You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
It is difficult to enter in at the mouth of the strait by the
Faro of Messina, because of the current, which runs
heer violently sometimes towards Calabria, sometimes toward Sicily: so that Mariners who have not
often sailed this strait are forced to hire a Pilot of Messina to conduct them in, who for the most part
when they see any Vessel coming, go out in boats to
meet it, and offer their service to guide it into the
Harbour, for which they will be well paid.
John Ray - Observations (..) made in a journey through part of (..) Italy in 1663
Written partly at Messina, and partly at Sea, Monday, May 14, 1787. As we gradually stood off from the shore, we were quite taken up with the glorious view presented by the circular line of the Palazzata, the citadel, and by the mountains which rose behind the city. Calabria was on the other side. And then the wide prospect northwards and southwards over the strait, a broad expanse indeed, but still shut in on both sides by a beautiful shore.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
The following is a rather unusual description of the fineness of the view.
September 11, 1810. This morning at nine AM the Warrior and Victorious, of 74 guns, Captains Spranger and Talbot, with two frigates and three gun brigs got under weigh and stood down to the Bay of Pentemele near Reggio. A number of our gun-boats also went down. About half past ten they attacked the French division of transports and boats at anchor there, and as the French batteries opened on the men of war, a heavy fire was kept up for nearly two hours. It was a beautiful sight: the Calabrian mountains, and the French camp, formed, with Messina, a beautiful panorama.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11. In 1810 the writer was appointed to the staff of the English army at Messina when Sicily was at risk of being invaded by the French, hence his interest in military matters.
(left) MSC Splendida, a giant cruise boat with a capacity of 3,900 passengers, on its way to the harbour of Messina; (right) a remaining bastion of the fortresses which protected the harbour
Monday, April 19, 1790. While I was examining the situation of this
strait, enjoying the beautiful and classic scene before my eyes, and musing on the terrors with which
it had been invested by the magic of poetry, a large
vessel, under full sail, glided through the centre of the passage (..). All my reveries vanished; and I contemplated with exultation
so common, yet so striking, a proof of the improvement of science, and progress of naval knowledge.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
The little neck of land, that forms the harbour of Messina, is strongly fortified. The citadel, which is indeed a very fine fortification, is built on that part which connects it with the main land. The farthermost point, which runs out to sea, is defended by four little forts, which command the entry to the harbour.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
(left) Fontana di Nettuno; (right) coat of arms of Emperor Charles V. Notice the two columns at its sides, they represent the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) and bear the inscription "Plus Ultra" (Further Beyond) indicating that Charles' empire spanned beyond them
There is a fine fountain of white marble
on the port, representing Neptune holding
Scylla and Charybdis chained, under the
emblematical figures of two sea monsters such as represented by the poets. Brydone
The Quay, and its splendid Edifices, thrown down by the Earthquake of 1783, are rebuilt; though not with their original magnificence. (..) here likewise is a celebrated Fountain, by Fra Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, representing Neptune as drawn by four Sea-horses and in the act of calming a tempest excited by Scylla and Charybdis.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
Our attention was diverted to a certain commotion in the water, at a tolerable distance on the left hand, and still nearer on the right, to a rock distinctly separate from the shore. They were Charybdis and Scylla. These remarkable objects, which in nature stand so wide apart, but which the poet has brought so close together, have furnished occasion to many to make grave complaints of the fibbing of poetry. Goethe
Scylla was a monster which lived on the Calabria side of the Strait of Messina. It is portrayed while assaulting Ulysses' ship in a statue found at Grotta di Tiberio near Sperlonga. Charybdis was another monster which created large whirlpools near the Sicilian side of the Strait.
The City makes a
goodly show as one comes to it by Sea, the houses all
along the shore being built of Free-stone, tall and
uniform, and having a fair broad Key before them. Ray
In 1783 Messina and nearby Reggio were struck by a major earthquake and many of their buildings and monuments collapsed. The statues of this fountain however were not particularly damaged in that circumstance. In 1848 however the fleet of King Ferdinand II bombarded the town and the statues of Neptune and Scylla were damaged, They were replaced by copies. In 1908 a truly devastating earthquake struck Messina and in 1934 the fountain was relocated outside the city centre.
