The Most Infamous Day in the History of Messina

By Rick

July 14, 2014

history of messinaThis is a guest post by my wife, Jessica Burgio, who writes about her Island of Sicily, and her hometown of Messina.  After reading it, you’ll understand where much of the inspiration for my blog comes from.   Not only does she have acute insights, but it’s hard to believe that her English is almost entirely self-taught.  I did very little editing other than some formatting and punctuation because I wanted to make sure that the essential emotions remained intact.  This is the true story of her family.

If you’d like, you can read my introduction to the history of Messina from an earlier post.  But honestly, you’d miss nothing by skipping it.  The real story is here.

ON THE NIGHT of December 27th 1908, the town of Messina was in full holiday mode. Christmas had just passed, and the streets were still decorated with lights and trees.  Every kitchen, even during those times of financial hardship, released the inviting smell of traditional dishes of the season.  That night, at the Vittorio Emanuele Theatre, there was a grand performance of Verdi’s Aida, and all the wealthy Messinesi had ventured to the city center from their countryside mansions to see the show.

On the early morning of Monday the 28th, the town was mostly asleep.  It was still dark, and only the fishermen and the bakers had already started their working day, and maybe a few roosters in the suburbs.  Everything was ordinary and quiet.

In a modest working-class neighborhood, my grandmother Giuseppina, 6 years old, woke up her older sister Maria, saying that she had had a nightmare.  The two of them were snuggling in the bed, keeping each other warm, long after the wood-burning stove had been turned off.

Then suddenly, a roar like a freight train.

At 5:21 the earth begun to shake and it continued for 37 seconds.  37 seconds of a quake with a magnitude of 7.3.  Giuseppina was spared the view of her mom, nine month pregnant, killed by a pillar that fell on her before she could even leave her bed, right next to her husband.  Maria covered her little sister’s eyes and, shouting the names of the brothers, dragged her out, and then lost her.  Little Giuseppina recounted endless times how she ran toward a woman, hid her head under her skirt, screaming “mamma,” before she realized in terror that the lady was a complete stranger.  Her mother, of course, was already dead.

messina earthquake of 1908

Survivors, in their robes and pajamas, were running across the ruins, in a cloud of dust, under the rain, in the mud, finding it hard to get oriented – everything was disfigured, out of place – calling out the names of their beloved, screaming louder with every aftershock, in an attempt to find a shelter by the sea shore, where there were no buildings that could crumble over their heads.  Maria was among them.  She remembered this moment for the rest of her life: as she reached the shore, still several blocks away from the marina, a salty mist, and a shower of little fish sprinkled down all around her.  What was it?  At 5:30, while people were trying to keep a straight mind, comfort each other or help the injured ones, the tide suddenly receded.   Large ships were dragged out to sea.  Then a wave started to raise in the distance, and it rose and rose until it reached 11 meters (35 feet) and crashed onto the harbor, smashing boats on the pier and what was left of the buildings, and then sucking back into the sea, taking with it the ruins and the people, both dead and alive.  70,000 people lost their life that night.  Half of the town’s population.

victims of the 1908 quake in Messina

The two sisters were reunited in an orphanage in Turin weeks later, where they were raised by nuns until their legal age, when they returned to their beloved hometown.  Of course, Messina was very different than what they remembered.

I could tell you all about the initial idea to just bomb what was left of the town; I could tell you how instead the Messinesi, broken in spirit and heart, collected every little piece of their shattered Duomo, as it was serving as a shelter for the homeless, to be used at a later time for the rebuilding; I could also tell you the ugly story of temporary barracks randomly assembled during that moment of emergency, and still standing – yes, you read that right – to this day, families waiting, generation after generation, to finally be given a proper, dignified place to live. But I won’t bother you with an essay about the many problems of Sicily, and my hometown specifically. I’ll pick three monuments, a famous one, an almost forgotten one, and a completely forgotten one, to make you understand the phenomena that followed.

The quake miraculously spared the old Chiesa dei Catalani, – our famous monument of choice – a jewel left by the domination of the Spaniards in the 12th century.  I bet that Giuseppina and Maria where happy to see it still standing, three meters lower than the new level of the city, after they got off the ferry boat on their return trip.  To this day, this is one of the very few “sights” for the passengers of the cruise ships docked in Messina that want to “waste” half a day in a town that every guide suggests to skip.  They ignore that the harbor would once have greeted them showing off a magnificent palazzata, a long, continuous line of buildings meant to decorate the harbor and protect Messina from the wind.

chiesa dei catalani, and the history of messina
Chiesa dei Catalani

Nobody , not even the locals, ever makes it to the Chiesa di San Giovanni di Malta,  our almost forgotten monument, mutilated by the quake, but above all hidden, offended, and abused by the subsequent construction of the Palazzo del Governo in 1912.  The sit-in protest of the citizens could not stop the outrage.  If you ever want to honor the memory of a once glorious city, ring the bell, ask the rector to show you around (he’ll do it for a free offer) and you’ll enjoy the view of a real treasure: a vault decorated by a student of Michelangelo, sarcophagi decorated in pure gold where the bones of the martyrs of this church rest, sacred clothes made of the silk of the nearby silk factories (all closed at present, but once flourishing), silver statues, marble tombstones and more. All this for your eyes to see, at no charge, my visitor.  Left rotten for almost 100 years and saved by the affection of a bunch of students of the art school behind the corner.

the history of messina, Chiesa di San Giovanni di Malta,
Chiesa di San Giovanni di Malta

The day tripper also gets to see the Duomo, which has been rebuilt, with respect to the original design, for the most part.  Alas, the main attraction seems to be the part that I find sort of kitsch: the bell tower has been enriched with moving statues, activated by a mechanism, that make up a little show every day at noon.  I’m sure it was quite an impressive contraption in the ‘30s.  Too bad it distracts the modern visitor from the marbles and the hand painted wood beams.

Chiesa di San Gregorio, Messina
San Gregorio

Before the quake, from this very square, if you’d look up with the Fountain of Orione at your right, you could see the most curious shaped tower.  It belonged to the forever lost and forgotten Chiesa di San Gregorio, one of the many works of the Tuscan Andrea Calamech. One-third levelled by the quake, this church could have easily been restored, but it was once and for all destroyed by dynamite.  A few pieces from the inside are chaotically exposed at the civic museum – which is why I know the story and chose to research it. I grew particularly fond of this piece of art, that suggests to me of a lost Messina that was once beautiful, proud but never presumptuous.  Not a cathedral, a small church.  Not a world known architect, but a good one, scholar of great Tuscan maestri, who gave to Messina and its surroundings the exclusivity of his work.

During my visit I climbed the staircase (Scalinata di San Greogrio) on top of which the church once stood.  I felt like a very bad and clueless archaeologist, but full of hope.  I did find a bit of proof, not the one I wished for.  Post-quake barracks are there today, the only reminder of this piece of history.  The whole neighborhood is neglected and dirty.  When I reached the very site, I looked down and I saw the beautiful harbor shining.  I saw the Duomo.  The very spot where these two great buildings where once looking at each other, was now covered in empty packs of cigarettes, beer cans, plastic bags, and dog excrement.

It was then and there that I abandoned my project, which was to place a commemorative plate with a picture of the Chiesa di San Gregorio.  But I did not give up my hope for the rebirth of a town that still has got so much potential. Stop by to take a look at Messina when you make it to Sicily. Most people swiftly pass through on their way to nearby Taormina, our shining jewel, cleaned up and polished for the international tourists to marvel at.  But you want the full experience, don’t you?

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Enthralling story about the author’s family connection with this devastatting earthwuake that razed Messina to the ground. I live in Sicily and always feel a bleak depression when visiting or.passing through Messina. Thousands of lives annhilated, centuries of history wiped out in less than a minute. I have an elderly friend who lost her young uncles when their boarding school collapsed in the quake. Their father dug their pulverised bodies from.beneath the rubble. Ghastly.

      • The writing is searingly good: I was transported literally. So much so that I actually dreamed I was walking through the cobbled streets of Messina prior to the earthquake. The houses were enchanting: pastel pinks and yellows with iron balconies, slightly leaning against one another. IVfelt such avdeep sadness all these houses would vanish forever

        Jessica has a wonder gift for writing.

  • Those who survived were those who were too young for the journey and had to stay in Chicago with their mother. Why the photo was retouched in this manner and why there is not a copy to memorialize those who died is a story long lost.

    • Joann, thanks so much for sharing this touching story. I hope that my wife will have time to respond better in the next few days. But regarding the strange treatment of the photo, it’s just a guess, but it could very well involved some old superstitions. I’d be very curious to learn the truth myself. Ciao! Rick

      • Your story hits home with me. My grandmother, also Giuseppa was from Messina and was 16 when the earthquake and tsunami hit. Her little brother Giuseppe was killed that day. He died in his bed. I have located her birth certificate along with her brothers’ and sisters’. They lived on a street that is no longer there, via Ringo. When the earthquake hit they likely were living on another street nearby. I have not located my grandfather’s birth certificate but he was in the Italian Navy and had come to America while on duty and visited San Francisco. The quake occurred on his 26th birthday and he left for America from Naples in March of 1909. I would like to locate the area where they lived when I visit again in October. Although I have been to Messina twice, once in 1979 and once a couple of years ago, I have not been successful in tracking down where the family was from specifically.

