EC project "Review of Historical Seismicity in Europe" (RHISE) 1989-1993

[Deliverables and queries] [Homepage]


The ad hoc Working Party on Earthquake Research, entrusted by DG XII in 1986, established a Working Group on "Seismic Catalogue of Europe", with the aim of preparing a project on this subject.

After some meetings it became clear that the goal of a European catalogue was to be delayed, for the following reasons:

The following sub-goals were selected:


According to the original goal and with the aim of providing some results useful to future, major initiatives, the project was opened to the collaboration of eight partners:

The coordinating unit (CNR) funded investigations also abroad (Institut für die Erforschung der Frühen Neuzeit, Vienna: K. Vocelka, B. Resl and P. Stenitzer; Departamento de Historia Medieval y Ciencias y Tecnicas Historiograficas, Universidad de Sevilla: M. Gonzalez Jimenez, J. García Fitz and M.J. Fitz Canca; F. Rodriguez de la Torre, Madrid; M. de Noronha Wagner, Lisboa). It also opened collaborations with investigators and institutions which participated with their own resources: A. Levret (CEA, Fontenay-aux-Roses), A. Lopez Arroyo (IGN, Madrid), R. Gutdeutsch (Institut für Meteorologie und Geophysik, Universität Wien), D. Mayer-Rosa (ETH, Zürich). The Gruppo Nazionale per la Difesa dai Terremoti, CNR (Italy) collaborated with its research units of Udine (M.S. Barbano), Trieste (D. Slejko), Bologna (D. Postpischl), Macerata (G. Monachesi).

Basic ideas

In order to accomplish the goals of the project, the main attention was concentrated on transfrontier earthquakes in selected sub-areas and time-windows (Stucchi, 1988; Stucchi and Albini, 1991). The project developed according to the following basic ideas:

Fig. 1 - Sub-areas and main earthquakes investigated by the CEC project "RHISE".
The main time-window includes the first half of the 18th century.

Schedule and meetings

The project started in 1989.

During the first two years on the initiative of some partners some local meetings were held in Milano, Lisboa, Barcelona, Athina, Wien, Madrid, Trieste, Sevilla, in order to discuss the main lines of historical investigation with the participation of the coordinating unit and J. Vogt.

The first general meeting was held in Milano in December 1989. The opening day was devoted to historical presentations, concerning both methodological aspects and case histories. During the two following days the partners of the project presented and discussed the analysis of the available data, the first results of their investigation and the general lines for the next phase of investigation, which took place in 1990 and 1991.

The second general meeting was held in London in December 1991. It was then decided to publish a set of "Materials" which should mainly include the results of the historical investigation, and interpretations.

Some partners asked for a twelve months, no-cost extension of their contracts and the project was finally over in the early 1993.

Earthquake investigation

Taking a parametric catalogue, such as the Van Gils and Leydecker (1991) one - simply for orientation and without assuming it as the reference catalogue - 44 earthquakes with epicentral intensity greater than IX MCS can be found in the time-window 1690-1770. Some of these entries are obvious duplications (1690, 1694, 1703/01/13 and 14, 1755/11/01); others, including most Italian ones, have had been more or less investigated in recent times. For some earthquakes, nevertheless, including many Io = X events, very little was known about the primary data from which the earthquake parameters had been assessed.

The investigation performed in the frame of this project has shown that such parameters followed in some cases (1722, 1767, 1769) from a very poor database, which, in its turn, relied on poor historical records ( Sousa Moreira et al., 1993; Kouskouna et al., 1993). The case of the earthquake of 1690 was different (Eisinger and Gutdeutsch, 1994; Barbano et al., 1994), as the main problem was represented by the possible amalgam of records corresponding to different earthquakes or to a storm, which could have suggested a size of the earthquake larger than the real one.

Similar problems were behind the 1755/12/09 Valais earthquake (Albini et al., 1989), well documented but also showing biased records, mixing up the effects of the Lisbon earthquake or generating both a new epicenter in Bayern and a far-off heavy damaging effect in Thionville.

