Robert Mallet: A Dubliner in Basilicata

My recently-completed PhD thesis focused on the Italian city of Matera which is located in the remote and relatively unknown region of Basilicata. During a field trip to Matera back in 2011, a local academic informed me that another Irish person had previously studied this sparsely populated and mountainous part of southern Italy. In February 1858 Robert Mallet, a civil engineer from Dublin, spent a week documenting the earthquake which had devastated parts of Campania and Basilicata (then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies which encompassed the southern half of mainland Italy as well as Sicily) on 16 December 1857 and resulted in the loss of an estimated 11,000 lives. This fragment of information piqued my interest and I decided to find out more about Mallet and the research that he had carried out in southern Italy.


Robert Mallet (1810–1881)

Robert Mallet (1810–1881)


Robert Mallet is widely considered the father of seismology. He was born in Capel Street on 3 June 1810. His father was the proprietor of the Victory Foundry which worked on many of the major structural projects carried out in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century, including bridges, railways, and even the iron gates of Trinity College. Mallet studied chemistry and engineering at Trinity and was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) at the age of 22. In the mid-1840s he gave a number of papers on earthquakes at the RIA in which he applied his knowledge of physics and mechanics to gauge how energy moved through sand and rock. To augment this theoretical work, Mallet carried out a series of controlled underground explosions on Killiney Beach and Dalkey Island in an attempt to measure the impact of shock waves. The results of this research were collected in a series of reports produced in the early 1850s in which Mallet coined the terms seismology and epicentre.[1]

The lack of seismic activity in Ireland and Britain, however, restricted Mallet’s ability to develop his theories further. The 1857 earthquake in southern Italy provided him with the perfect opportunity to carry out field work into the potentially devastating effects of shockwaves. The Times first reported details of the Naples earthquake on 24 December 1857 and soon after Mallet began planning his research trip to survey the damage that had been caused. By the first week of January 1858 he had secured research funding from the Geological Society of London as well as Dublin’s Royal Geological Society. Mallet left London on 27 January and travelled to Naples via Paris and Marseille. Thanks to reference letters from the British Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Society, Mallet was granted permission to travel to Basilicata and procured a number of assistants to aid his research, including an interpreter who spoke the region’s various local dialects. Mallet spent just over one week travelling 500 kilometres by mule to a number of the hilltop towns that had been devastated by the earthquake, many of which were 1,500 metres above sea level. He returned to Naples on 24 February before travelling to Rome in March 1858 and then on to London a month after that.


Mallet Basilicata

(Image from Ferrari and McConnell)


Mallet’s research was published in two volumes in 1862 under the title The Great Neapolitan earthquake of 1857: the first principles of observational seismology.[2] These reports included detailed maps and illustrations as well as a number monoscopic and stereoscopic photographs. Mallet’s work became an important reference for the study of seismic activity in the English-speaking world. His methods for examining seismic activity, however, were viewed as outdated by the 1880s after John Milne’s development of the horizontal pendulum seismograph. Although Mallet has been reappraised in recent years as a pioneer in the scientific study of earthquakes, the importance of his two volume report in terms of social and urban history has largely been overlooked. Alongside the detailed scientific analysis that Mallet provided in his 700-page report, are his descriptions of the towns that the 1857 earthquake had devastated, coupled with the testimonies of local officials and clergy that he consulted – albeit filtered through an upper-class Anglo-Irish lens.[3]

Mallet’s theories and calculations concerning the earthquake’s epicentre are interrupted at various points throughout the text with details of his journey across the mountain trails of Campania and Basilicata, the hospitality he received from local people, and evocative descriptions of the destruction that the 1857 earthquake caused. The most striking example of the latter point is Mallet’s account of the town of Polla in Campania:

Months of bombardment would not have produced the destruction, that the awful shudder of five seconds involved, when thirteen hundred houses fell together with deafening crash, and overwhelmed the two thousand of their sleeping inmates, and with clouds of suffocating dust, choked the cries of horror and anguish, that rose from the startled and often wounded survivors. In three different directions, conflagration soon added its terrors to the scene, and beamed up, a flickering and ominous light, into that dreadful night of cold and wailing, throughout the lingering hours of which, in helpless agony, they listened to the passionate entreaties for relief, the dying sobs, of relatives and friends entombed around them, and dreaded for them, more than for themselves, the recurrence of other shocks. The cold gray light of winter’s dawn, obscure with smoke and dust, revealed hundreds bruised or with broken limbs without a roof to shelter them, many without a garment to cover them. It required some hours’ familiarity with such scenes, before the mind assumed sufficient composure and capability of abstracting the attention, to pursue the immediate objects of my inquiry.[4]

In addition to the richness of detail that Mallet’s text offers, there are the photographs which he commissioned. Over 156 photos were taken by two French photographers, Alphonse Bernoud and Grellier, which are today housed in the Royal Society’s archive in London. One hundred and twenty of these photos are stereoscopic images, a technique which Bernoud pioneered, and 36 are monoscopic.[5] These visual texts are believed to be amongst the first photographic images of earthquake damage ever taken. More importantly they provide the earliest photographic record of the numerous towns in Campania and Basilicata that Mallet visited, many of which have since been rebuilt or suffered further destruction in subsequent earthquakes.



Pertosa [earthquake damage], 1857-1858

Robert Mallet’s report on the 1857 earthquake and the photographs that he commissioned provide a fragmentary snapshot of a part of southern Italy that would experience many further upheavals in the coming decades. Mallet travelled to the Italian peninsula at a time of social and political upheaval. The short-lived 1848 Revolutions had swept across western and central Europe ten years earlier and had seen a failed unification attempt in Italy. Just two years after Mallet’s journey to Basilicata, Giuseppe Garibaldi would lead the Expedition of the Thousand to wrestle Sicily from Bourbon control before the process of Italian unification was completed with the capture of Rome in 1870. After 1860, however, the towns in southern Italy that Robert Mallet had visited were once again the setting for death and destruction. The introduction of conscription, the loss of land rights, and economic hardship following Italian unification caused social unrest amongst the predominately rural population and resulted in the rise of brigandage. The Piedmontese Moderates who oversaw the establishment of the fledgling Italian state reacted to brigand violence and civil unrest with brutally repressive measures. Over two-fifths of the Italian army was deployed to southern Italy in a conflict which lasted over a decade and led to more deaths than the various Italian wars of unification.[6]


[1] For a biography of Mallet and a detailed account of his 1858 research trip to Italy see Graziano Ferrari and Anita McConnell, ‘Robert Mallet and the ‘Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, January 2005 vol. 59 no. 1, pp. 45-64.

[2] Facsimile copies of Mallet’s book are available online:;

[3] Mallet’s sense of cultural and social superiority compared to the local residents that he interviewed comes to the fore when speaking to a Padre Mancini in the town of Pertosa in Campania: ‘He [Padre Mancini] was a man of much more that the average information and intelligence of his class, but conversed in no modern language except Italian, which was strongly provincial, and I found it difficult to follow him.’ Robert Mallet, The Great Neapolitan earthquake of 1857: the first principles of observational seismology. Volume I, Chapman and Hall, London, 1862, p. 274.

[4] Mallet, pp. 292-293

[5] Ferrari and McConnell, pp. 58-60

[6] John Dickie, ‘A World at War: the Italian Army and Brigandage 1860-1870’, History Workshop, No. 33 (Spring, 1992), pp. 1-24


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Filed under Irish History, Italian History, Nineteenth Century, Social History

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