In the past, Messina was a major stop in the Mediterranean trade routes and had been representing a crossroad of cultural and artistical exchanges, able to provide a dynamic and stimulating environment to important artists, among which the most important certainly is Antonello da Messina. In more recent times, several natural catastrophes hit the city, notably two earthquakes in 1783 and 1908, the latter razing 9/10 of it to the ground, provoking as many as 60,000 dead. During the Second World War it was subjected to intensive bombing raids.
The display is arranged chronologically beginning with the Byzantine and Norman Ages. The first rooms are devoted to paintings, shallow reliefs and capitals. Among these is a fine polychrome wooden Crucifix dating back to the early 1400’s (third room on the right) and a glazed terracotta medallion from the Della Robbia workshop depicting the Virgin gently gazing down at her Child. The works in the next room betrays the Flemish influence. A strong sense of realism and an astute attention to detail characterizes the edge of a mantle and cuffs of the garments in the Madonna and Child attributed to a follower of Petrus Christus (15th century). The same exquisite technique is evident in Antonello da Messina’s beautiful, though badly damaged, Polyptych of St. Gregory (1473). His style assimilates several northern features, namely the International Gothic predilection for linearity (stance of the figures, the crisp folds of falling drapery). In the same room is a fine Deposition by Colijn de Coter: in this, the drama of the scene is heightened by the anguished expressions of the mourners bent in supporting the weight of the dead Christ, and in the predominant use of burnt, dull colours.
The next room is devoted to Messina artist Girolamo Aliprandi. Among his paintings is the huge Presentation at the Temple, dated 1519. Here is also displayed a fine statue of the Madonna and Child by Gagini. The Roman painter Polidoro da Caravaggio and the Florentine sculptor and architect Montorsoli introduced Mannerism to Messina. To them and his followers were devoted rooms 6 and 7. Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, spent a year in Messina, between 1608 and 1609. During this time he painted the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Resurrection of Lazarus (room 10). That was long enough to influence the many artists living in the city.
The Splendid Senator’s Coach (room 12), dated 1742, incorporates a number of exquisitely made furnishings, including small gilded wooden carvings and painted panels. The top floor of the museum is devoted to displaying decorative and applied arts.
Chiesa of San Giovanni Malta – On Via S. Giovanni Malta. It is a square building of the late-1500’s. Its west front (Via Placida) is graced with white stone pilasters, niches and windows (some of which are blind) and a gallery in the upper tier.
Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi o dell’Immacolata – On Viale Boccetta. It is an imposing building that was largely rebuilt following the 1908’s earthquake. It only retained three 1200’s austere stone apses, relieved by narrow arches containing windows; the two ogival portals that are later in date than the original building; a fine rose-window on the façade.
Monte di Pietà – Via XXIV Maggio and Piazza Crisafulli. This is a late-Mannerist building with a façade ornamented with a massive rusticated doorway framed between rather solid columns and a broken pediment, above, the balcony rests on brackets carved with volutes. Unfortunately, the upper floor, destroyed by the earthquake, was not rebuilt, making the building look unfinished. Today it is used as a concert and recital hall.
On the left side of the building is a gate that gives access to what once was the consecrated ground of the church, preceded by a majestic symmetrical flight of steps. The façade is the only remain of the church.
Duomo – Almost entirely rebuilt after its original Norman style following the quake of 1908, the Duomo has a façade graced with one-light windows and a small central rose-window. The central doorway, one of three, rebuilt using the original elements (15th century), is flanked by two small columns supported by lions, surmouted by a lunette bearing a Madonna with Child from the 16th century.
On the right flank, a small building is lit with elegant two-light windows in the Gothic-Catalan style. Inside, a fine beamed and painted ceiling was replaced, the original one having been destroyed by the bombings of the Second World War. The ornamental carved rosettes along the central betray the influence of eastern design.
