On the shores of the Straits, Greeks from Khalkis in Euboea, led by Periere and Cratemene, founded Zancle, one of the first western colonies. The city's mint soon started to strike coins some of the oldest in the world and thus started a tradition which continued right up to the 17th century.
The original population of Zancle was however conquered by other peoples from Greek Messenia, which explains why the name of the city was changed to Messene. This name remained until the city was occupied by the Mamertines, mercenaries from Campania in the pay of Syracuse. Rome who had been called to Sicily by Messina, thus starting the First Punic War was bound to the city by a special treaty which trasformed Messana into a military port and important trading centre. This ancient position of strength was consolidated in the Middle Ages, as Messina acquired special economic advantages and a unique politycal physiognomy, making it a kind of city-state, similar to the free Communes of central-northen Italy.
The city and its territory was the last to fall into the hands of the Arabs in the 9th century and the first to be liberated, thanks to the grand Count Ruggero il Normanno who, in 1061, set out from Messina to win back the wole of Sicily. The first Norman kings built their royal palace in Messina and founded the Santissimo Salvatore monastery, which possessed an impressive scriptorium for the conservation and production of precious codices. These were signs of the prestige and culture at the root of the city's indepedence within the kingdom of Sicily, and also explain its intolerance of the hegemonic role of Palermo on the island.
Due to the intense overseas traffic linked to the Crusades, Messina was further fortified by Richard the Lionheart , and became an important port in the journeys of the western armies to the Holy Land. Trade flourished and its merchants founded a "lodge" in the Middle East. In a crescendo interrupted only by the "Sicilian Vesper" in the 13th century, Messina reached a high point in its history, which lasted from the fiftheenth century until the end of the 17th century.
Humanism flourished with the great Antonello, the Greek scholar Costantino Lascari, the polyglot genius Francesco Maurolico, the matematician Giuseppe Moleti, and Montorsoli, to name but a few of the many important figures who played an active role in the cultural life of the city. Such was the wealth that Messina had accumulated during the 17th century, that the city, already the seat of a viceroy who was obliged to spend six months of the year there, proposed buying the whole of Eastern Sicily from the Spanish crown, in cash, in order to set up an independent viceroyalty. Spain oped in some way to limit the city's power, but only ended up by provoking it, thus leading to four years of war (1674-1678).
Messina, at first helped by an army sent by Louis XIV of France, was subsequently abandoned, and finally succumbed to the much larger Spanish forces. The city nevertheless experienced some positive events in the 18th century, such as the birth of the great architect Filippo Juvarra, although a terrible eartquake, in 1783, once more brought it to its knees. It rose once more and partecipated in the 19th century Risorgimento, being the first city to rebel, on 1st September 1848. Another catastrophic earthquake in 1908, in which almost 70.000 citizens died, was a real death blow to the city.
Although Messina was born again, this time in the graceful forms of the eclectic architecture of the turn of the century, it was destined for still further suffering, and was devastated by Allied bombing in the summer of 1943.
TO SEE ...
Santa Maria Alemanna
The church dates back to the second half of the 13th century and was founded, together with an adjacent hospital, by the teutonic Knights, thus explaining the name "Alemanna", by which it is still known.
The knights set up their priory here and used the hospital to receive and tend veterans from the Holy Land. Only a small trace of the ancient hospital remains, in the form of a lancer arch and a fragment of wall near the apses of the church. The church itself, abandoned by the knights at the end of the 14th century, was struck by lightning at the beginning of the 17th century, and was further damaged in the earthquake of 1783, which caused the facade to collapse.
Today it is under restoration, after having been dismantled stone by stone to allow consolidation. The regional museum contains a fine portal from this church which is the purest example of Gothic architecture in Sicily, since it was built using entirely German methods.
The knights hospital, which later passed to the Confraternita dei Rossi, admitted a famous patient after the battle of Lepanto in 1571, in the person of the great Miguel Saavedra Cervantes.
Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani
The church of the "Annunziata dei Catalani" stands on one of the most historically important sites of the Straits. Nearby, there was once the Byzantine shipyard, guarded by the fortress of Castellamare. The church was built between 1150 and 1200 on the remains of a pagan temple dedicated to Neptune. It is an interesting example of how various architectural styles were added to a late Byzantine construction typical of those built by the Basilian Order of monks. The blind loggias and the play of colour created by the exterior stonework, along with the two-tone arches of the interior and the elongated layout of the church, are all indications of Islamic and Byzantine influence, and also reflect contemporary architecture on mainland Italy.
The original lenght of the naves was almost double their present length: they were shortened and the facade was redone following a flood in the Middle Ages, wich caused the front section of the church to collapse.
The church has been known by the name "Catalani" ever since the 16th century, when the senate of Messina gave it to the powerful guild of the Catalan merchants. The guild made it their headquarters and placed the coats of arms of Catalonia on the main entrance. The great difference in height between the ground level of the church and that of the surrounding streets and buildings is due to the piles of rubble caused by the eartquake of 1908, which were later levelled for reconstruction.
Il Monte di Pietà
Monte di Pietà, the ruins of the church of the Pietà and is spectacular staircase, are found on what is now Via XXIV Maggio, but which was originally via del Duomo.
The complex is today missing many of it original parts (the firdt floor of Monte di Pietà is missing, as are the bell tower and the whole of the church, except for a section on the facade). The massive building of the Monte, the work of Natale Masuccio, dating back to 1616, is a fine example of mannerist architecture and was built as the headquarters of an institution set up to fight usury.
The institution was run by the religious brotherhood of the "Azzurri", who met in the adiacent church of the Pietà, constructed in the second half of the 16th century, on the site of a more ancient demolished Greek Orthodox church, San Basilio.
In the 18th century, extensive renovation work was carried out, involving the construction of the first flour of the Monte building, of the adiacent bell-tower and of the staircase, designed by Placido Campoli ed Antonio Basile, which lies between the Monte and the church. At the centre of the staircase, the fountain representing Abundance, designed by Ignazio Buceti, bears the date of 1741, year of the second centenary of the foundation of the Monte Pietà.
The church was originally built in Norman times, but only in 1197, in a ceremony presided over by Henry VI of Swabia ( the father of Frederick II, who lived and was buried in Messina), was it dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Nothing of the Norman construction remains today except the general layout and the overall exterior appearance which, after the 1908 earthquake, the architect Valenti reconstructed on the basis of ancient documents.
Since at least the 14th century the Cathedral has undergone various structural changes.
Guidotto de Tabiatis, the bishop whose tomb, sculpted by Goro di Gregorio in 1333, can be admired in the transept- ordered the construction of an additional section, along the south front of the cathedral, decorated with blach and white stone bands and beautiful mullioned windows.
The 14th century also saw the addition of the baptisimal font by Florentine Gaddo Gaddi and the mosaics in the vaults of the apses. These depict, from south to north: St Giovanni between St Nicola and St. Basilio; Christ Pantocrator; and the Virgin and Child between, Archangels, St Lucia and St Agata. The three portals of the Cathedral facade, with their elaborate decorations in polycrome bands and sculpted features, date from the same period. The central portal is by Baboccio da Piperno and shows figures of kings and saints, cherubs intently observing a mystic harvest, heraldic devices and symbols of the Evangelists. The triangular gable with God the Father at the top and a tondo depicting Christ crowning the Virgin were added in 1468 by Pietro di Bonate. The statue of Madonna and Child, in the lunette of the portal, is from 1534, and is the work of Giovambattista Mazzeo.
The 16th century saw radical intervention also inside the buiding: Montorsoli designed a marble inlay floor and the arrangement, along the walls of the side naves, representing the Apostolate.
The sculptor from Carrara, Andrea Calamech, sculpted the marble pulpit, and Jacopo Lo Duca built the chapel of the Sacrament in the north apse. The canopy in wood and copper and the high altar in mixed marble act as a kind of theatrical device to focus attention on the painting of the Madonna della Lettera (patron saint of Messina), and date bach to the 17th century. The altar, designed by Simone Gulli - who was also responsible for a unique series of buildings along the port known as the "Maritime Theatre", was begun in 1628 and finished at the end of the 18th century. A large number of artists collaborated on its construction, including the great goldsmiths of the Juvarra family, who also made the other altar, in silver and gold, built into the modern one at the centre of the transept, depicting the Virgin handing over her letter to the ambassadors of Messina.
