We revisited data related to the 1456 seismic crisis, the largest earthquake to have ever occurred in peninsular Italy, in search of its causative source(s). Data about this earthquake consist solely of historical reports and their intensity assessment.

Because of the age of this multiple earthquake, the scarcity and sparseness of the data, and the unusually large damage area, no previous studies have attempted to attribute the 1456 events to specific faults. Existing analytical methods to identify a likely source from intensity data also proved inappropriate for such a sparse dataset, since historical evidence suggests that the cumulative damage pattern contains at least three widely separated events.

We subdivided the 1456 damage pattern into three independent mesoseismal areas; each of these areas falls onto east–west tectonic trends previously identified and marked by deep (>10 km) right-lateral slip earthquakes. Based on this evidence we propose (1) that the 1456 events were generated by individual segments of regional east–west structures and are evidence of a seismogenic style that involves oblique dextral reactivation of east–west lower crustal faults; (2) that each event may have triggered subsequent but relatively distant events in a cascade fashion, as suggested by historical accounts; hence (3) that the 1456 sequence reveals a fundamental but unexplored mechanism of tectonic deformation and seismic release in southern Italy. This style dominates the region that lies between the northwest–southeast system of large extensional faults straddling the crest of the southern Apennines and the buried outer front of the chain.

Although the quality of the available information concerning the 1456 earthquake is naturally limited, we show that the overlap of the damage distribution, the orientation and characteristics of regional tectonic structures, the seismicity patterns, and the focal mechanisms all concur with our interpretations and would be difficult to justify otherwise.

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