When, why, and how do people write about a natural disaster? The article characterizes three ways of narrating catastrophe—allegorical, anecdotal, and historical—and shows that a shift toward the historical narrative takes place at the beginning of the seventeenth century, more precisely around 1630, and mainly in Italy. The most likely explanation is twofold. First, the interpretation of catastrophes no longer relies solely on religious explanations, but political and polemical ones are also starting to be considered. Second, the expression of a point of view contributes to this increased recourse to the narrative. This article argues that the flourishing of catastrophe narratives is related to interpretative conflicts. The second issue raised by this article is the difference between factual and fictional narratives. This question is examined in the context of the historical experience constructed by the narrative. The fictional accounts of catastrophe will be characterized as such: fiction allows the disaster to be experienced in a paradoxical relation to time, through the point of view of an “impossible witness.”

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