Of all the major cities in Sicily, Messina is the one with which I am most familiar, simply because it is physically closer to where I live. Palermo can be too decrepit and full of crime, Catania is just plain dirty and dangerous and the others are simply too complicated to travel to for me. While Messina battles with the usual problems of a big city it is more cosmopolitan, intriguing and easy to explore.
Each of Sicily’s capitals has their particular historical appeal, for instance, Palermo with its boundless decaying palazzi and works of art, or Catania with its cacophony of sights and sounds covered in archaic lava. Messina’s intriguing mixture of mythology, legend and history is an alluring concoction which is more attractive than the usual heavily tangled histories of other Italian cities.
In Sicily, legends are often taught with the seriousness of any history lesson and historical figures become easily exchanged with characters in myths. This combination of seemingly contrasting elements creates a world of paradox, marrying together many unlikely elements.
Messina is Christian and pagan, old and new, historic and mythological, it contains many contrasts which exist side by side, spread out between the sea and the mountains, separated from the rest of Italy by a strait which seems easily traversed yet creates an immense sense of distance from the mainland.
Messina looks tranquil, the public servants are ordered enough, yet the laziness, corruption and apathy run as deep as the rest of Sicily. Messina’s intricacies stem from the fact that the city has always controlled the marine passage between Sicily and the mainland. Its strategic importance means all invaders from Italy, Europe and the Mediterranean have passed through this port, leaving behind their imprints in the local culture.
Physically approaching Messina in every direction reveals its striking geographical layout, sandwiched between a natural harbour and the mountains. Driving down from autostrada takes you all the way through the mountain tops via a series of tunnels bored through the ancient rocks. The passageways are punctuated by strips of roads balancing themselves on cement columns hundreds of meters high like giant stilts, looking out onto breathtaking views for brief moments.
Taking the autostrada exit towards the centre of Messina and the port, the highway turns though Mount Petoritani which form the outside border of Messina producing its amphitheatre shape. The modern city is slowly climbing up into the mountains with sections cutting themselves up high into endless apartment buildings which push the city upwards away from the sea.
The slopes of Mount Peloritani are Messina’s foundation and in ancient times it was known as the hill of Neptune, the ridge to its north descended to the temple of Poseiodon, protector of sailors.
One of the most spectacular curves down to the city shows off the stunning panorama at the strait of Messina. Looking through a heavy steel barrier grill, the expansive city curves out in a giant semi-circle.
The tip of the Strait seems to be reaching out for Calabria’s coast on the other side of mainland Italy, which is trying to grab onto Sicily, barely out of reach. This spot is the shortest space between Sicily and Italy to the north between Capo Peloro and Torre Cavallo, it is here where the project for the Messina bridge is planned, made up of a massive suspension bridge some three kilometres long with two railway lines and a six-lane highway.
The Messina–Calabria link has been talked about and theorised upon since ancient Roman times and today it is the source of much political and environmental debate. Some want it for better connection to the mainland to improve the economy of Sicily, bringing in tourists and making it easier to transport goods. Others didn’t want it because they don’t want to destroy the natural environment, or because of a real concern for the seismic activity in the area. The Island of Sicily is moving further away from the Calabrian coast at an average of one and a half centimetres every ten years. Others want to protect the delicate economic situation between local business, ferry companies and the mafia. Whatever side you take in the debate, the fact is the work will not begin anytime soon.
Today Messina is still connected to Italy by a persistent ferry system. There once was a curious train system which saw carriages being loaded into the hulls of massive ships for them to be offloaded on the other side of the strait. A process took many hours of toing and froing and was one of the most unique train journeys in the world, sadly these trains are nearly non-existent, most mainlanders simply catching a ferry across.
Taking the ferry from Villa San Giovanni, Calabria to Messina at any time of the day still reveals the beauty of the coastline as the harbour stretches out before you in a cove off the Strait of Messina which is shaped like a sickle, in fact, ancient Greek name for Messina was Zancle or sickle city.
The ferry doesn’t make a straight journey across to Messina from the final stop of the train at Villa San Giovanni but instead, it curves in a “U” shape as is if avoiding an imaginary iceberg. This is because of the strong currents at a different point of the strait which create a powerful vortex.
There is a strong descending whirlpool in front of the Faro of Messina, caused by the conflicting currents of Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas who meet there. The two bodies of water intertwine to unite and repel one another at the same time. The currents flowing from the south to the north between Calabria and Messina change according to the position of the sun, the phases of the moon and the strength of the winds. The currents usually alternate every six hours changing course or length they are known to reach the width of a thousand meters.
These whirlpools have been easily identified and recognised since ancient Greek times. The vortexes have created the legends of the sea monsters Scylla, Charybdis and the blowhole of Cariddi. Homer’s hero Ulysses in The Odyssey recounts the dangers of crossing between the tightest part of the Strait of Messina as a life-threatening and nearly impossible endeavour, from confronting the monsters, treacherous rocks, to the songs of the Sirens.
Making it past the mythology of the world just outside of Messina another tale begins with the arrival of ships. At the entrance of the port a giant golden statue resting on a tall stone column welcomes travellers. The cities guardian the Madonna stands with open arms to greet and bless everyone who enters the city. She is more stunning than any lighthouse, a manifestation of the city’s faith.
Below the golden icon, there is a special greeting written in large white letters along the base of the grey pedestal in Latin. ‘Vo set ipsam civitatem benedicimus.’ The words of a blessing written in a letter the Madonna composed to the people of Messina, after receiving a delegation from the city in forty-two A.D. According to the traditional belief Christianity was brought to Messina by the evangelical voyage of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The letter was written to congratulate the city on its conversion to Catholicism and is still preserved at Messina. On the third of June each year a special procession is dedicated to the Sacred Hair of Mary, a single strand of hair which according to local belief was tied around the letter sent to the city. The scroll is taken on a procession around the city during the celebration for the Madonna della Lettera.