In 1930, the Cathedral became home to what is the largest organ in Italy and the third largest in Europe: 5 keyboards, 170 stops, 16000 pipes arranged in both sides of the transept, behind the altar, above the main portal and above the triumphal arch.
The bell-tower of Cathedral
At the beginning of the 16th century, Martino Montanini planned what was to be, at 90 metres, the highest bell-tower in Sicily.
Struck by lightning in 1588, it was rebuilt by Andrea Calamech in around 1575. The base of the belltower originally housed the city archives, which were taken by the Spanish in 1678 and transported to Seville, where they remain to this day.
The old bell-tower, damaged in the earthquake of 1783, was demolished soon afterwards. The present tower, designed by Valenti, imitates the forms of its predecessor.
It was built after 1908, and in 1933 became home to the largest animated clock in the world, work of the Ungerer brothers from Strasbourg.
Fountain of Nettuno
The splendid monumental fountain representing Nettuno were built in 1557 by Fra' Giovanni Angelo da Montorsoli, on commission of the Senate of Messina and in close collaboration with the great umanist and local mathematican Francesco Maurolico. The fountain of Nettuno is a assimilation of the powerful style of Michelangelo in sculpture. The figure of the god rises calm and invincible, holding his terrible trident with its power to shake the earth; the monstrous Scilla and Cariddi chained at is feet, hurl animal screams.
The fountain, which in the 16th century was situated only a few feet from the sea, with Nettuno turned towards the city, was designed to be seen with the blue backdrop of the harbour, as if the figures had just risen from the water, and as if the god was laying claim to the city.
Gallery and Theatre Vittorio Emanuele
The Galleria inaugurated in 1939, the building represents the major work of the local civil engineer and architect Camillo Puglisi Allegra, an important figure in the eclectic school of architecture.
This building is one of only two examples of its kind in the south of Italy, the other being the gallery in Naples. Puglisi Allegra, who personally designed all the decorations (sculpted by the artists Bonfiglio and Lovetti), drew inspiration from 18th century Sicilian Art.
The extremely elegant effect was completed by the decorations in wrought iron, multicoloured windows and carefully designed lighting, based on lamps hidden behind cornices to give an effect of sheet light.
The Theatre up until 1861 called the Sant'Elisabetta theatre, this building is the only example in the historic centre, and one of the few in the city as a whole, of neo classical architecture.
It was constructed in 1852 according to the plans of the Neapolitan Pietro Valente, assisted by the local architect, Carlo Falconieri.
The earthquake of 1908 left the building seriously unsafe, and the hall and stage (mostly wooden constructions) were subsequently lost. Between 1911 the rear section of the theatre was extended, to create a small auditorium still in use today, named after the local musician, Antonio Laudamo. The new theatre, which retains the perimeter walls of the front section wuth their neo-classical stuccoes and decorations, was not reopened to the public until 1985.
Inside, the ceilling is decorated with the "Legend of Colapesce" by Renato Guttuso.
Church of Saint Francesco
In 1255, Pope Alexander IV sent, from Rome, the foundation stone for the construction of the first church built by the Franciscan Order in Sicily.
The work was completely funded by the nobles of Messina and, in particular by Violante Palizzi, Eleonora Procida and Beatrice Belfiore, who all entered the Third Franciscan Order. This extremely high church evokes architectural forms from continental Europe, and was one of the very few Angevin constructions in Sicily; it was in fact against the Angevin king Charles that the island rebelled in the Sicilian Vespers.
The church and its adjacent convent originally stood outside the city walls, but were absorbed by the espanding town in the 16th century. Patiently reconstructed after the 1908 earthquake, the fine crenellated aspes, "quoted" by the great Antonello, in the background of his painting "Deposition" in the Correr Museum in Venice, were rebuilt using the fallen stones. The portal of the facade, the rosette and the side entrance portal were likewise completely rebuilt. Inside, it is still possible to admire part of the ancient floor showing a large star in inlaid stone.