        • Great story, Peter, thanks for sharing. Yes, the records can be a spotty to track down after all of the wars and natural disasters, etc. Good luck with your search.

        • Peter I have done considerable research on.the Messina earthquake and a large number of the survivors who were sent to the USA came from the impoverished Avignone area, which sustained relatively less damage than other parts of Messina. Unfortunately the few houses which miraculously survived the earthquake and 1943 Allied bombings were demolished by unscrupulous developers in 1982. The Avignone area is locsted in Via Cesare Battista and Via Santa Cecilia. Necropolis has recently been discovered there. I hope this helps.

  • your post brought to life a bit of my husband’s family story. His greatgrandfather returened to Messina in 1908, with his four eldest sons, to tend to a family business. None of them survived the earthquake. All we have is a photograph of their gravesite and a copy of a family portrait. The eerie part of the latter is that it has been professionally cropped to show only those who survived.

  • Very nicely written, and history of Messina. I will be in Sicily in Sept. 2014 and hope to visit this historic city. Thanks for the history.

    • Hi Jo,
      Thank you for your compliments. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. If you need any suggestion about Sicily, just reach out, I’ll be happy to help! ~~ Jessica

  • Wish I knew all of this before visiting Messina last summer. Had this tragedy occurred a few years earlier before my bisnonni left for America, I may never have lived. Thanks so much for this account of Messina’s history.

  • Bravo, Jessica! Thank you for sharing your family story about that tragic day in Messina. Your written word in English is absolutely amazing! Perhaps in the future, you might consider writing something about the WWII Allied invasion of Messina.

    • Thank you Georgia!
      I’m glad you enjoyed this. When baby Demetra will let me have a little more time, I’ll look into that WWII chapter… Love you. ~~ Jessica

  • Beautifully written. Thank you. When I read Rick’s story yesteday, I was pretty sure I had been to Messina,probably twice, once in 2007 and once quite a while before that. I checked my book on Sicily and did recognize some sights/sites. Have not had time to pull out my journals from those trips or look at the photos, but I know I spent some time there. It was instructive and beyond interesting to read both essays and stir up a few memories.
    Again thanks!
    PS One more thought/question comes to mind–is this were I would have taken the train that is put on the boat across the water on my way to Naples?

    • Hi Joan,
      Thank you for your comment. Yes, when you take the train from Sicily to “the Boot”, the train is split into the single coaches to fit into the ferry. An inconvenient and long process that is quite helpful though depending on where to/from you are travelling. ~~ Jessica

  • Cara Jessica…
    I don’t even have words…grazie for sharing this story. I only visited Messina briefly and we walked through the town and to the museum where the Riace bronzes were. We were told about the many devastations here (and of course throughout Sicily over the centuries).
    Being half Sicilian, I didn’t understand what that meant until I went to Sicily and learned more about the people, the stories, the heartbreak, the resilience and the pride that runs strong and true.
    Your article is touching reminder of why this is and remains so.

    • Hi Victoria,
      I agree, I always recommend to anybody who has an Italian background (or any other background) to go and take a look personally to the place they ancestors came from. Reality, nowadays reality, in general proofs very different than all we have heard second hand.
      The Bronzi di Riace are actually in Reggio Calabria, the city in the other shore, that also was harshly devastated by the same quake.
      I’m glad that my post could provide you with more insights and that we can share similar feelings about our troubled land. ~~ Jessica

  • What a moving story, Jessica, from a very personal perspective. Reading this brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing your true story in such a powerful way. I have been to that piazza in Messina and knew the history of the earthquake but never like this. Grazie.

    • Thank you, Margie! If you ever want to hear more about it, let’s just hurry to our next lunch/meeting! ~~ Jessica

  • my husband and I will be spending the month of October in Sicily , so we have really enjoyed the posts about your trip. We will be visiting Messina after reading this. Thanks for sharing your family history and that of your town.

    • Hi Nancy, I hope that you and your husband will enjoy Sicily and Messina. Please be in contact if you need any suggestion about your trip, I will be very glad to help.

  • This is a beautifully touching story, Jessica. Living in the San Francisco area and hearing stories of the 1906 earthquake make me think of the similarities. Your story is tragic but yet interestingly touching as your grandmother returned and now you can help us all experience the history of this place. Thank you.

    • Hi Sharon, thank you for your comment. I’m sure that people who live in seismic areas can relate in many ways. What we probably cannot fully appreciate these days, is how the lack of means of communication and organized help must have impacted the outcome of such tragedies. A lesson to learn. ~ Jessica

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