The inclusion in the project of the sequence 1755-1756 in the lower Rhine Valley followed from the need of improving the existing knowledge of one of the strongest events in a low seismicity area; though this need was not well understood at the beginning, the Roermond earthquake of 1992 unfortunately confirmed the opportunity of this choice.

The earthquakes of 1427-28 and 1564 presented a different situation. Both events had been widely investigated, as they are key-events for the assessment of seismicity and seismic hazard of those regions. The main problem with the Pyrenees sequence was the difficulty of separating the effects of the two series (1427 and 1428) in the historical records: therefore, the reliability of the size of the earthquakes needed to be improved. The main problems with the 1564, Maritime Alps earthquake were also the size and the location: the previous investigation (Cadiot, 1979) raised some doubts about the possibility that the effects of earthquakes and other natural events had been amalgamated by some sources.

European repositories and serial sources

The most interesting results undoubtedly come from the comprehensive investigation of many repositories and some serial sources.

It is rather hard to summarize the extent and the value of the findings performed by J. Vogt in the course of his peregrination through libraries and archives of Europe. His harvest includes the retrieval of "key" documents, such as a record of the 1564 earthquake, likely to be referred to Aix-en-Provence (Sobolis, 1607ca), found at the Bibliothèque Ingoumbertine, Carpentras, which fixes an important clue for the evaluation of the felt area. Further on, it consists in the discovery of potential sources for all areas and time-windows of Europe, some of which are to be considered as "unexplored mines" (such as the Archive de la Guerre, Vincennes; Italian 18th century manuscripts of the Landesbibliothek in Hannover; German consular reports from 1865 to the end of the century, Bundesarchiv, Potsdam; collection of old periodicals at the Stadsarchief of S'Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, and at the University Library of Bremen). Finally, it includes the sources useful for the investigation of the Rhine Valley earthquakes (Vogt, 1993b,1993c; Alexandre and Vogt, 1994). It must be said that only a small part of this source harvest has been exploited so far: they are to be considered a real "capital", essential for future initiatives.

The investigation performed on the Ottoman documents (Istanbul archives) was mostly devoted to financial registers, a serial source well preserved with regard to the turn of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, which embraces the area of the Ottoman Empire. These documents, though they rarely quote the date of the earthquakes, are important especially in relation to a comprehensive study of the Eastern Mediterranean seismicity. They have contributed, together with other sources from Slavonic, Arabic, Venetian, etc. areas, to one paper presenting the results for the time-window 1690-1710 (Ambraseys and Finkel, 1993), and to another devoted to the area of Central Greece (Ambraseys, 1994).

The results of the investigation at Venezia, Vaticano, Wien, Simancas are widely described in ad hoc papers (Albini, 1993; Castelli, 1993; Vocelka, 1993; Rodriguez de la Torre, 1993a). They show the potential of the diplomatic sources as a network of earthquake observers, sometimes very effective, though sometimes "out of order" - just as some current instrumental networks.

The same holds for the investigation of some 18th century periodicals (Rodriguez de la Torre, 1993b), which deserves some comments. The fine research by F. Rodriguez de la Torre (1991b, 1991c; 1992a, 1992b) and its recent elaboration (Albini and Rodriguez de la Torre, 1993) have shown that the systematic analysis of newspapers published in Paris, Madrid and Lisboa supplied records of 50 Italian earthquakes (44% of the total number of the earthquakes retrieved) which are not known to the Italian catalogue (Postpischl, 1985): 15 of them are reported as damaging earthquakes . This surprising result may cast a new light on the problem of catalogue completeness, mostly when one considers that many records of those newspapers came from towns and cities where also correspondents of some Italian newspapers operated; and that some classical compilers of earthquake inventories claimed that they had systematically analyzed such Italian newspapers.

This result has stimulated a similar analysis on the "Gazzetta di Bologna" (Camassi and Caracciolo, 1994). Some of these earthquakes are confirmed by more sources. This is the case, for instance, of an earthquake reported by the Gaceta de Madrid (1742) as only felt in Napoli on August 17, 1742. A document, sent on August 22, 1742 from the ambassador in Napoli to the Queen of Spain (AGS, 1742), reports that the earthquake was only felt in Napoli, but it caused damage to some towns of Apulia. This possible damaging earthquake is not known to the Italian catalogue (Postpischl, 1985).