The church is known to the local people as the "Immacolata" due to its silver statue of the Virgin. In the past, the church also contained important examples of 16th and 17th century paintings, as well as the tombs of Federick III of Aragon and other members of his family.
Santa Maria della Valle, the "Badiazza"
The ruins of the antique church and convent of Santa Maria della Valle, commonly said "Badiazza", forms one the most antique and interesting monuments of the Medieval Messina. It is placed on the bottom of the San Rizzo, stream and is reached by the trunk-road of the Peloritani mountains passing a difficult road trought the village Scala, and going upstream the pebbly river- bed. It belonged to a Benedictine monastery founded most likely in the 12th century. Some historians believe that it was built in the 12th century or at the benigging of the following century, near or over previous Roman constructions of which traces were found. After the devastation of the fire in 1282, it was most likely restored in the 14th century a small furnace was built nearby, which used the calcareous stone blocks of the building damaged it even more.
It has a basilical plant with three naves with a wide antuary and a hight transept with three apses; higher than the rest of the church and in the middle of it a spherical cusp, now fallen, was raised held by four huge pillars.
This planemetry recalls - for similarity - that of other Messenese's Churches, partycularly the one of SS. Annunziata of the Catalani with wom it would hae the cusps in common. But this one was elevated on cilindrical pendentives, while the one of the Santa Maria della Valle is elevated on pillars with degrated small arches of which clear traces have remained.
On the four angles of the santuary, at the height of the cusp impost, there were square rooms, which were most likely used as women's gallery. Quadrilobate pillars hold the ribbed vaults of the nave; the capitals are of various composition. On the outside, the monument presents itself as a single bloked mass, geometrically composed; the Gotic windows in regular order, and the merlon completition give the churh a reinforced civil construction appearence.
In Via Romagnosi, we can find the little Church of San Tommaso, almost hidden among buildings and walls and inacessible to the pubblic. Not much is konwn regarding its origns and its history, but its essential structures show its antiquity, most likely of the Byzantine epoch, even if it was changed in the 16th century as underlined by the date "1530" visible on the trabeation. It has two sections: the first covered with a barrel cault, the second squared with a tambour and an emispheric cupola.
Sanctuary of Saint Antony
Messina is full of pride cause Beato Annibale Maria di Francia was born here.
Sanctuary is one of the most important and well-known and, every years it's destination of thousands of pilgrims from far away.
Sanctuary was erected in the same place where there was Avignone quarter: here Annibale di Francia starts his apostolate in needy and poor people favour.
The cuisine of Messina is justly famous, particularly for its patisserie and unbeatable icecream. Any visit to the city aimed at discovering the uniqueness of its thousands of years of culture is bound to end up in the kitchen, where you can taste local dishes, cakes and icecreams.
The typical Messina breakfast, especially during the summer months, is a glass of coffee or strawberry "granita" accompained by a soft brioche.
At lunch, you can start with "la pasta 'ncaciata" (pasta, meat and melted cheese with boiled eggs) alternatively, try sworldfish or in the poorer but equally tasty version "la ghiotta di piscistoccu" (stockfish) fillets of fish slowly baked in a rich sauce of tomatoes, potatoes, capers and herbs.
Fried Costardelle (saury), spatola (angler fish) and shell-fish are less sophisticated alternatives to swordfish, the king of the Straits, this delicious fish may be served as a main course in the form of delicate rolls stuffed with breadcrumbs. The meat version of the dish is called braciole, and usually comes served with a large helping of green salad.
Vegetable dishes include those based on aubergines, such as caponatina and fritters. The latter can also be made with cauliflower. But is cakes and pastries that the cooks of Messina partucularly excel, and where you are really spoilt for choice, even though the classics remain cannoli ( pastry tubes filled with ricotta and candied fruit) and pignolata (a cake made with lard, eggs, sugar, lemon and chocolate). And while taking an afternoon stroll around the town, why not try a delicious home-made icecream.
Thanks Tourism Agency of Messina for permit of texts and photos