The clock tower that stands next to the cathedral in Messina’s Piazza del Duomo belies its rough history with its old-fashioned façade. And if you stand there looking at it for too long, it might surprise you.
Originally built in the early 16th century, it was the tallest clock tower in all of Sicily. It held that title for less than a century; in the late 1500s, it was struck by lightning and needed to be rebuilt. In 1783, an earthquake hit the city and damaged the clock tower. The year 1908 saw one of the worst earthquakes that this part of the world has ever seen, which ruined the city of Messina (including the clock tower) and killed around 60,000 people. By 1933, the city of Messina had gotten back on its feet, and rebuilt the clock tower again. Its good fortune didn’t last long, however. The end of World War II saw the Allied invasion of the Italian peninsula via the island of Sicily, specifically Messina, which is a stone’s throw from the mainland. The bombings of 1943 destroyed the cathedral and damaged the clock tower next to it once more.
And yet, there’s a clock tower.
Not only is there a clock tower, it’s considered to be the largest astronomical clock tower in the world. Much like the astronomical clock tower in Prague, tourists largely find this clock tower to be underwhelming. Again, much like the astronomical clock tower in Prague, I have to disagree.
First and foremost: It’s a clock. What exactly do you want it to do? Most of us are impressed when our clocks keep accurate time, and this clock keeps accurate time and does tricks to boot. They might not be as impressive as Hannibal Smith’s stunts, but they are certainly more impressive than your granny’s cuckoo clock.
Secondly, and more to the point: This clock’s history is enough to make it interesting. If you think about it, and look around Messina, the number of old things and buildings in this city are extremely few in number, especially when compared with other cities of similar age and historical significance (think about how many buildings in Rome date from before 1700). This clock tower, along with the cathedral and a handful of other buildings, were considered so important that the people went to great lengths to protect and rebuild it every time something bad happened to it. After all, why would you spend all that time and money on rebuilding something, on the construction supplies, custom-made extra-large clock bits, bronze-gilded statues, bells, and the like, if it wasn’t something you were proud of and considered to be integral to your history and culture?
And really, if the locals think something is that important to their culture, you should take the time to look at it.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the campanile (kahm-pahn-ee-lay), as the locals call it, is the front of the tower, which tells the story of Messina as the people see it. It’s divided into several sections, each section with animated bronze-gilded statues. The bottommost section is the called the “Carousel of the Days of the Week,” and consists of statues that correspond to the days of the week. Each day, the statues move, showing the one that corresponds with that day. I was in Messina on a Saturday, so the statue shown was Saturn’s chariot being pulled by a chimera.
The next part up the clock tower is called the “Carousel of Ages.” In this section, onlookers are reminded of that horrible effect of time: aging. Four statues move across the opening, depicting a young boy, a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old man. Death himself beats out the time as they pass by him.
Above Death and his unforgiving parade is the retelling of the story of the Sanctuario Montalto. According to the story, the Virgin Mary appeared to a certain Brother Nicola in a dream, and told him to build and dedicate a church to her. She said that a dove would appear to him, and when he saw it fly in a circle, he was to mark that spot, as it would become the grounds for the church. The animation shows a dove flying in a circle, and a church rising out of the hilltop.
The Catholic Church follows its own calendar, in which days last from sundown to sundown (just like in the Jewish tradition) and the year is divided into seasons based on the major religious holiday at that time. The section above the scene of the founding of Montalto portrays biblical scenes, which are related to the liturgical season. There are four scenes which rotate through: between Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany, the shepherds adore the baby Jesus; between the Epiphany and Easter, the three wise men come bearing gifts to the baby Jesus; from Easter to Pentecost, Jesus rises from the tomb; and from Pentecost to Christmas, the Holy Spirit descends upon the Apostles in the form of a dove. I was there between Pentecost (which fell on May 24th in 2015) and Christmas, so I saw the descent of the Holy Spirit.
Above the biblical scenes, the people of Messina enthroned Mary as La Madonna della Lettera (lah mah-doh-nah del-ah let-eh-rah), or the Madonna of the Letter. Local tradition holds that back in the day, the people of Messina sent representatives to the Holy Land to learn more about Christianity. While there, they paid respect to the Virgin Mary. In return, she appeared to them with a letter for the city of Messina, which read “Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus” (I bestow my benediction upon you and your city). The scene in the clock tower shows the representatives to the Holy Land and an angel giving them Mary’s letter.
Now comes the fun part. In the 13th century, a territorial dispute tore Sicily apart. On Easter Monday, a group of people in Palermo were gathered for prayers at their church when some Frenchmen, who had occupied the island during some land-grabbing years before, began to pester one of the women. The Sicilians retaliated and killed all the Frenchmen. At the outbreak of the fighting, the church bells started tolling, calling people to vespers, the evening prayer. Thus, the war that was sparked by this incident is called the Sicilian Vespers. The fighting made its way to Messina. According to the story, the men were exhausted from fighting continuous battles protecting their city. In an effort to help, two young women, Clarenza and Dina, took their places on the city walls, keeping watch so that the men could sleep. When the enemy attacked in the middle of the night, one of them sounded the alarm, waking the city and calling the soldiers back to their posts. The other, not to be outdone, started rolling oversized rocks over the sides of the walls to deter enemy advancement. They’re credited with saving the city of Messina, and are immortalized as bronze-gilded statues on the campanile.
Between Clarenza and Dina sits a majestic rooster. Before you guffaw, the reasoning behind the presence of the rooster is rather sound. The rooster is the animal that calls humans to awake. As Messina is a city that was constantly rebuilding itself, it was constantly undergoing a reawakening of sorts. The rooster crows three times at noon, awakening the people of Messina and calling them to purpose. Noon seems to me to be a bit of a late start, but hey. Very little can be done before you sit around all morning drinking espresso.
At the very top of the tower is the star of the show: Il Leone (eel lay-oh-nay). The province of Messina took the lion as their mascot, being a symbol of strength and regality. It would seem that, for the people of Messina, it wasn’t enough that the lion looked strong. It also needed to sound strong. When the clock strikes noon, every day, the lion throws its head back and roars three times. I don’t use the word ‘roar’ lightly. Having read a bit about the campanile before heading into Messina, I knew that there would be lion sounds when the clock struck noon. I was not prepared for the volume that the lion can achieve. He’s got a pair of lungs on him, he has.
The whole show, with moving statues and music and crowing and roaring, takes about ten minutes. I wouldn’t recommend videotaping the event; I tried, and ended up with very sore arms, a shaky video, and prolonged shots of the wrong part of the tower because I was watching the real thing and not my camera. What I would recommend, though, is going inside the campanile and forking over the three euro fee to climb the stairs. Unlike other European towers, this one was built fairly recently, and is wonderfully accessible for those in moderately good shape. The stairs are well-lit, even, and equipped with handrails. From inside, you can see the machinery that moves the clock and the statues, and read placards that describe the scenes depicted on the front of the tower. The best part, though, is the view from the top.