Author Archives: Pat McGauley

About Pat McGauley

A London-based PhD student from Wicklow Town.

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

History hewn from the living rock

The southern Italian city of Matera has been the focus of my research for the last four years. In the immediate post-war period Matera became a symbol of Italy’s ‘southern question’: southern Italy’s perceived cultural and economic backwardness in comparison to the North. Moreover, the city was dubbed a ‘national shame’. This was the result of political, intellectual, and media focus on Matera’s infamous cave dwellings, or Sassi, which housed an estimated 15,000 people in the 1950s. These distinctive troglodyte homes were carved into the side of a limestone gorge and then completed with brick façades. In the early 1950s only 3 per cent of the Sassi’s dwellings had running water and there was no sewage system. In many cases, three generations of the one family lived side-by-side with their farm animals in this vast warren of underground homes. In the context of Italy’s acute post-war housing crisis, Matera’s Sassi were depicted as the nadir of Italian civilization; a monument to southern Italian poverty hewn from the living rock.

Panorama of Sasso Barisano

Panorama of Sasso Barisano

The ruling Christian Democrats passed a special law for the Sassi in 1952 following period of sustained political and media pressure. The special law’s primary aim was to empty Matera’s cave homes and rehouse their inhabitants in purpose-built agricultural villages and residential quarters. Official intervention saw the Sassi become a test case for post-war town planning theories and Neorealist architecture. The complicated process of emptying Matera’s cave dwellings, however, lasted over twenty years and was never completed. The Sassi became a ghost city that was used as a makeshift dump and associated with petty crime. The debate about what to do with the then largely uninhabited 29-hectare site ranged from demolition to the creation of an open-air museum. In 1986, however, a preservation order for the Sassi was passed and then in 1993 Matera’s former slums were named a UNESCO World Heritage site. A process of re-population and urban regeneration began in the 1990s and today the site is a popular tourist attraction.

Interior of cave home in the 1950s

Interior of cave home in the 1950s

I first visited Matera on a balmy April afternoon in 2006 during my year abroad studying at the University of Bologna. Although I was spellbound by the city and the Sassi in particular, I could never have guessed that six years later Matera would have become the primary focus of my working life. There is something surreal about passing so much time studying a place which, despite numerous research visits, I have got to know primarily through visual and textual images rather than empirical and personal knowledge. When I sit organizing the innumerate amount of documents accumulated during the course of my research, it is hard not to think of Borges’s short-story ‘On Exactitude in Science’, in which an empire of cartographers creates a map as big as the kingdom it depicts. At times it can feel as if I am studying a city and its history by correspondence; without an innate understanding of its language and culture to be sure despite years of hard work.

A portrait of the Sassi - Henri Cartier-Bresson 1951

A portrait of the Sassi – Henri Cartier-Bresson 1951

This point was hammered home during a meeting late last year with Leonardo Sacco, arguably the most important historian of post-war Matera and someone who has spent over sixty years studying his native city. While I can only strive to piece together details about key events and figures through the various texts that have been left behind, Sacco witnessed them with his own eyes and knew many of the main players in my project personally. Not only has he written the history of post-war Matera, he continues to play an active role in shaping it. Following an illuminating few hours of conversation I set out towards my digs through the now largely uninhabited Sassi. As I walked I pondered the question of what my research could offer to the vast body of existing literature on post-war Matera. What could I add to the historical narrative that hadn’t already been said? The Sassi are full of narrow winding streets and dead ends. The fact that they slope ever downwards gives visitors the impression that they can easily find their way. Anyone unfamiliar with their layout and topography, however, can get lost after dark without much effort, just as I did that evening.

Panorama of Matera’s ‘Gravina’ and the Sassi

Panorama of Matera’s ‘Gravina’ and the Sassi

As twilight approached I inadvertently found myself faced by the ‘Gravina’, the vast gorge which acts as a natural border to Matera’s former slums. The seemingly endless sky stretched out before me, illuminated by the first stars twinkling millennia away. It struck me that my meandering attempt to get home mirrored my doctoral research in many ways. My thesis had seemed clearly mapped out at the start but had led me down numerous blind alleyways during the intervening years. Given the current pressure on early-career academics to publish as much peer-reviewed material as possible, my mistakes had started to weigh heavily on my soul. In that moment, however, I realized that those minor detours and missteps had not just been frustrating and insignificant cul-de-sacs. Rather they had been minor turning points which had ultimately improved my research. Getting lost had enabled me to discover new sources, pathways and vantage points. That was, in essence, the craft of history.


Filed under Italian History, Landscape, Matera, Social History, Twentieth Century