Directly opposite the Cathedral there is a fountain on a plan similar to that at Palermo, but much smaller; there are a number of marble statues surrounding it which have the merit of being better executed than those at Palermo. This public spirited work has ever been remarked for the elegance of its design and execution and is said to have been highly approved of by the great Michael Angelo Buonarotti.
Edward Blaquiere - Letters from the Mediterranean - 1813
Fontana di Orione (2)
Fra Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli was a Florentine sculptor and a Servite friar. He worked with Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel and in the Laurentian Library in Florence. In 1547 he was commissioned a large fountain with statues by the municipal authorities of Messina. When it was completed in 1551 he was asked to make Fontana del Nettuno as a grand entrance to the harbour. The design of the latter influenced those of two later statues of the god by Bartolomeo Ammannati in Florence and Giambologna in Bologna.
The image used as background for this page shows a relief of this fountain which depicts the Rape of Europa.
Cathedral: the modern bell tower has an elaborate 1933 astronomical clock
pretends to be the principal and metropolis of Sicily (Regni caput) and will by no means give place to
Palermo. The Vice-roy is obliged to reside 18 months
heer, and 18 at Palermo. (..) There is a great emulation and enmity between the
Palermitans and Messanese which involves the whole
Island: some Cities taking part with one, and some
with the other. The titles the Messaneses give their
City in their public instruments and writings are
the Noble and Exemplary City of Messina. Ray
The year 1672 was remarkable for the revolt of the Messinese. They threw off the Spanish yoke, and swore allegiance to Louis the Fourteenth king of France. They were for some time vigorously assisted by the French; but before the Spaniards had gained the least advantage to excite any hopes of recovering such valuable a possession, Louis found himself necessitated from motives of political interest to desert his new subjects, and leave them to the mercy of their old incensed masters. The horror of being thus abandoned, and the chastisement inflicted by Spain broke the fierce spirit of the Messinese; they were still stunned with the remembrance and effects of this blow when the plague in 1743 was introduced from the Levant and swept away more than half the inhabitants. From this chain of calamities the opulence, trade, and population of Messina have been gradually sinking, and, unless very favourable circumstances happen, will every year fall lower. The number of its inhabitants does not now exceed 30,000.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
The history of Messina is a long list of calamities. Swinburne who visited the town before the 1783 earthquake described some of them.
Cathedral: reliefs on the wall of the fašade
In the modern city we look in vain for monuments of its pristine grandeur and magnificence:
all have perished, and not even a fragment remains to attest its antiquity. (..) A traveller, who wishes to form a competent idea of
the devastation caused by an earthquake, may visit its streets. There he will scarcely find a single building entire: the interior of houses and churches, exhibiting all the varieties of ruin, scattered columns, with pictures and ornaments fading in the open air, combine to form a scene which is happily but
seldom witnessed. Colt Hoare
The Cathedral was severely damaged also by the 1908 earthquake and by the 1943 Allied bombing of the town. The reconstruction emphasized the medieval aspect of the church. Elements of its decoration were recovered including a long frieze depicting farming scenes. It is attributed to Antonio Baboccio da Piperno (1351-1435) who is mainly known for his works in Naples.
Cathedral: main portal
The main portal of the Cathedral was built and decorated over a period of time which spans from the XIVth to the XVIth century so it has features of different styles. The sculptors who most likely were involved in its decoration came from Tuscany and Lombardy, an indication that Messina had stronger ties with the Italian peninsula than other towns of Sicily. The two lions holding a column most likely were there already in the XIIth century (see that at S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome).
Right side of the Cathedral: Renaissance portal (left) and XVth century window (right)
The two Side Doors of this Cathedral were designed and sculptured by Polidoro da Caravaggio; they are beautifully executed. Starke
Today the actual execution of the portals is attributed to Domenico Vanello, another sculptor from Tuscany who worked with Montorsoli at Fontana di Orione. Polidoro da Caravaggio, a pupil of Raphael, was known in Rome as a decorator of fašades (e.g. that of Palazzo Ricci). In 1527, after the Sack of Rome, he moved to Naples and eventually to Messina where he died in 1543. He was mainly a painter, but, similar to other artists of his time, he accepted commissions for designing buildings (often ephemeral ones) and making statues. The thin columns which frame the Gothic window of a building on the right side of the Cathedral are evidence of Catalan influence (see a detail of St. Yves' Gate in the Cathedral of Barcelona - it opens in another window).