Treasury – Access from inside the Duomo. It displays a fine collection of religious objects and vestments. The most ancient exhibit (from the High Middle Ages) is the Pigna, a lamp made of rock crystal. Much of the silver plate was made in Messina, including the arm-shaped reliquaries (the one of San Marziano is inscribed with Moorish and Byzantine patterns), candlesticks, chalices and a fine 1600’s monstrance (containing a host) with two angels and a pelican on top presiding over the rays.
Orologio astronomico – The astronomical clock is the most interesting component of the 60m high bell-tower to the left of the cathedral. The mechanism dating from 1933 was built in Strasbourg. It comprises several layers, each bearing a different display endowed with a separate movement. At the bottom, a two-horse chariot driven by a deity indicates the day of the week; above, the central figure of Death waves his scythe threateningly at the child, youth, soldier or old man – the four ages of man – that pass before him. At the third stage, the Sanctuary of Montalto (turn left to compare it with the real one) sets the scene for a group of figures which, according to the time of year, represent the Nativity, Epiphany, Resurrection and Pentecost. At the top, the tableau enacts a scene relating to a local legend whereby the Madonna delivers a letter to the ambassodors of Messina in which she thanks and agrees to protect the inhabitants of the town who were converted to Christianity by St. Paul the Apostle: the same Madonna della Lettera (Madonna of the Letter) is the patron saint of Messina.
The tow young female bell-strikers are the local heroines Dina and Clarenza, who were alive during the period of resistance against the Angevins (1282). The very top is capped with a lion. The southern side of the bell-tower (starting from the bottom) shows a perpetual calendar, the astronomical cycle marked by the signs of the zodiac, and the various phases of the moon. When the clock strikes midday, all the mechanical figures come to life in tune to a musical air: the lion, the symbol of the vitality of the town, roars three times while the cockerel crows from between the two girls.
Fontana di Orione – This fine and elegant fountain rising at the centre of Piazza del Duomo was designed by Tuscan architect Montorsoli to commemorate the inauguration of the aqueduct. Sculpted in a pre-Baroque style (16th century), it incorporates allegories of four rivers Tiber, Nile, Ebro and Camaro – the Messina river whose waters had been diverted into the new aqueduct.
Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani – A short way from the Duomo, this church rises behind via Garibaldi, among fine noble palazzi. It was built in the 12th century during the Norman rule and remodelled in the following century and named after the Catalan merchants who patronised it later. The apse is a fine specimen of the Norman composite style, that combined Roman (with small blind arches on slender columns), Moorish (geometrical motifs in polychrome stone) and Byzantine features (dome on a drum).
S. Santa Maria Alemanna – Unfortunately heavily ruined, with no roof and façade, the church still manages to convey something of the original Gothic style, so rare in Sicily, with its pointed arches supported on pilasters and clusters of columns topped by fine capitals that once articulated the aisles.
Santa Maria della Valle o Badiazza – Leave Messina by Via Palermo and follow signs for the SS 113 to the village of Scala; turn right and alongside the Rizzo River for about 1,5km.
The Benedictine Abbey Santa Maria della Valle, also known as Santa Maria della Scala, has been likely built in the 12th century and restored two centuries later. The interior is not open to the public, its precincts enclosed behind a tall concrete wall that protects it when the river is in full spate. The exterior, however, has windows set into pointed arches finished in volcanic stone. Through these, the interior can be glimpsed with its two-coloured ribbed vault and sculpted truncated pyramid capitals.
TOUR ROUND CAPO PELORO
Departing from Messina, a highly panoramic road runs around the edge of the headland, past the glorious beaches that skirt the tip before continuing along the Tyrrhenian shore.
Ganzirri and Torre Faro – 15km north. Ganzirri is a lively fishing village, with its houses clustered around two wide salt water lagoons, used for farming shellfish. The road along the “lakeside” bristles with restaurants and pizzerias and continues to hum with activity late into the summer evenings. Proceeding north, beyond the Strait of Messina, lies Torre Faro, a small, mainly fishing village overlooked by a lighthouse and big electricity pylons bearing cables across the strait. beautifully detailed reconstructions of rural homes and artisan’s workshops will give you a fascinating overwiew of daily life in modica not so very long ago/The road along the “lakeside”, bristles with restaurants and pizzerias, and continues to hum with activity late into the summer eveningsbristles with restaurants and pizzerias.
