this exchange.
And so today I remember the thirtieth anniversary of the Irpinia disaster by considering some of the ways in which narratives of migration become written on quotidian artifacts, marking the dislocation of communities and individuals.
The items in the photos here—a few ceramic tiles, an aluminum tin—and others were all gathered (i.e., swiped) in the last few years from one of the houses in my father’s home town, Cairano, a village in the province of Avellino, just a few miles as the crow flies from the trembler’s epicenter.

Ceramic tile pieces found in damanged, abandoned building in Italy,
now stand near the San Andreas and Hayward Faults in Northern California

"Plasmon" cookie tin, visibly corroding, found in a kitchen in an abandoned, damaged building in Italy, now in a kitchen in Northern California

The objects come from a house damaged by the earthquake and never repaired (that the house had been more or less abandoned long before 1980, presumably because the owners had emigrated, offers still another layer to this story).

The inside of the building where the above-items were
found (photo taken June 2010)
I’m interested in these unearthed objects, items that offer material reminders of the past and at the same time that act as a kind of palimpsest towards a future. As Urban Studies professor, Ilaria Vitellio puts it, in reference to a makeshift bar set up days after the quake:
“nella discontinuita’ creata dall’evento, nel cratere apertosi nell’esperienza incontra il tempo passato e quello presente abilitando un nuovo contesto di senso, una realtà praticabile, dove il futuro diventa possibile”(“Irpinia 1980,” in Dialoghi Internazionali, Città del Mondo, n. 13, Bruno Mondadori Editore, Milano, 2010, pg. 2)
“in the discontinuity created by the event, in the quotidian experience becoming an open crater …past and present moments come into contact with one another, allowing for a new context of what makes sense, a practical reality, where the future becomes possible”
To see these fragments lined up on the stucco porch and in the tiny kitchen of my 1920s California bungalow is to be reminded of some of the ways everyday experiences get coded. Devoid of any inherent use value, these objets trouvés become corroding memories.  Although they are falling apart now under the West Coast sun—and so eerily near the active San Andreas and Hayward faults—they remain markers of journeys never taken, cultural exchanges that could never be. And yet at the same time, they are resilient tokens of the multiple trajectories of migratory histories.
Classicist Antonio La Penna, from Bisaccia (another Irpinia town leveled in 1980), wrote about the quake in for a conference at the Istituto Gramsci of Avellino in January, 1981. He considered trauma’s relationship to the diffusion of history:
“Diastri come il terremoto mettono meglio alla luce le condizioni permanenti della storia, i fattori di lunga durata, di seccoli o di millenni” (Antonio La Penna, pg. 112, in 19:35, Scritti dalle macerie, Ed. Paolo Speranza, Laceno, 2005)
“Disasters like the earthquake illuminate the permanent conditions of history, those long-term factors, the ones of centuries or millennia”
Thinking of the thirty years since the 1980 Irpinia Earthquake, I see how these material objects, pieces I carried across the ocean, mark new directions taken because of the disaster—future possibilities written on the material culture that make up our everyday lives.

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