The cathedral is Gothic, enriched with Saracenic
mosaics on the altars and shrines; the front of the high altar
is particularly splendid; Gagini has embellished the pulpit
and some tombs with excellent specimens of his art. Swinburne
The inside is shaped like a Latin cross, and embellished with 26 columns of Egyptian Granite surmounted by Capitals of various descriptions, probably taken from ancient Temples. Marbles of different kinds compose the Pavement; which is crossed by a Meridian Line: the High Altar, superbly decorated, was one of the first-made specimens of Florentine Mosaic Work, called Opera di Commesso. It consists of the most rare and costly pietre dure, representing figures and flowers in their natural colours. Behind the High Altar is a Pyramid containing a Portrait of the Blessed Virgin; and the Cupola under which the Altar stands is encrusted with well-preserved Mosaics, supposed to have been executed in the days of King Federico and the Archbishop Guidotto. In the Choir is a Pulpit painted by Guagliati, a Sicilian, whose style resembles that of Tintoretto: the Church likewise contains a Marble Pulpit decorated with Bassi Rilievi, by Gagini. Starke
The 1943 bombings caused a major fire. It destroyed the works of art which had survived the previous calamities. In the 1950s an attempt to recreate the aspect of the interior did not yield good results. Here and there however one can find a few interesting old statues and reliefs.
This small church is named after the brotherhood of the Catalans living in Messina to whom it was assigned by the Aragonese kings of Sicily at the beginning of the XIVth century. The earthquake of 1908 caused the collapse of additions and modifications made through the centuries and unveiled the original design of the building which is dated XIIth century and shows Byzantine and Arab influences. The decoration of the apses brings to mind that of the Cathedral of Palermo.
And so at last we arrived in Messina, where (..) our first entrance gave us the terrible idea of entering a ruined city. For, during a whole quarter of an hour
as we rode along, we passed ruin after ruin, before we reached
the auberge. Beyond the circle of the stable yard not a living being of any
kind was to be seen. (..) The following description will give some idea of it. The
terrible calamity which visited Messina and swept away
twelve thousand of its inhabitants, did not leave behind it
a single dwelling for the thirty thousand who survived.
Most of the houses were entirely thrown down; the cracked
and shaking walls of the others made them quite unsafe to live
Il Ringo was a neighbourhood of fishermen in the northern outskirts of Messina. Its church was built in the XVIIth century and it withstood two earthquakes; it is one of the very few which did not collapse.
Today Messina has many churches, although less than it had in the past. In 1937 a large church was built on the site of a former fortress which commanded a view over the town and the Strait. It is very similar to Basilica di Superga, a church designed by Filippo Juvarra in 1717 on a hill near Turin. He was born in Messina, but he achieved fame in Turin and Madrid.
(left) Coat of arms of the City of Messina in a plate by Filippo Juvarra; (right) Museo Regionale di Messina: a similar coat of arms of the City of Messina
Juvarra spent some years in Rome where in 1711 he published a fifty-page book of plates depicting coats of arms of the Popes by Michelangelo, Bernini, Borromini and other famous architects. He closed the book with a (lost) coat of arms of his hometown which was located in the harbour.
The quay is very beautiful; it is built in the form of a crescent and surrounded by a range of magnificent structures four stories high and exactly uniform for the space of an Italian mile. The street between these and the sea is one hundred feet wide and forms one of the most delightful walks in the world. It enjoys the freest air and commands the most charming prospect imaginable. Brydone.
The Palazzata. This is a regular ornamental range of lofty houfes, with nineteen gates, answering to as many streets; it follows the semicircular bend of the port for one mile and five poles. Swinburne
The so-called Palazzata, this once splendid line of buildings exhibits at present, with its many chasms and perforations, a strangely revolting appearance: for the blue heaven may be seen through almost every window. The interior apartments in all are utterly destroyed and fallen. Goethe
While some of the religious monuments of Messina were not entirely destroyed by earthquakes and bombings, the palaces and the civilian buildings which embellished the town before 1783 have all disappeared. Similar to Quattro Fontane in Rome and to Quattro Canti in Palermo the crossroads between two main streets was marked by four fountains.
