The clockwork marvel at Messina

Messina’s bell tower decorated with golden statues

A few weeks ago I shared a photo of the impressive bell tower near the Duomo of Messina and was surprised by the level of interest in this landmark, hence this post.

I’ve been taking people to visit the bell tower ever since moving to Sicily. The mechanical aspects of the tower are a little bit dull for those that don’t have a particular passion for the world of clockwork devices. The most fascinating aspect is the symbolism of each individual section which illustrates the intricate mythology of the city.

The main event happens at midday and midnight (I wouldn’t mind waiting around to see it a midnight even if I wouldn’t recommend hanging around that part of Messina, late at night!) when the movable parts of the bell tower are in motion.

The original tower near the Duomo was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century and has been reconstructed many times thanks to the earthquakes of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.

The tower houses the largest and most complex piece of intricate clockwork in the world. Constructed in Strasberg, the sixty meter tall campanile is made up of an impressive astronomical clock and a collection of gold coated bronze statues which acts out seven different scenes symbolic of Messina’s history.

The fierce lion of Messina

At the apex of the tower right near the bells there is the lion which is the symbol of Messina, complete with royal crown and flag, he proudly roars out over Piazza Duomo while waving his flag at the tourists below.

Messina bell tower cockral
Two brave ladies from Messina’s past

Further down we have a cockerel who crows his heart out after the lions roar, he is flanked by two women Dina and Clarenza who chime their bells every fifteen minutes and on the hour. These two lovely ladies saved the city from a nocturnal ambush by the French in 1282 by appropriately ringing the bells to warn everyone.

Scenes from the bible, Pentecost.

Then we have Saint Paul leading the four Messinese ambassadors who receive were received by the Virgin Mary and were given a special blessing from the Madonna when they visited her in Palestine in 42 A.D. (The letter containing the blessing is paraded around Messina in the mid August holiday celebrating the ‘Madonna della Lettera’.)

The Virgin Mary greeting her visitors from Messina.
The Virgin Mary greeting her visitors from Messina.



The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.
The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.

Incidentally the Madonna of the Port is a grand statue near the city’s harbor meets who greets everyone, with the very blessing contained in the letter. Beneath the statue Mary says the city is a blessed place, with the Latin phrase: ‘Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus.’

Continuing down the clock tower there are different scenes from the bible including the Shepherds visiting the nativity, the three wise men, resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Montalto from above the city of Messina

A special dedication is given to the other major church of the Virgin Mary of the city which aptly rises up to it’s mountain perch to display the Church of Montalto through strains of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

The bottom two windows are dedicated to the passing of time. The penultimate display is of the phases that man passes through in life, every fifteen minutes we see man transform from a baby, to youth, maturity and old age. A skeleton represents death and waves his scythe around during the lifetime.

The last part at the base of the tower are the days of the week, each day is given a specific divinity drawn on a carriage by a specific animal. At the stoke of midnight the carriage changes its configuration appropriately.

Sunday Apollo the deity of the sun is pulled by a horse, Monday Diana the goddess of hunting is accompanied by a buck, Tuesday a horse is guided by Mars the god of war, Wednesday a panther pulls along Mercury, Thursday Jove is accompanied by a Chimera (a fire-breathing mythological creature which is part lion, goat and a snake for a tail), Friday the carriage is pulled by a dove with the goddess Venus and Saturday another Chimera guides Saturn through the week.

The tower is a fascinating piece of Messina’s history and it also offers great views of the city and the Strait over to the mainland. I’m sad to report that over the past few years the tourists seem to be dwindling as when I first came to see the bell tower in all of its glory a little over a decade ago, the square was always packed. Let’s hope the economic crisis gives people space to breathe and travel here once again.