On the shores of the Straits, Greeks from Khalkis in Euboea, led by Periere and Cratemene, founded Zancle, one of the first western colonies. The city’s mint soon started to strike coins some of the oldest in the world and thus started a tradition which continued right up to the 17th century.
The original population of Zancle was however conquered by other peoples from Greek Messenia, which explains why the name of the city of Messina was changed to Messene. This name remained until the city was occupied by the Mamertines, mercenaries from Campania in the pay of Syracuse. Rome who had been called to Sicily by Messina, thus starting the First Punic War was bound to the city by a special treaty which transformed Messana into a military port and important trading center. This ancient position of strength was consolidated in the Middle Ages, as Messina acquired special economic advantages and a unique political physiognomy, making it a kind of city-state, similar to the free Communes of central-northern Italy.
The city and its territory was the last to fall into the hands of the Arabs in the 9th century and the first to be liberated, thanks to the grand Count Ruggero il Normanno who, in 1061, set out from Messina to win back the wole of Sicily. The first Norman kings built their royal palace in Messina and founded the Santissimo Salvatore monastery, which possessed an impressive scriptorium for the conservation and production of precious codices. These were signs of the prestige and culture at the root of the city’s independence within the kingdom of Sicily, and also explain its intolerance of the hegemonic role of Palermo on the island.
Due to the intense overseas traffic linked to the Crusades, Messina was further fortified by Richard the Lionheart , and became an important port in the journeys of the western armies to the Holy Land. Trade flourished and its merchants founded a “lodge” in the Middle East. In a crescendo interrupted only by the “Sicilian Vesper” in the 13th century, Messina reached a high point in its history, which lasted from the fifteenth century until the end of the 17th century.
Humanism flourished with the great Antonello, the Greek scholar Costantino Lascari, the polyglot genius Francesco Maurolico, the mathematician Giuseppe Moleti, and Montorsoli, to name but a few of the many important figures who played an active role in the cultural life of the city. Such was the wealth that Messina had accumulated during the 17th century, that the city, already the seat of a viceroy who was obliged to spend six months of the year there, proposed buying the whole of Eastern Sicily from the Spanish crown, in cash, in order to set up an independent viceroyalty. Spain hoped in some way to limit the city’s power, but only ended up by provoking it, thus leading to four years of war (1674-1678).
Messina, at first helped by an army sent by Louis XIV of France, was subsequently abandoned, and finally succumbed to the much larger Spanish forces. The city nevertheless experienced some positive events in the 18th century, such as the birth of the great architect Filippo Juvarra, although a terrible earthquake, in 1783, once more brought it to its knees. It rose once more and participated in the 19th century Risorgimento, being the first city to rebel, on 1st September 1848. Another catastrophic earthquake in 1908, in which almost 70.000 citizens died, was a real death blow to the city.
Although Messina was born again, this time in the graceful forms of the eclectic architecture of the turn of the century, it was destined for still further suffering, and was devastated by Allied bombing in the summer of 1943.
Where to stay in Messina
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