1572 Monument to Don Juan of Austria by Andrea Calamech, a sculptor from Tuscany; (inset) head of Ali Pacha, commander of the Ottoman Fleet at the Battle of Lepanto
The Piazza of Teatro Marittimo houses a demi colossal Statue in bronze representing Ferdinando I and executed by Nicolo Mancusi. Contiguous to this Statue is another demi colossal work in bronze representing Carlo III and executed by Buceti. The Piazza del Duomo contains a colossal Equestrian Statue of bronze by Serpotta representing Carlo II King of Spain and the two Sicilies. (..) The Largo del Palazzo Reale contains
a colossal Statue, in bronze, of Don Giovanni of Austria, by Calamech. Starke
The bronze statues of the Kings of Sicily were melted during the 1848 uprising. The only one which was spared was that dedicated to Don Juan of Austria. In September 1571 the fleets of Spain, Genua, Venice and other members of the Holy League gathered at Messina. Don Juan of Austria was entrusted with their command and he succeeded in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto on October 7.
(left) Monumento all'Immacolata; (right) Monument to Charles of Bourbon by Saro Zagari, a local sculptor
Monumento all'Immacolata brings to mind columns and monuments which were erected in Vienna to celebrate the end of a pestilence. It was made in 1757 by Giuseppe Buceti, a local sculptor. It is almost a small copy of Vara dell'Assunta, a very tall wooden pedestal supporting a statue of the Virgin Mary which was (and is) carried in procession on August 15. The procession ends in front of the Cathedral.
A marble monument to Charles of Bourbon (aka Don Carlos) was erected in 1857 to replace the melted bronze one. Unlike his successors he was regarded as a shrewd and capable ruler.
Museo Regionale di Messina: (left) Adoration of the Shepherds by Polidoro da Caravaggio; (right) Madonna Odigitria by Alessandro Allori
Amongst the churches which amount to about fifty there are many very superb ones; the pictures found in them are chiefly from the pencils of the Messinian painters among whom the names of Rasaliba (Antonio de Saliba) Girolamo Alibrandi and Alfonso Franco are very conspicuous. Polidoro and Michael Angelo Caravaggio have also left several very valuable pictures in this town. To the former's school which he established at Messina in the 16th century is attributed the introduction of good taste in the fine arts; since his time many very respectable artists have been produced there. Blaquiere
Today the works of art which escaped earthquakes and fires are displayed in a very interesting museum together with architectural fragments of churches and palaces.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio came to Messina in 1608 after being forced to leave Malta, where he had lost the protection of Grand Master Alof de Vignacourt. At the time Messina was a very flourishing town especially for its silk trade and it offered work opportunities to Caravaggio. Today he is very popular, but he did not enjoy the favour of contemporary pious priests and abbots, the major commissioners of paintings, for the extremely realistic manner in which he depicted religious events. That shown above is one of his last works because he died in 1610.
Mario Minniti from Syracuse is more than a follower of Caravaggio's style. He came to Rome when he was very young to learn painting. He befriended with Caravaggio who portrayed him in Boy with a Basket of Fruit now at Galleria di Villa Borghese and in other paintings. In 1606 he returned to Syracuse where he became a locally renowned painter. He helped Caravaggio when his former master fled from Malta to Syracuse (and Messina).
Alonso Rodriguez was born in Messina in 1578 and spent almost his whole life there. His paintings often depicted subjects similar, if not identical, to those by Caravaggio. As a matter of fact some of them were attributed to Caravaggio himself.
Museo Regionale di Messina: Noli Me Tangere (left) and The Holy Trinity (right) by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli
Edward Blaquiere wrote that the design of the fountains Montorsoli made in Messina were reviewed by Michelangelo; maybe this did not occur, but we can assume he would have been very pleased with the statues of the fountains and with the reliefs Montorsoli made for churches of Messina. Had the town not been stricken by so many calamities, perhaps the name of the Servite friar would be regarded as that of a master of Italian Renaissance sculpture.
Museo Regionale di Messina: Monument to Francesca Lanza Cybo from S. Francesco
The churches of Messina housed many funerary monuments. A few of them escaped destruction and were moved to the museum. Some minor parts of the bronze monument to Francesca Lanza Cybo are missing. She passed away aetatis flore at the age of 15 in 1618. She belonged to the Cybo family, that of Pope Innocent VIII (see their funerary chapel in Rome). The designer of the monument is unknown, perhaps a member of the Calamech family.
Museo Regionale di Messina: coats of arms: (left) of one of the Habsburg Kings of Spain who was a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece; (right) of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale