What to see
The Duomo dates back to 1120 and was commissioned by the King of Normandy, Ruggero II. It was consecrated in 1197 by archbishop Benzio in the presence of King Svevo Enrico VI. The Duomo has been destroyed many times by incidents (the most recent, truly terrible one in 1943 when it was bombed by the Allies in WWII) and earthquakes, but it has always been reconstructed, conserving its ancient Normandy structure in its architectural contour. The oldest part of the church is its facade, which is made up of strips of multi-colored marble. In 1254, during the funeral service of Corrado IV di Svevia, son of Federico II, the temple suffered its first devastation, caused by a violent incident that destroyed the magnificent wooden ceiling upholstery, richly decorated with paintings. Fragments of these paintings have been conserved and are kept in the Messina Regional Museum. With the restorations that followed, modifications were made that fit the architectural tastes of the time: the church became more embellished with very finely crafted works of art and may funeral shrines of royals, including Costanza di Castiglia, wife of Federico III d’Argona, who died in 1362, and Alfonso II king of Naples, who died in 1494, where placed along the center nave of the temple. The lower part of facade of the cathedral still maintains its ancient Normandy structure, composed of strips of multi-colored marble and features that originally covered its entirety.
Surely, it is the most representative monument of MessinaYou can’t miss a visit!
THE TREASURES OF THE MESSINA DUOMO
In the Museo del Tesoro del Duomo, inaugurated on the occasion of the Jubilee of 2000, over four hundred works dating from the 12th to the 20th century by goldsmiths and silversmiths from Messina were preserved.
The finding of absolute value, both for its artistic and moral aspect, is the Golden Manta of the Madonna della Lettera, made in 1668 by the goldsmith Innocenzo Mangani, chiselled in gold and studded with precious stones.
Visiting hours (They may change during the period of the year. Ask for information at the reception)
Monday 10:00 – 13:00
Tuesday 09:30 – 15:30
Wednesday 10:00 – 13:00
Thursday 10:00 – 13:00
Friday 10:00 – 13:00
Saturday 10:00 – 13:00
THE BELL TOWER OF DUOMO
The history of the Bell Tower of the Cathedral of Messina is troubled, as is that of the entire Cathedral.
It has been razed to the ground several times because of bad weather (struck by lightning) and earthquakes (1783 -1908).
In 1933, at the behest of Archbishop Paino, the Ungerer brothers of Strasbourg made a majestic astronomical clock located in the tower of the Cathedral.
Every day at 12:00, thanks to a complex system of counterweights, bronze statues move and tell the civil and religious history of the city of Messina.
The “show” begins with a ringing of bells. We can then see the statue of a lion rampant, a symbol of strength, roaring, waving the flag with the banner of the city and moving the tail. A rooster, symbol of industriousness, explains his wings and sings
Dina and Clarenza, heroines of the city of Messina, ring the bells. There are also other scenes.
This is the only mechanic-astronomical clock in the world. Everyday at noon it makes:
- THE LION ROAR
- THE ROOSTER SING
- THE ANGEL MOVE
- MARY BLESS
- JESUS APPEAR
- THE DOVE FLY
- THE CHURCH RISE
- DEATH DISAPPEAR
- THE DAYS PASS
THE FOUNTAIN OF NEPTUNE
The fountain of Neptune is located in the Piazza Unità d’Italia.
Like many other fountains, the Neptune in Messina has had a destiny of “movement”. The marble monument, built in 1557 by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (1507-1563), collaborator of Michelangelo (the style of the sculpture indeed has evident Michelangelo inspiration), was initially positioned in the port area, on the big curve that in the future would have hosted the famous Baroque “Palazzata” by Simone Gulli, an important building that in 1783 was destroyed by an earthquake. The Fountain on Neptune–meant to be an allegory for the landscape, where like Neptune who enchants the two sea monsters Scilla and Cariddi, so too does the city and strait, with its power that dominates the hostility of nature– has its shoulders facing the sea. Its position suggests a caustic popular interpretation that contains clear ridicule of the opposing population of Calabria (in reality, Neptune was looking towards Messina offering it the riches of the sea). In 1934– after several wartime damages that led to the need to substitute the original statues with copies–the statue was moved to its current site, suffering contextually from a rotation of 180 degrees, so that today the god is looking towards the sea.
Beyond the shore or terrestrial perspective, it’s absolutely beautiful.
THE CHRISTO RE MEMORIAL
This temple was constructed on the ruins of the Matagrifone castle, with one of its old towers incorporated at the base. Designed by Giovanni Battista Milani in 1937, the temple sits on top of the city with its grand dome and a shape that recalls Filippo Juvara’s (from Messina) architecture, in particular the basilica of Superga found on the hills by the same name in Torio. The building is baroque in style, with an irregular octagon shape and a large dome marked by 8 ribs. At the base of each rib there are a total of 8 bronze statues, works by Teofilo Raggio, depicting the 3 theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Generosity; the 4 cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Strength, and Moderation, and lastly the allegory virtue of Religion, encompassing them all. At the top of the dome there is a 6 meter high lantern and a meter in diameter ball positioned on top a cross.
In the entranceway staircase there is a statue of Cristo Re, created by Tore Edmondi Calabro. On the gate there are the allegories of Europe and of Messina.
The memorial safeguards the remains of 110 killed in WWI and 1,288 killed during WWII, 161 unknown, but for the most part the ones who remained were killed during the defence of Sicily.
S.S ANNUNAZIATA DEI CATALANI CHURCH
The SS. Annunziata dei catalani church from the XII century, a gem for arab-normandy style art with byzantine elements, is one of the few great monuments that has survived the devastations of earthquakes and the rampage of bombs from military events, including the disastrous artistic and architectural loss caused by Americans in WWII. This splendid church, also in the Port vicinity, has resisted these tragedies and stands today as a testimony of greatness of arab, normandy, and byzantine art in Sicily. You can admire the original transept lay out of the Church and the cylindrical drum shaped dome with blind arches that lies above, with small pillars and tight windows, and vivid and harmonious geometric motifs. The Church, deprived of its original precious artwork, like the rest of all the ancient churches of Messina, is a Latin cross basilica with 3 naves that are inserted on a transept preceded by an arch. There are 3 doors on the facade of the Church. On top of the central one, you will find a diamond shaped catalano coat of arms. The other two doors are architrave in style, different from the central one. Underneath the church there is the crypt that unwinds under the transept. It is constituted by many locals in which the the main one has a rectangular form facing the wall with a rustic altar. The church, restored many times in the past few centuries, is positioned lower from the current street level, highlighting how, due to the ruins from the December 28th 1908 earthquake, the city was reconstructed a few meters higher up. By now, this is a feature (that we would have gladly gone without) that an inattentive tourist would not notice but that dramatically poses the question of the cancellation of a woven city that, artistical
MYTHS & LEGENDS
SCILLA E CARIDDI
Since the oldest of times the Strait of Messina has been recognized as a place of splendor and great charm, which has significantly contributed to the creation of the many myths that are now associated with it. In ancient times, navigating the Strait had a terrible reputation and relentlessly presented considerable difficulties, especially because of the rapid and irregular currents.
At times, the currents reach a velocity of 5.6 miles an hour, and when they collide they give way to enormous vortexes that must have surely terrorized sailers. The most noteworthy of the vortexes were the ones ancient people would call “Cariddi” and “Scilla.” Cariddi forms in front of the Faro coastline and “Scilla” forms on the coast of Calabria, from Altra Fiumara to Puto Pizzo. These two famous vortexes originate from the collision of the waters against Punto Peloro and Punta Torre Cavallo.
Cariddi is often accompanied by stirs of water so violent that small boats would surely be in danger. Among the best myths that belong to the cultural patrimony of ancient Messina, the most noteworthy is surely the legend of the monster of Cariddi, a mythic personification of a vortex formed by the waters of the Strait of Messina.
Very little is known about Cariddi and in fact there are also some incongruences around its story. For some, in fact, Cariddi was a nymph, daughter of Poseidon (the sea) and Gea (the earth), and was continuously tormented by great voraciousness. It is said that she would rob and devour the oxen of Hercules would would pass through the Strait.
FATA MORGANA (MORGANA THE FAIRY)
At the time of the barbarian conquest, one of the king conquistadors arrived in Calabria and found himself in front of a marvelous island that at its center had a mountain that emanated smoke and fire. He was meditating on how to reach and conquer this mountain when a beautiful woman appeared and told him, “I see that you are looking at that marvelous island and that you admire its long stretch of orange and olive trees, its sweet slopes, and its magical volcano. It’s all yours if you wish.” It was August, the sea was tranquil and not even a breeze of wind disturbed the peace and serenity of the island, the air was clear and something strange happened to the barbarian king: suddenly Sicily seemed extremely close, he could clearly see the fruit trees, the mountain that was spewing fire, and even the people that were unloading merchandise from the ships. The barbaric king threw himself into the dark water, thinking that he could reach the island in just a few strokes. Morgana the fairy smiled as he drowned.
Even today people experience this strange phenomenon, where on particularly clear days in August and September, Sicily seems to be very close to Calabria and you can indeed distinguish distinct fields, home, and hills; Morgana the fairy is no more than an optical illusion that you can experience even in the Strait of Messina and on the island of Favignana, due to the atmospheric
conditions. Looking from Messina towards Calabria, you can see how Messina is suspended in thin air, and vice versa, looking from Reggio Calabria towards Capo Peloro, you can see into the narrow Reggio.
COLAPESCE (FISH COLA) – THE MAN WHO HOLDS UP SICILY
Cola (short for Nicola) lived in the vicinity of Capo Peloro in Messina and passed every one of his days more often in the water than on land.
The sea was his entire life and his passion, and exploring the still and immense ocean floor made him feel alive and free. But his mother did not like this passion of his, because many times the young man would release caught fish back into the sea. One day the despaired mother cursed him, pronouncing “You may as well turn into a fish!” Said and done!
As time passed, Cola’s skin started to become more and more scaly and his hands and feet became fin-like. He became known across Sicily, reaching the court of king Ruggero (many versions of this legend say is was Emperor Federico II of Swabia).
The king wanted to meet Cola so he arrived in Messina, where he immediately put Cola’s marine abilities to the test, throwing a golden cup into the sea.
Fish-Cola threw himself into the water and retrieved this precious object.
The king rewarded him, but immediately subjugated him to two more tests. This time the king threw a crown into a particularly deep part of the sea. While Cola was looking for it, he saw that Sicily rested on 3 pillars: two were intact while the third, the one between between Catania and Messina, was consumed by a fire.
Fish-Cola returned to the surface and told king Ruggero what he had seen, but the king did not believe him and menacingly compelled him to bring back the fire from the sea.
Fish-Cola responded: “Your majesty, do you see that piece of wood? I will dive back into the water with it, and if you see it come back up afloat burnt, it means that there is really a fire.”
Courageously, Fish-Cola dove into the sea and everyone, from the nobles to the people of the town, remained waiting for him to return. But only the burnt piece of wood returned back up.
Fish-Cola remained in the sea in the middle of that fire to support (as he is still doing today!) that weak pillar, to not let his beloved earth collapse. Every now and then, the earth between Messina and Catania trembles a bit, but that is just Fish-Cola changing shoulders.
FESTIVALS AND TRADITIONS
“La Vara” is a pyramidal shaped float that is 46 feet tall and weighs around 1600 pounds. Every year on August 15th, it is slid out on wet asphalt. The towing of the float happens with the help of around 1000 volunteers, including men and women and young and old, who all pull on 2 thick ropes, each of which is over 360 feet long.
The name “Vara” is often alternated to “Bara”, which is the shrine that holds the body of Mother Mary, present on the base level of the structure. It’s important to remember that everything related to the float and to those who pull it is of maritime origin (helmsman, rowers, hawsers, crew, whistles, and flags). Also, “barbare” is the verb used to refer to the moving of a ship when it slides into the water, like the Vara slides onto the asphalt.