As all experimental initiatives, the project suffered from many problems. First of all, it was necessary to compromise with existing initiatives and with already defined methodologies and schedule. Next, the collaboration between seismologists and historians showed a wide range of options. A few partners had scarce experience of multidisciplinary collaboration or found no expertise available in the other field. Beside a few, remarkable and unrepeatable exceptions, where seismological and historical expertise was present at high level in the same person, most partners seismologists opened or consolidated collaborations with professional historians. In some cases, the collaboration was extended to all steps of investigation, including the priority of source investigation and the interpretation of the records; in some other cases seismologists waited for the return of historians, then took over the records and assessed intensities.

In conclusion, the project showed that methods followed by European investigators in historical seismology still produce intensity data very different in terms of distribution, exhaustivity and value: therefore, the catalogue records which are derived from those data may show high differences which are not simply related to seismological features. In order to proceed towards the compilation of a European earthquake catalogue, it is necessary to agree first on some standards of investigation and compilation, which must guarantee the homogeneity of the output: some recommendations are found in (Stucchi, 1994).

The project has also shown the importance and the effectiveness of comprehensive, systematic investigation of archives and sources under a European perspective.

Finally, the project has provided a huge amount of data; many of them have been used for the study of some important earthquakes, for which a new database is now available: some data on other earthquakes are available for future investigations.


AGS (Archivo General de Simancas), 1742. Seccion de Estado, Legajo 5927, 24.

Cadiot, B., 1979. Le séisme nissart de 1564. In: J. Vogt (Editor), Les tremblements de terre en France, BRGM Mémoire 96, Orléans, pp. 172-174.

Gaceta de Madrid, 1742. September 11, 37, 292.

Postpischl, D. (Editor), 1985. Catalogo dei terremoti italiani dall'anno 1000 al 1980. Quad. Ric. Scient., 114, 2B, Bologna.

Sobolis, F., 1607ca. Repertoire du present livre fait par moy ... depuis l'an 1562 jusques 1607. ms. 540, Bibliothéque Ingoumbertine, Carpentras.

Van Gils, J.M. and Leydecker, G., 1991. Catalogue of European Earthquakes with intensities higher than 4. CEC, Nuclear Science and Technology, Report EUR 13406 EN.


First of all, thanks are due to the Director and the staff of CEC-DG XII and especially to Roberto Fantechi, for funding and assisting this project; next, to the ad hoc Working Party on Earthquake Research of DG XII, chaired by L.A. Mendes Victor, and especially to Alberto Marcellini, for including the European earthquake catalogue among the topics to be proposed for funding.

Many thanks are due to all partners for their active collaboration, to the many investigators, who have collaborated without being funded by the project and to all contributors and participants in the meetings. Special thanks are due to Jean Vogt, whose contribution in terms of experience, knowledge, suggestions, support and data has been one of the bearing columns of the project, and to Paola Albini, who has participated enthusiastically from the very beginning and has contributed by planning the investigation, visiting partners, discussing progress and organizing results.

Thanks are also due to: Vit Karnik and Dieter Mayer-Rosa, for their suggestions and support; Vincenzo Petrini and Paolo Scandone, for allowing some resources of the Gruppo Nazionale per la Difesa dai Terremoti to match the investigation of this project; the Osservatorio Geofisico di Macerata, and especially Alfredo Murri, the Director, and Giancarlo Monachesi, for their help in developing some parts of the project; Jean Bonnin, for his scientific and operative help, allowing CSEM/EMSC to play its European role also in this field; the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, and especially Aybars Gurpinar and Claudio Margottini, for promoting collaboration with the IAEA projects in the same field and inviting representatives of the RHISE project to the IAEA meetings; Maria Luisa Rispoli, CNR, Roma, for her help in finding the way through the administrative labyrinth.

Finally, many thanks are due to the colleagues of the "historical seismology" sector of Istituto di Ricerca sul Rischio Sismico and to the administrative staff for their valuable and continuous contribution.

Milano, June 1993

[ Deliverables and queries] [Homepage]