ZAGREB November 9, 2020 – November 9th is the anniversary of the 1880 Zagreb earthquake. Holding a special significance in 2020 – the year of the largest earthquake since – we look back at the 1880 event and see what parallels may be drawn with today
‘I have never seen more horrible images, nor deeper sorrow in my life,’ wrote pre-eminent Zagreb novelist August Šenoa of the destruction visited upon his home city in the 1880 Zagreb earthquake. So influential are the books and writings of August Šenoa that he is regarded as the father of the Croatian novel and of modern national literature. And yet, his chronicling of the 1880 Zagreb earthquake and the devastation it left behind would be among his last writings. While assisting others in the earthquake’s aftermath he contracted an illness that would kill him within the year. Upon his death, he was just 43 years old.
August Šenoa © Marc Rowlands
Šenoa was not the only victim of the 1880 Zagreb earthquake. Although not even invented at the time, the 1880 Zagreb earthquake is estimated to have measured 6.3 on today’s Richter scale. Besides this being considerably stronger than the earthquake experienced in the city during 2020, back then the buildings of the Croatian capital were not constructed to today’s seismic-aware stipulations. Many were no match for the 1880 Zagreb earthquake.
Two fatalities recorded in the immediate aftermath of the 1880 Zagreb earthquake (lithographer Stanić and bank clerk Lavoslav Smetana) and some 29 people were injured seriously. But, unlike 2020, the death toll would continue to rise, as people were left without heat, warmth or even adequate housing with winter fast approaching. Illness and disease visited the city, as did aftershocks like those which have continued to rattle Zagreb in 2020. By April 1881, 185 smaller earthquakes had been recorded. Residents whose houses were damaged were housed in barracks built for that purpose in the area of Zrinjevac and today’s Klaićeva ulica.
Financial aid to the victims of the 1880 Zagreb earthquake came from all over Europe. Most was donated by Austria-Hungary, but funds were also collected in Copenhagen, Istanbul, Cardiff, London, Paris, Bern, Sofia, Alexandria, and help was sent by Pope Leo XIII. Residents of the Polish city released the book ‘Krakow Zagreb’, and one too in Lviv, Ukraine ‘For Zagreb’. Proceeds from their sale were presented to the Mayor of Zagreb in 1881.
Some parallels between the 1880 Zagreb earthquake and the earthquake of 2020 are extraordinary. Although in just the first 24 hours after the 1880 Zagreb earthquake, 3,800 passenger tickets were issued at Zagreb’s Central Station to those fleeing the city, the lucky escapees were largely from the upper classes. Most of the poor were left behind and, just like the Zagreb volunteers of today, many assisted in helping others and in the city’s reconstruction.
The 1880 Zagreb earthquake so badly damaged the city’s cathedral that the main nave collapsed and the cathedral tower was damaged beyond repair. Herman Bollé was an Austro-Hungarian architect who had been persuaded to come and work in Croatia by Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer and Croatian painter Izidor Kršnjavi. One of his first assignments in the country was to assist work on the completion of the cathedral in Đakovo, which was Osijek-born Strossmayer’s seat. After this, Bollé was tasked with renovating St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb and assisting in the restoration of Zagreb cathedral. He had just started work on building the grand domed arches of Mirogoj cemetery when the 1880 Zagreb earthquake hit. Though Mirogoj was considerably closer to the epicentre of the earthquake, Bollé’s new construction was virtually undamaged. This served as proof of his ability and the sturdiness of his constructions. He was immediately promoted to oversee the reconstruction of Zagreb cathedral.
Zagreb cathedral, with its single spire, prior to the 1880 earthquake © State archives in Zagreb
In a move which, at the time, caused no small amount of controversy, he opted to take inspiration from earlier versions of the cathedral and rebuild it in a Neo-Gothic style. It was only at this relatively recent juncture in the life of Zagreb cathedral that its two iconic spires appeared. This was not the only new addition Zagreb received after its earthquake.
Another Ivan Standl photograph, this one from inside Zagreb cathedral
Just like the damage wrought on German cities during the bombing campaigns of World War II, the devastation of the 1880 Zagreb earthquake acted as a catalyst to aspiring new construction work. Many of the iconic and historic buildings in Zagreb’s Lower Town were built in the following years, including the main train station, as were some of its best-loved parks and fountains. More than 700 new buildings were built in the subsequent 10 years, and in response, the city’s population grew by a third.
If residents today draw any inspiring positives from the parallels between the 1880 Zagreb earthquake and that of 2020, surely the city’s resilience, persistence, indefatigability and community spirit must be chief among them. And, if the rebuild following the 2020 earthquake follows in the footsteps of the last one, the city of Zagreb that we could see in years to come may well be like that seen by its residents in the decade following 1880 – a beauty unimaginable while still in the midst of turmoil.
Several photographers were commissioned to document the aftermath of the 1880 Zagreb earthquake including Ivan Standl. Their work appears here courtesy State Archives in Zagreb, The Croatian Ministry of Culture, Zagreb City Library or lies within the public domain
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