Virtual travel to Messina, Sicily - Italy

Top attractions & things to do in Messina:

History, facts and travel tips about Messina

Messina is known as the door of Sicily. With its port, shaped like a sickle, it has always been a trading city. Situated close to the Peninsular, there has been busy throughfare between Messina and the Mainland, over the centuries. In recent years, there has been much talk of constructing a bridge to facilitate and improve communication. Though a pleasant idea, in theory, this would be almost impossible to implement in practice, due to the fragile nature of the coastline and the problems of erosion. The main mode of transport between Sicily and the motherland remains a system of ferries, as has been the tradition throughout the centuries.

Messina was founded by the Greeks who named it Zancle which is connected to the word Scythe, in the ancient native tongue of the city, and was also the name of the legendary king, who built the harbour, whose name was said to be Zanclus. Following the Roman, Byzantine and Arab invasions, in the latter of which Messina was the last to submit to the Arab yoke, the Normans, Swabians and Angevins came to Sicily left their mark and were either conquered or fled the wrath of native Sicilians. Messina's epoch of glory come with the rule of the Aragon dynasty, who made Messina the capital of the kingdom of Sicily and recognised its value and potential as a port.

Today the city is growing and developing along the coast, and due to the violent earthquakes that have struck the area on several occasions and areal damage and bombardment during the second world war, it is almost completely modern. Learning from past lessons, modern Messina is constructed with safety in mind. Streets are wide and buildings relatively low.

Despite its somewhat explosive history, Messina is a thriving town with characteristic annual festivals and celebrations of its long history. On the 13th and 14th of every August the Ride of the Giants takes place, with two enormous statues, one black and one white, known as Grifone and Mata are paraded through the city on horseback in celebration of the mythical founder of the city. The following day, a feast is held in which are placed large wagon with Papier Mache figures, and driven by more than a thousand people. In more recent times this festival has been given a more religious aspect, but originally it was simply a celebration of the origins of the city.

In the Regional Museum of Messina are two of the later works of one of Italy's finest if somewhat fiery artists: Caravaggio. As history would have it, Caravaggio had a choleric disposition. On one occasion, in the year 1606, in Rome's Piazza Navona, over a game of cards, conversation became heated: he was wounded in his forehead. In retaliation, he knifed and killed the offender. Fleeing his crime and the imminent consequences, he fled to Malta, via Messina, where he pleaded for a pardon from the Pope and painted two fine works, one of the "Shepherds' adoration of the Christ Child", and another of the "Resurrection of Lazarus".

A darker humour settled over his works thereafter, featuring biblical figures suffering, wounded, knifed, crucified or dying. In some cases his portrayed victims had a wound in their forehead, closely resembling his personal condition. Thus in his work he identified with suffering biblical figures, perhaps a cathartic expression of remorse, testimony to his repentant state, and an emphasis in art of his plea for absolution. The awaited pardon did not come. From Messina, he fled to Malta before returning to Tuscany, where he received his longed for absolution and, shortly after, ended his days.

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 06 Jul 2022

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