Dubrovnik’s disgrace – the great earthquake of 1667

Dubrovnik’s position on the world seismic map

On the seismic map of the world, the city of Dubrovnik is marked in red. This means that Dubrovnik is located in one of the world’s most seismically active zones, and is also threatened by the potential for earthquakes of the greatest magnitude on the Mercalli scale, i.e. 10 degrees.

The earthquake of 1520

Dubrovnik has been a center of severe earthquakes since antiquity, and since the 15th century, they seem to have intensified. The first serious earthquake struck in 1520.

According to the records, 17 people were killed and many houses demolished.
Fearing the wrath of Dubrovnik’s inhabitants, they built the Church of St. Savior to protect them from natural disasters. The small votive church dedicated to the Holy Savior was erected by decision of the Senate in gratitude to the Savior for sparing the city from the damage of the terrible earthquake in 1520, as evidenced by a monumental inscription on the main façade. Curiously, the church survived the great earthquake of 1667.

The ground signals disaster

Another strong earthquake recorded in the town’s records, otherwise less frequently mentioned, struck on July 28, 1639, and even then many houses were damaged, which “had to be supported by beams”, according to Luksa Beritic.

Exactly 28 years after that, Dubrovnik’s biggest earthquake took place, the Great Quake, on April 6, 1667, which is the best known.

Saint Sauver church in summer

The bloody morning

Neither the Church of St. Saviour could help Dubrovnik on April 6, 1667. It was Holy Wednesday. At 08:50 in the morning, Dubrovnik witnessed the most dramatic disgrace in its history.

The city was just waking up when a brief but powerful blow hit it. The blow lasted only a few seconds, and from then on Dubrovnik began to collapse. Within moments, the city of sumptuous Gothic and Renaissance palaces, churches, monasteries and many other buildings was transformed into a gloomy ruin filled with the screams of survivors, who were buried with stones and wooden beams.

The moment when the major forces were against Dubrovnik

Witnesses say that during the earthquake, everything shook and swayed and walls swayed to the side and then returned to the same place. Huge boulders were breaking off the Srd hill, destroying everything in front of them. Cracks engulfed the country’s piles and stakes, swallowing houses. Dust rose into the sky and obscured the sun, whose light was as red as blood. Water supplies were cut off, wells dried up and filled with yellow mud. The apocalyptic atmosphere was heightened by scenes of the sea where thunder or cannon could be heard. Soon, a tidal wave fell on Dubrovnik. At first, the sea receded, and along with the ships anchored in the harbor, the locusts shook the rock. Soon it returned with high waves, breaking ships.


View from the ramparts

The earthquake is over, but the disaster continues

Dubrovnik’s disaster was complete. Half the population of the old town lost their lives – 3,000. Over 6,000 people were killed, including the Rector of Dubrovnik and half the Grand Council. Half the nobles lost their lives (interestingly, a year before the earthquake, a plague swept through and killed 1,000 people). However, the real problems were yet to come. The city had been shaking since the earthquake for another full week, and the blazing fire had ravaged the city with a strong wind for as long as 20 days. Survivors took refuge in Fort Revelin and Lazarete, one of the few buildings that didn’t suffer. Thousands of wounded were left in ruins, crying out for help. Complete chaos ensued. Inmates rarely help, unless they know they will be materially rewarded. Many of them drank their own urine to survive. A terrible theft was unleashed. Villagers from the suburbs came to Dubrovnik with the intention of devastating it. Since the earthquake and much of the government had been destroyed in the quake, total anarchy had arisen. Dead ears and jaws have been ripped off for gold earrings and teeth. Everyone was robbed – rich and poor.

The Rector’s Palace

The importance of diplomacy in bad times

In the midst of all the turmoil, several of Dubrovnik’s noblemen managed to keep their cool. They founded the Council of Twelve, which made key decisions in the days following the earthquake. It was determined that anyone who left the city during this difficult period would be punished, as they were obliged to rebuild Dubrovnik and carry on. They have paid 800 people to protect the city against possible attacks from Turkey or Venice, and thefts from their own citizens. In these most difficult times in Dubrovnik’s history, diplomacy played a key role, especially Stipe Gradic, a diplomat at the Vatican. He took hundreds of actions, all aimed at restoring his hometown to its former prosperity. He stressed that Dubrovnik must build on its own potential for reconstruction. His archives of the city’s reconstruction are preserved today in the Franciscan monastery. The extent to which the people of Dubrovnik appreciated his contribution is best illustrated by the commemorative plaque erected in his honor in the new Baroque cathedral (the old one was completely destroyed).

Everyone was trembling

Despite the terrible earthquake, Dubrovnik managed to hold on and embarked on a new phase in its history. It was one of the biggest European earthquakes of all time. Ultimate microseismic waves were felt as far away as Venice, Naples, Constantinople and even Egypt – up to two thousand kilometers away over an area of more than 12 million square kilometers.

Earthquakes in the XXᵉ century

Let’s also add the one in April 1979, so that we understand how we live during the months of earthquakes, as we normally do in difficult times.
In the summer of 1996, the Dubrovnik region suffered again. The town of Ston, cca 40 km north of Dubrovnik, was severely damaged.