Drive through Lido Mortelle and Lido Divieto and turn inland towards Gesso. Past this little town, after about 6km, the road that forks right leads up the top of Antennammare.
Monte Antennammare – The road winds up to the San Rizzo pass. There a second pass leads to the Santuario di Maria SS di Dinnammare which is situated atop mount Antennammare (1130m tall). From here there is a magnificent vista of the surrounding landscape spanning Messina and its harbour, Capo Peloro and Calabria, to the east, and the Ionian coast with the sickle-shaped promontory of Milazzo, and Rometta, perched on a hill, to the west.
On the way back, continue down to the crossroads, then turn right, across the wooded slopes of the San Rizzo hill, leading to Messina.
THE IONIAN COAST: MESSINA TO TAORMINA
About 40km. The 40km trip along the coastal road, only relieved by brief excursions inland, can be just as easily undertaken in reverse, starting out from Taormina.
Monastero di San Placido Calonerò – On the road to Pezzolo. The Benedictine monastery, today accomodating a technical institute for agriculture, preserves two gracious 1700’s cloisters with columns with high dosserets and Ionic capitals; right of the atrium leading into the first cloister, is a fine small Durazzo Gothic portal giving access to a vaulted chapel articualted with clustered columns.
Scaletta Zanclea – The castle at Scaletta Superiore (2km inland), that in the 13th century served as a Swabian military outpost, was then acquired by the Ruffos who used it as their hunting lodge. The massive fortress, graced by elegant two-light windows on the first floor and one-light windows on the second, houses the Museo Civico, displaying weaponry and historic documents.
Itàla – 2,5km inland from Itàla Marina. At the heart of the small hamlet of Croce stands a Basilian Church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, built by Count Roger in 1093, to celebrate, it is thought, the victory over the Arabs. It comprises a tall nave and two lower aisles. The crossing is marked with a dome rising from a square drum. The brick exterior is relieved on the façade with occasional insertions of volcanic stone and by low blind arcading inspired by eastern influences.
Continuing back along the coast, the road passes Capo Alì which is topped by a small round watchtower probably from the Norman period. The road then proceeds through the seaside resorts of Alì Terme, Nizza di Sicilia and Roccalumera.
Savoca – Approx 3km inland. This charming medieval village occupies a splendid position on the top of a hill that divides into two ridges and yet interconnets with three spurs on which the districts of San Rocco, San Giovanni and Pentefur are built; together they form the star-shaped town.
Beyond the Town Hall, still outside the old town, sits the Convento dei Capuccini, with a crypt containing the mummified bodies of 32 former local notables and friars, died between the 17th and 18th century. Some of them that have been daubed with green paint by vandals are displayed in niches; others are in wooden sarcophagi. From the sacred area of the church a wonderful view extends over the village, the ruined castle and the Calvario hill in the distance. Go back the same way and turn up Via Borgo, then immediately left into via San Michele which leads to the gateway to the old town. Further on, on the right, is the 1400’s Chiesa di San Michele with fine Gothic-Renaissance portals, and, alongside, the ruins of the Archimandrite community precincts (accomodating the highest officers of an Eastern monastic order). Along the street, fine views extend over the rooftops and the valley below, and up to the ruins of the Norman castle and the Chiesa di San Nicola (or Santa Lucia) perched up a rocky spur, with its unusual crenelations. The Chiesa Madre comes into view with its fine 1500’s portal surmounted by a beautifully carved oculus and the coat of arms of Sàvoca, bearing the elderberry branch from which the name of the town si supposed to derive. A climb up the Calvario hill where is the ruined Chiesa di S. Maria delle Sette Piaghe can complete the visit of the town. Along the same road, 2km inland, is the hamlet of Casalvecchio.