The city has an intimate connection to the Virgin Mary, with endless churches dedicated to her. She is the focus of a special celebration in mid-August. In an elaborate float assembled in her honour. The Vara, an elaborate cart whose name means ‘coffin’ deriving from the glass casket at the base of the design which represents the body of the Virgin Mary. The construction depicts the biblical structure of the universe from the earth up to the heavens completed with a hierarchy of angels peaking with the image of Christ who supports his mother in the palm of his hand raising her into the heavens.
The ornate structure is pulled along basic iron slides by the Messinese with long tow ropes whilst singing praises to Mary. The celebration has a long history and is central to the city’s expression of faith and trust in their patron.
Also in August side by side to the religious celebrations associated with the Virgin Mary, there is the pagan commemoration of the two giants Mata and Grifone the mythological founders of the modern city. From the tenth of August, the two colossal statues of the giants riding on horseback are placed on public display.
Grifone a Muslim Moor was said to have come to Messina to sack the city but instead fell in love with Mata, the blonde daughter of a wealthy merchant who lived in the town of Camaro above the city. According to the myth, Mata refused Grifone’s advances because he wasn’t Christian and so he converted to Catholicism. The legend of Mata and Grifone dates back to the ninth century when the Arabs began to conquer Sicily and are believed to refer to the Arab general Hassan Ibn-Hammar who fell in love with the daughter of a Messina nobleman Cosimo II di Coltellaccio.
The figure of Mata came from the ancient town of Camaro one of the oldest parts of Messina whose name is believed to derive from the Greek ‘Kamar’ which literally means ‘city of the dead’ which alludes to how this area was used as a cemetery for many centuries. Another hypothesis is that the word Camaro is a combination of the names Cam and Rea which are another name for the two mythological giants of Mata and Grifone.
The giants are the perfect allegory of the city’s history with particular reference to its confrontations with invaders. Messina has always been in amongst the naval traffic of the Mediterranean and as a result, every aggressor has passed through the capital. Mata is the symbol of a beautiful, civilised, Christian city who converts the pagan to Catholicism. Like the city itself under the guidance of the Madonna , Mata’s faith, in turn, assimilates the foreigner into the Catholic metropolis, adding to the ongoing prosperity of the capital.
In the August festivities, the statues of Messina’s mythological founders stand some ten meters high and are believed to have been first constructed in the sixteenth century by the Florentine artist Martino Montanino. The Giants have a caricature quality to them and sit like two large Carnival floats towed around the city on wheels. Mata has a stern almost frowning expression while sitting on her white steed, carrying a flower arrangement and the reigns in on hand and a spear in the other. She is milky white with chubby legs compete with Roman sandals. On her head, there is a fortress shaped headdress representing the city’s fortitude.
Grifone instead is a bearded, charcoal coloured warrior with sword and shield with the city’s ancient fortress designed on it. His black stallion is draped in regal red robes, its reigns held firmly by Grifone’s muscular looking hands. Both of the giants are regal in their ancient Greek noble dress with details completed in gold. They have a strength and determination which is evident from their stance and their gazes are focused firmly towards the future.
In the early twentieth century, Messina was one of the most spectacular and populated cities of Sicily. The main streets went around the circumference of the semi-circle created by the mountains and the coastline. The city was formed by the natural landscape and built its streets running from the higher part of the city down to the harbour quay which was the focus of the economic and civic life of Messina. Along the four main streets there were endless villas and palaces which dated back to ancient times and at the intersection of these major streets, there were four decorative water fountains. The Quattri Fontani were the source of the drinking water for the city which was gathered from the mountains and filtered down to the centre of the city. The fountains were larger than life baroque-style statues with elaborate designs of fishes, nymphs and other mythological creatures. Messina was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe full of such treasure and was spectacular seen from its harbour aboard the ships who sailed into the port.
At 5.21 am on the 28th of December 1908 Messina was literally completely destroyed by a terrible earthquake and tsunami, the most devastating in Italy’s history. An estimated 80,000 people were buried under the rubble of the city, others surviving the initial earthquake remained shocked in the ruins of the city only to be swept away by a six-meter high wave. Bodies of tidal wave victims were discovered in the Greek Islands and in the Persian Gulf in Asia, from this moment Messina changed forever.
Messina is on an earthquake-prone belt stretching from Vesuvius through to the Aeolian Island of Stromboli and then onto Mount Etna. This arch of volcanoes has been active from ancient times until the present. Italy sits astride a boundary zone where the African continental plate is thought to be pushing slabs of the sea floor underneath Europe at a rate of about three centimetres a year.
Over ninety per cent of the city was obliterated, buildings were destroyed, the very streets disappeared as the mountains slipped down on top of the city in giant landslides. Messina had gone from a bustling metropolis with a population of one hundred and fifty thousand people to a completely ruined ghost town mourning the loss of some one hundred thousand dead.
The splendid historical city of Messina has suffered many disasters and gigantic traumas apart from this earthquake of 1908. The bubonic plague was brought to Europe on a ship which arrived in Messina and the allied bombardment of 1943 earned Messina the nickname of the city of ghosts as most residents fled to safety in the outlying towns.
Messina’s mythological and metaphorical giants rather than destroying it have been absorbed into its identity. Today it is a city full of life with the vibrant nature of a bustling metropolis that continues to pay respect to its history, folklore and religion. Messina in its suffering is always redeemed by its own deeply ingrained faith and determination to rebuild and reinvent itself.