A sort of enormous sled carries this complex allegorical depiction of the Assumption, and moves at the cry of “Viva Maria”, miraculously without a steering wheel or breaks. On top of the strong sled, which was originally made of oak but after the war changed to iron, there are 12 young boys that illustrate the apostles around the reclining body of the Virgin Mary, following clouds and angles, and in contrast the radiating sun and moon. A globe supports the figure of Christ, and to his right lays the pure Virgin Mary. The entire thing is scattered with colorful figures of angles, cherubs, and seraphs.
The Vara, which was constructed originally in 1535 for Carlo V’s home, started to transform as more and more was added to the structure. There have been many modifications, which the structure still preserves, and there are traces of hand made art that seem to be from a time prior to the 1500s. For three centuries the Vara has evoked pride in citizens and admiration from foreigners, and rightfully so, if you think of the fact that this in an extraordinary human pyramid that can hold over 150 children, all richly dressed and adorned with flowers, rotating around the Virgin Mary. Until the 1860 all the characters were living. The substitution of wooden statues and papier-mache meant less dialogue that, in the Messinese dialect, happened between Maria and her Son during the break. The entire structure is made from the assembly of ten pieces, that every year come mounted and dismounted, and lays on a pounded iron structure that includes jointed mechanical gears that, moved by operators, animate the entire device during the route, bestowing additional fascination.
In the many years of this quite risky ceremony, there have only been two accidents: One was in 1680 when the Vara broke from the Globe on up and 6 young boys fell into the crowd. None of them were hurt or bruised. The second accident was in 1738 when the board on which the sun rotates broke. This time too the 4 boys who were attached to the sun remained unharmed. From this miracle in 1738 arose a conancial procession. The miracle was recognized and people wanted to immortalize the memory. In origin the Vara was equipt with 2 wheels that after 1565 were substituted with slips of wood to permit the pulling of it across cobblestone. And to pull the
Vara, with two long hawsers, is the entire Messina population, united by “rowers, helmsman, drivers, and commanders”, all at the call of “VIVA MARIA!”
Every year in the month of August the two “giants” of Sicily, Mata and Grifone, are celebrated.
The colossal statues of Mata and Grifone are called “the Giants” according to the tradition illustrating the mythical ancestors of Capo Peloro. He, Grifone, is dark and bearded, with the classicized features of Giove Capitolino. She, Mata, has the healthy features of a commoner.
From the second half to the past century, the Giants have proceed cart towers. In the past, the two came lifted from messengers with tilted poles and clamps which allowed them to remain stable, however giving the two equestrian statues a staggered walk. Similar to the Vara, this parade was accompanied by drums, horns, and the dark sound of the “broga” and the “ciaramedda”. Many people would improvise short performances for the entertainment of bystanders during the stage of the procession. Depending on the version, the names of the two giants could also be Cam and Rea or Saturno and Cibele, with clear referral to local myths.
The legends that are associated with these figures are all different and very interesting. Maybe the most interesting one recounts that around 964 the Moor Hassam Ibn-Hammar was disembarked in the vicinity of Messina with the purpose of raiding the towns between Camaro and Dinnamare.
During one of the many raids the Moor saw and fell in love with a maiden named Marta (where Mata comes from), daughter of Cosimo II of Coltellaccio. Vexed and determined to refuse the wedding proposal from the muslim, Marta’s parents hid the maiden in a safe place, far away from the danger of the raids. Hassam’s men discovered this secret hiding spot and kidnapped Marta to deliver her to their leader. The poor maiden fell into a deep silence and only the Moor’s conversion to Christianity revived her, thus accepting Grifone (the Christian name of the Moor) as her husband.
This ancient love story is at the heart of this festival that takes place every August 13th and 14th.
In these two days Grifone is portrayed on a horse, dressed as a soldier and holds a club with one hand and with the other a shield that is engraved with the city’s coat of arms (a castle with three black towers on a green field); Mata is instead represented by a big statue with a crown on her head, on which there are three towers drawn that symbolize the three ports of Messina.
THE TRADITIONAL FISHING OF SWORDFISH
Fishing in the Strait on a felucca (boat) is a thousand year old tradition.
