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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?