Sicily – Messina architecture walk #1 – the town centre

Messina is a hard city to like at first, particularly when you compare it to its prettier east coast neighbours; Catania, Taormina and Siracusa (see previous posts) which, like Messina, were all founded in the 8th century by the Greeks. Due to it’s proximity to Reggio Calabria (see coming posts) on the other side of the Straits of Messina , the city is the entry point for all the ferries bearing trains and trucks coming to Sicily from the mainland. In addition to being a gritty port, it has been subjected to terrible earthquakes that have decimated its population and wiped out virtually all of the ancient architecture. The last quake in 1908, which was accompanied by a tsunami, left very few buildings standing that were more than a century old.

That said, the reconstruction after the 1908 earthquake, much of it completed within a year, coincided with the Stile Liberty era, the Italian version of Art Nouveau, which is one of the periods of Italian architecture that I like the most. In fact one of the principal architects who flocked to the city to help rebuild it was Gino Coppedè, a Florentine responsible for some of the most flamboyant designs of the time (and so one of my favourite architectss, see for example my post on Quartiere Coppedè in Rome).

Besides the numerous decaying Liberty Stile villas and occasionally interesting Neoclassical lumps built after 1908, there is the occasional Baroque gem, and a couple of medieval religious buildings that have been destroyed but rebuilt in their original form. I’ve put all these buildings in geographical order so you can follow them as a walk using my map to help you. There’s quite a lot to see, so I’ve broken the posts down to three managable walks, with the most interesting first.

Quattro Fontane (Four Fountains), Via I Settembre, on the corners with Via Cardines

The four Baroque fountains were created incrementally between 1666 and 1742. They were designed by Ignazio Buceti to celebrate the reign of the House of Savoy during the Spanish era.

After being damaged in the 1908 earthquake, two of the fountains (pictured) were returned to their original location and the other two are outside the Museo Regionale.

One of the fountains is attached to the corner of a Stile Liberty building on 12-16 Via Cardines…

… that has nice decoration around the windows and some rather fierce capitals at the top of its false columns.

Continuing down Via Cardines, the second building on the left is the Stile Liberty Palazzo dell ‘Ape (Palace of the Bees) at 2-10 Via Cardines.

The building takes its name from the bee motif under its windows and balconies.

Opposite is the Palazzo dell Grancio (Palace of the Crabs) but I lost my pics for that one, sorry.

Continue down Via Cardines and you’ll come to Église Annunziata dei Catalani (Church of the Annunziata of the Catalans) at 111 Via Garibaldi. Actually built in the Norman era, between 1150 and 1200, on the ruins of the ancient temple of Neptune, the building has also previously been a mosque during the Saracen period. Towards the end of the 15th century it was given over for use by Catalan sailors and traders.

The architecture shows Norman, Roman, Arab and Byzantine influences. I think that it was the only church to survive the 1908 earthquake, which is why it stands on a lower ground level than the buildings built on the rubble around it.

Facing the church is Palazzo Magaudda on Via Castellammare, the first Gino Coppedè building on the walk. It’s an example of Eclettismo Liberty Messinese (the Eclectic-Liberty style of Messina) which uses moulded concrete for decoration.

There is another Coppedè building, known as Palazzetto Coppedè, around the corner at 99 Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, but again I mislaid my pics, apologies (streetview here). You’ll know it by the eagles inserted in the balcony railings.

Also nearby is Palazzo Cerruti Bisazza at 1 Via Lepanto (on the corner of Cesare Battisti). The motif on some of the balconies is the Star of David (click on the last pic).

And a short walk away is the Duomo di Messina (Messina Cathedral) at 29 Piazza Duomo. Constructed in 1120, the cathedral has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in the past.

The Gothic central doorway dates from around 1412 (disputably).

The intricate carving is the work of Antonio Baboccio da Piperno, an Italian abbot, painter, sculptor and goldsmith, originally from Priverno in Lazio. Click on this gallery to fully appreciate it.

The organ and the treasury are worth a look too apparently but there were always services on when I went, so time your visit if you want to walk around.

Just next door is the cathedral belltower, the Campanile del Duomo di Messina. Although there has been a tower since Norman times, it was destroyed by fire in 1559 and its replacements by earthquakes in 1783, 1863 and 1908. The current 1908 version was modelled on the previous Gothic design. I believe the views at the top are excellent if you’re prepared to pay the entrance fee.

The tower clock was created in Strasbourg in 1933 and is considered the largest and most complex mechanical and astronomical clock in the world. The clock puts on its (very slow) show every day at midday (video here). First Dina and Clarenza, two heroines of Messina (they raised the alarm by ringing the cathedral bells when the city came under attack in 1282), take turns ringing the bell. Then a lion waves a banner and roars, followed by a cock which flaps its wing and crows. Finally Jesus pops out of his tomb for his daily resurrection.

On the side is a planetarium. The dial depicts the solar system with the sun at the centre and nine planets revolving around it. Below it is a perpetual calendar, showing the days, months and years, which changes automatically at midnight. A marble angel indicates which day it is with an arrow.

Next to the campanile is my favourite Coppedè building, Palazzo Zodiaco at 14 Piazza Duomo.

The zodiac decoration is referencing the planetarium dial on the side of the clocktower.

There’s another Liberty building right next door at 8 Piazza Duomo but I can’t tell you anything about it unfortunately. However, if you go round to the back of the building on the other side of the block, you’ll find Osteria del Campanile at 7 Via Loggia dei Mercanti which would make a good option for lunch after all your exertions (see my food in Messina post for a review).

The Palazzo Zodiaco provides a backdrop for the stunning Fontana d’Orione (Orion fountain), the centre piece of Piazza Duomo.

At the top of the fountain is Orion (the mythical founder of Messina) with his dog Sirio at his feet.

The four reclining statues represent statues the rivers Nile, Tiber, Ebro and Camaro, the latter being the small stream that feeds the fountain.

In the outer recesses are eight sea monsters with dolphin tails folded over their backs. They include a horse, a cow, a lion and a lioness, a dog, a mermaid, a griffin and one monster has human features.

In the upper part, four kneeling tritons support a basin. At the protruding and receding corners of the lower basin, there are caryatids (pillars in the form of people) supporting the edge of the tank.

The work was co-ordinated in the 1550s by the Florentine master sculptor Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli who executed it using the finest Carrara marble. The work was so appreciated by the locals that they comissioned him for a second fountain, more of which in the next post…

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