Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
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Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
Jan T. Kozak, Institue of Rock Mechanics, Czech Academy of Science
Charles D. James, National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering

Note: With permission, this paper is abridged and edited from drafts of a longer work in progress by V. S. Moreira, C. Nunes and J. Kozak on the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. The images presented here are taken from the NISEE Kozak Collection of Images of Historical Earthquakes.

Quote:Although not the strongest or most deadly earthquake in human history, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake's impact, not only on Portugal but on all of Europe, was profound and lasting. Depictions of the earthquake in art and literature can be found in several European countries, and these were produced and reproduced for centuries following the event, which came to be known as "The Great Lisbon Earthquake."

The earthquake began at 9:30 on November 1st, 1755, and was centered in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 km WSW of Cape St. Vincent. The total duration of shaking lasted ten minutes and was comprised of three distinct jolts. Effects from the earthquake were far reaching. The worst damage occurred in the south-west of Portugal. Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, was the largest and the most important of the cities damaged. Severe shaking was felt in North Africa and there was heavy loss of life in Fez and Mequinez. Moderate damage was done in Algiers and in southwest Spain. Shaking was also felt in France, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. A devastating fire following the earthquake destroyed a large part of Lisbon, and a very strong tsunami caused heavy destruction along the coasts of Portugal, southwest Spain, and western Morocco.

The oscillation of suspended objects at great distances from the epicenter indicate an enormous area of perceptibility. The observation of seiches as far away as Finland, suggest a magnitude approaching 9.0. Precursory phenomena were reported, including turbid waters in Portugal and Spain, falling water level in wells in Spain, and a decrease in water flow in springs and fountains.

Detailed descriptions of the earthquake's effects in Morocco, were, in some cases, based on Portuguese manuscripts written by priests. The cities of Meknes, Fez, and Marrakesh in the interior, and the coastal towns of Asilah, Larache, Rabat, and Agadir (Santa Cruz during the Portuguese occupation) suffered much damage in the quake. Mosques, synagogues, churches, and many other buildings collapsed in Meknes, where numerous casualties were reported. The convent, church, and Hospital de S. Francisco collapsed completely.

In 1755, Lisbon was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The city retained some of its Moorish influence during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This may be seen in the design of the streets in the quarters surrounding St. George Castle and extending as far as Rossio, the central part of the city. The Rosario, or main square, was the commercial center of Lisbon. The Estatus Palace, situated to the north, was where illustrious visitors to the Kingdom were lodged. On the east side, Saint Dominic Church and the All Saint's Royal Hospital, with its magnificent façade, were erected. On top of the hill, an ancient royal residence was situated. To the west, the church and its Convent were among the most magnificent buildings in Lisbon. Other famous buildings near the city center include the Cathedral, St. Paul's Church, St. Nicholas' Church, and St. Roch's Church.

The Architecture of the city was complemented by that of the suburbs, including a majestic aqueduct constructed by King D. Joao V. in 1731, the Jeronimus Church, and the Tower of Belem. With an estimated population of 275,000, Lisbon was, in 1755, one of the largest cities in Europe.

The Fire
Soon after the earthquake, several fires broke out, mostly started by cooking fires and candles. Some of them were rapidly extinguished, especially in the densely populated areas. But many inhabitants fled from their homes and left fires burning. Narrow streets full of fallen debris prevented access to the fire sites. The public squares filled with people and their rescued belongings, but as the fire approached, these squares were abandoned, and the fire reached catastrophic proportions. Looters setting fire to some ransacked houses caused the belief that the fire had a criminal origin. The flames raged for five days.

All of the downtown area, from St. Paul's quarter to St. Roch, and from Carmo and Trindade to the Rossio square area to the Castle and Alfama quarters were burned, along with the Ribeira, Rua Nova, and Rossio quarters. Remolares, Barrio Alto, Limoeiro, and Alfama, were partially burned.

Several buildings which had suffered little damage due to the earthquake were destroyed by the fire. The Royal Palace and the Opera House were totally gutted by the flames. The Patriarchal suffered relatively little damage in the earthquake, and religious services continued there during the afternoon, but the church was evacuated as the fire approached. Later the building was completely burned out.

The Tsunami
Immediately after the earthquake, many inhabitants of Lisbon looked for safety on the sea by boarding ships moored on the river. But about 30 minutes after the quake, a large wave swamped the area near Bugie Tower on the mouth of the Tagus. The area between Junqueria and Alcantara in the western part of the city was the most heavily damaged by the wave, but further destruction occurred upstream. The Cais de Pedra at Rerreiro do Paco and part of the nearby custom house were flattened.

A total of three waves struck the shore, each dragging people and debris out to sea and leaving exposed large stretches of the river bottom. In front of the Terreiro do Paco, the maximum height of the waves was estimated at 6 meters. Boats overcrowded with refugees capsized and sank. In the town Cascais, some 30 km west of Lisbon, the waves wrecked several boats and when the water withdrew, large stretches of sea bottom were left uncovered. In coastal areas such as Peniche, situated about 80 km north of Lisbon, many people were killed by the tsunami. In Setubal, 30 km south of Lisbon, the water reached the first floor of buildings.