Casalvecchio – The ancient Byzantine Palakorion (meaning hamlet) occupies a splendid position with a panoramic view. From the terrace before the Chiesa Madre, dedicated to Sant’Onofrio, there is a panoramic view over the Ionian coastline, from Capo Sant’Alessio to Forza d’Agro, and, to the south, the Etna volcano. The church has a fine coffered wooden ceiling ornamented with anthropomorfic figures, and a stone floor inlaid with the local black and red Taormina marble, both dating from the 17th century.
The close vicarage houses the Museo Parrocchiale with an interesting display of farming tools, a silver life-size statue of Sant’Onofrio, dated 1745, a painting of San Nicolò, in the Antonelli style, dated 1947, liturgical furnishings and sacred vestments.
Proceed towards Antillo and after about 500m fork left along a minor and twisted road.
Chiesa di Chiesa dei SS. Pietro e Paolo – Founded by the Basilian monks, the church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul was rebuilt in 1117 and restored in 1172 by master builder Gherardo il Franco, as an inscription above the architrave of the main doorway claims. The exterior is ornamented with decorative banding, interlaced arcading and herringbone patterns. The main façade is graced with a portico flanked by twin towers. The interior is divided into nave and aisles by Corinthian columns with high dosserets that rise to pointed arches. A large ribbed dome contains the central area hovering on its tall drum suspended by pendentives. The choir is enclosed by a smaller dome springing from an octagonal drum.
Turn back towards the coast to Capo Sant’Alessio.
Capo Sant’Alessio – This lovely rocky headland is landmarked by a round fortress on the western side and a polygonal castle on the eastern tip (neither open to the public). On the south side nestles the wonderful beach of Sant’Alessio Siculo.
A road leads from the two fortresses to Forza d’Agrò.
Forza d’Agrò – It is a lovely village of Medieval origin, perched on the furthermost spurs of the Peloritani Mountains, enjoying splendid views – particularly from the terrazza-belvedere in Piazza del Municipio – of the coast broken into inlets and bays. Behind it, a flight of steps leads through a fine Durazzo Gothic archway up to the sacred area before the Chiesa della Triade. Tortuous lanes wind their way up the hill towards the castle, past the 1500’s Chiesa Madre, later remodelled in the Baroque style. Of the castle, which is Norman in origin, only remain few ruins most belonging to the walls that enclose the cemetery: silence and serenity endow this secluded corner, populated at random with tombstones with particular atmosphere.
5 kilometres separate Messina from the mainland Italy, what makes it the natural landing stage for people arriving from the peninsula. Hence the importance of its sickle-shaped harbour that in ancient times was given the name of Zancle. Messina history is therefore inextricably linked to the sea and to the straits that bear its name, and that, according to tradition, were guraded by two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. The former was the daughter of Phorcys and Hecate. She is said to have twelve feet and six heads and to live under a cliff on the Calabrian side. It was she who flung herself at Ulysses’ ship, catching and decouring six of his sailors. On the Sicilian side of the strait, under another rock, lived Charybdis, who used to drink the sea water and regurgitate it three times every day (Odissey, Book XII, v 234-259).
Maritime connections – Messina handles the principal ferry services to the Eaeolian Islands (see Isole Eolie) and to mainland Italy. For details on connections with Reggio Calabria (45 minutes) and Villa S. Giovanni (35 minutes), contact: Italian Railways – Stazione Ferrovie Stato, Piazzale Don Blaso; tel. 090/675201 ext. 626; Società Caronte Shipping, Viale della Libertà tel. 090 44982; for hydrofoil services (20 minutes) SNaV, 27 Via della Munizione tel. 090 717921.
Where to eat – The restaurant Polipo Guercio at 32, Via Centonze serves seafood at reasonable prices.
For pastries – The Pasticceria Vinci at 49, Via Garibaldi, and Billé in Piazza Cairoli make sweet specialities including the Pignolata and the Bianco e Nero which resembles a profiterole.