An ancient fight between fish and man, a tradition born from the sea and fed with legends. This is the catching of swordfish with the felucca in the Strait of Messina: a fascinating ritual in which many different people participate in, each with a fundamental role. Between Messina and Calabria, there are only 12 of these boats left.
In ancient times, it was an extraordinary one of a kind show that happened in the clear waters of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the village Paradiso. To see all those picturesque boats that went around from dawn until dusk in the clear waters of the Strait in search for prey, with a central very tall “tree” where at the top a man stayed on look out inspecting the ocean with eyes fixed on the the water, was something truly magical. Many have written, photographed, and filmed this fishing practice, but the best and most interesting show was to live those moments on board the felucca with other fishermen.
The crucial moment was the sighting of fish, when the antenniere addressed the boat and yelled to the fishermen on board about the sighting. Often times the fish would be caught, though rarely, the harpooner would miss.
The fishing of swordfish in Messina was and still is an ancient art that has been passed down from father to son for over two thousand years and is practiced in the waters of the Strait from the beginning of April to late September. In the beginning of the season, there is a raffle to assign “placements” that then rotate every week.
In the Lago Grande of Ganzirri there are still today a “Feluca” and a “Luntro” in testimony of our glorious maritime history. The same Feluca is utilized to transport the statue of Saint Nicola, on the day of his celebration in August, to the center of the lake, surrounded by light posts in the water and by all the fishermen’s boats in the area.
It is possible to organize day tours right around the time of the fishing of the swordfish, and to also eat on board.
THE CUISINE OF MESSINA
The cuisine of Messina is one of the most ancient ones in Sicily and is most influenced by Greek cuisine, even though it is very much its own culinary branch. It is based particularly on fish and seafood. Sweets use mostly almonds, candied fruit, and ricotta. There is also the masterpiece of the gelaterias, which are particularly admired for their slushies. In respects to other traditional Sicilian cuisine, the Messina kitchen also has arab influences, which make Messina deserts seem less sweet in respects to those made on other parts of the island. Its relationship with the Greek
kitchen is also evident from the importance of extra virgin olive oil, which is much more utilized in respects to the rest of Sicily, even in fried foods.
If you have just one day to visit Messina and you can’t stop in a restaurant or tratteria, then the solution is to taste the excellent street food:
● Arancini (stuffed rice balls coated with bread crumbs)
● Calia e simenza (roasted chickpeas and pumpkin seeds)
● Mozzarella in carrozza (fried mozzarella sandwich)
● Focaccia alla messinese (Messina focaccia)
● Pidone (rustic bread topped with tomatoes, anchovies, cheese, and endive)
● Schiacciata (focaccia with olive oil and salted meat)
If instead you have the option to allow yourselves a complete meal, then it is custom to start with antipasti/contorni:
● Caponata (eggplant dish)
● Insalata di stoccafisso (lemon fish salad)
● Insalata di polpo (octopus salad)
● Salame Sant’Angelo di Brolo (pig salame)
● Provola dei Nebrodi (type of cheese)
After the antipasti, rightfully so comes next the first dish, and in Messina you will have some choices:
● Spaghetti al tonno alla Messinese (Messina spaghetti with tuna)
● Pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines and anchovies)
● Pasta con cavolfiore alla messinese (Messina cauliflower pasta)
● Pasta con la mollica (garlic, oil, red peppers, and anchovies)
● Macco di fave (fava bean cream with vegetables)
● Doppiette di melanzane alla messinese (fried eggplant with pasta in the center)
● Pasta ‘ncaciata (baked pasta using simple ingredients)
If the first dishes haven’t already filled you up, you can also order second dishes that are typical of the Messina kitchen:
● Involtini e impanata di pesce spada (swordfish)
● Stocco alla ghiotta (fish stew)
● Polpette di baccalà (fish fried “meatballs”)
● Cozze alla messinese (clams)
● Lumache di terra (ntuppateddi) (snail)
● ‘U sciuscieddu alla messinese (meatballs and egg soup)
These are only a few of the most typical plates .