The destruction was greatest in Algarve, southern Portugal, where the tsunami dismantled some coastal fortresses and, in the lower levels, razed houses. In some places the waves crested at more than 30 m. Almost all the coastal towns and villages of Algarve were heavily damaged, except Faro, which was protected by sandy banks. In Lagos, the waves reached the top of the city walls. For the coastal regions, the destructive effects of the tsunami were more disastrous than those of the earthquake.

In southwestern Spain, the tsunami caused damage to Cadiz and Huelva, and the waves penetrated the Guadalquivir River, reaching Seville. In Gibraltar, the sea rose suddenly by about two meters. In Ceuta the tsunami was strong, but in the Mediterranean Sea, it decreased rapidly. On the other hand, it caused great damage and casualties to the western coast of Morocco, from Tangier, where the waves reached the walled fortifications of the town, to Agadir, where the waters passed over the walls, killing many.

The tsunami reached, with less intensity, the coast of France, Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium and Holland. In Madeira and in the Azores islands damage was extensive and many ships were in danger of being wrecked.

The tsunami crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching the Antilles in the afternoon. Reports from Antigua, Martinique, and Barbados note that the sea first rose more than a meter, followed by large waves.

Earthquake Depictions
The pictorial material related to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake is extensive and broadly distributed. It includes factual renderings of the actual events, as well as fanciful interpretations. The latter, which tend to exaggerate the disaster, are most often found in rural regions. In general, it can be said that the degree of accuracy in these materials decreases in proportion to increases in distance from Lisbon and the time elapsed after the earthquake. Some examples contain both accurate and fanciful material.

Accurate Depictions

Pictures that accurately depict the events of November 1st, 1755 are few. Among the best of these are a series of six excellent engravings by Le Bas. These were based on drawings made by Paris and Pedegache, who were in Lisbon at the time of the earthquake. The final compositions, which appear in several printed series, are characterized by a photographic-like accuracy. They show the damage caused to St. Roch Tower (Fig. 1), St. Paul's Church (Fig. 2), the Cathedral (Fig. 3), the Opera House (Fig. 4), St. Nicholas Church (Fig. 5), and to the Patriarchal (Fig. 6). The size of the vegetation growing on top of the ruins in these pictures indicates that they were probably created late in 1757. Four of these original drawings survived and are on display in the City Museum of Lisbon.

One version of this series contains legends written mainly in English. The text of this version, which retains some subtitles in Portuguese and French, notes that the depiction is of the ruins "immediately after the earthquake." The bushes and trees on the ruins, however, are the same as in the pictures with the Portuguese/French legend dated 1757. The text in the English version mentions the names of Paris and Pedegache. It is difficult to decide which series was made earlier.

Of the several reproductions of the six Paris and Pedegache drawings printed from copper engravings, one series contains Portuguese and French text numbered 1-6 in Arabic numerals (an example is on display at the City Museum, Lisbon). The same series with Roman numbering is located in the National Library, Paris. There is also an unnumbered series with English captions, also kept at the National Library, Paris, and several series done in color, one of which has English captions and is kept in the City Museum, Lisbon. The later series, probably printed in the 19th century, is shown in Figs. 7-12. One unnumbered depiction shows the damaged Patriarchal Square, engraved by Prattent for Barlow's book General History of Europe. Le Bas compositions were copied many times in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. These copies are marked by descending quality and accuracy.

The Le Bas series represents the first instance of exact and systematic documentation of damage caused by an earthquake. Only 28 years later, this method was enriched and improved by F. Schiantarelli, who, together with his colleagues, created 68 excellent engravings of the 1783 Calabrian earthquake.

Fanciful Depictions

The Lisbon quake was redrawn, often in a fanciful manner, for many years throughout Europe. Chronologically, these depictions can be split into three groups. The first group was made immediately after the event, between 1755 and 1757. The second series is from the 18th century. The last are the illustrations for scientific or religious purposes of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Fig. 13, Lisbon is shown before (top) and after (bottom) the earthquake. The artist is from Tobias Lotter's cartographical workshop in Augsburg, Bavaria. He utilized an older depiction of the city published by Braun and Hogenberg (1598) for the upper part of the composition - note that he has tried to authenticate the older picture by adding the baroque fortifications in front of the Royal Palace Square. The very fanciful picture at the bottom includes active volcanoes. The shape of the town bears no resemblance to Lisbon. The castle in the background, which collapsed and burned in the earthquake, is shown as undamaged. This is a typical 17th century depiction of the Lisbon earthquake.

Fig. 14 is a Czech broadsheet with the curious inscription "The true story of the disastrous earthquake in Lisbon…". It was published in 1755 in Prague, but is incorrectly dated 1750. This simple illustration bears no resemblance to the city of Lisbon. Note that the facades of the houses have a typical 18th century Czech baroque architectural style. A timely and relatively accurate written report on the disaster, however, is attached.

The triple depiction shown in Fig. 15 shows Lisbon before the earthquake, and the central picture shows it immediately afterwards. The bottom picture portrays the effects of the quake on the suburbs of Meknes. Under the depiction is the inscription "I.D. Nessenthaller inv. del. et sculps. A.V." Although it is not dated, we can assume it was composed shortly after the earthquake.

The German engraving presented in Fig. 16 shows, on the left, a refugee camp in the suburbs of Lisbon. On the right is a reference to the Jan 26th, 1531 earthquake, which also caused heavy damage to Lisbon. The date shown in the depiction is Nov. 6th, 1755. The inscription in the picture says "Qui no ha visto Lisboa, no ha visti cisa boa," or "Who has not seen Lisbon, has not seen a wonderful thing (town)." The picture is signed: I. Ferd. Baechler seel. Terb exc. A.V." This broadsheet probably also originated a short time after the earthquake.

Fig. 17 is not directly related to the 1755 event, but is an allegorical representation produced ten years later. It is included in a thesis on the physics of the Earth from the West Bohemian Premonstrate Order monastery at Tepla. The image includes the apparition of St. Alexius, the patron of protection in earthquakes, in the sky. Nevertheless, the thesis is an example of the many geological studies throughout Europe which were stimulated by the Lisbon disaster.

Fig. 18, entitled "Lisbonne Abysmbe..." is an anonymous broadsheet illustration, probably of French origin. This picture accurately depicts some of the local topography. In the foreground, people are escaping in panic from the Tagus River banks. The central and eastern parts of the city are totally in ruin. A large wave falls on the city. The buildings in the most western suburbs (far left) seem to be undamaged. The architecture of the houses and the church steeples correspond more to western and central European construction than to that found in Iberia. A legend accompanying the picture is unfortunately missing. This depiction is among the most impressive of the 1755 disaster.

A depiction of "The Great Earthquake of Lisbon" published in the Illustrated London News on March 30th, 1850 is shown in Fig. 19. This is a highly inaccurate depiction of the event but serves to illustrate how the disaster, which had happened nearly a hundred years before, still lived in the memory of the Europeans.

The depiction in Fig. 20 entitled "Zachraneni hrabeci rodiny (The Rescue of the Duke's Family)", is an illustration taken from the Czech book Zemetreseni v Lisbono, nejvetsi na svete pameti lidske (The Earthquake in Lisbon, the Largest in the World During Human Memory). The book was written by W.D. Horn and is translated from the original German. The Czech version was edited in Prague in 1864. The descriptions in the text of this book served to sustain memories of the Lisbon disaster for a long time.

A more dramatic composition is presented in Fig. 21, the frontispiece illustration taken from the book by Hartwig (1887). This view is from the right bank of the Tagus looking west. The manifestations of the quake are presented here quite convincingly: large movements of water masses, sinking ships, collapsing houses in the front along the river bank, and panicked crowds trying to escape. It is possible that this photo-like depiction was created using an older depiction as a model.


The extensive number of renderings of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake found throughout Europe demonstrate the traumatic effect the disaster had on the continent. Depictions of the Lisbon earthquake were created, copied, and widely distributed and discussed throughout all of southern, western and central Europe. Whether created by the new desire to investigate, record, and understand the earthquake in natural rather than strictly metaphysical terms, or created by the more sensational desire to report on human calamity, these depictions indicate that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 represents a watershed event in European history.

Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake

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2013 May 10 18:06
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Aemma (10-05-2013)


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RE: Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
What an excellent find, Violet, and a timely one too! Thank you for posting this! Smile

Looking through those drawings, it's clear how one approach seems less emotional than the other. I'm especially struck by the sense of utter mayhem in some of the fanciful depictions. This would of course stand to reason when one draws with visceral feeling. This one in particular strikes me as portraying that all hell's broken loose and the wrath of God shows no mercy:

[Image: 25jxusn.jpg]

It's rather folksy in its portrayal of an absolute sense of destruction, turmoil, end-of-the-world-ness. It's effective though in making the observer feel the utter despair. There is nothing elegant nor refined about any of it but purely emotive in its reach to the observer's soul.

Having said this, I do however also appreciate the more formal and accurate depictions as well. The sense of destruction is no less palpable but there remains a certain tone of objectivity in the works. In a very peculiar yet interesting way it renders a good juxtaposition of the man-made to the natural, colliding in time and space. Rendered in a more classical artistic manner, these works still manage to convey the depth of destruction and yet the elegance of the ruin remains, as though that created by Man obstinately refuses to capitulate to that created by God.

This image most conveys this sense to me:

[Image: 9quul4.jpg]

Incredibly interesting, all of it. Thanks again. Smile

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2013 May 10 18:48
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Violet (10-05-2013)

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