The campanile (kah-pah-nee-leh; bell 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.
History of the Campanile
Originally built in the early 16th century, it was the tallest campanile in all of Sicily. Alas for its pride, 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 campanile. 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 campanile) and killed around 60,000 people.
By 1933, the city of Messina had gotten back on its feet, and rebuilt the campanile yet again. I’m sure you’e starting to see the pattern now. The campanile’s good fortune didn’t last long, however. The end of World War II saw the Allied invasion of the Italian peninsula via Sicily. Specifically, they came through Messina, which is a stone’s throw from the mainland. The bombings of 1943 destroyed the cathedral and damaged the campanile next to it once more.
And yet, there’s a campanile.
Bell and Clock Tower in One
Not only is there a campanile, but the campanile is both a bell tower and a clock tower, all in one. By adding a clock, the campanile doubled its claim to fame.
The clock in the campanile is a special type of clock, called an astronomical clock. This is to say that it shows time in all of its forms. In laymen’s terms: it’s also a calendar. The astronomical clock in Messina claims 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.
Anything but Underwhelming
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. 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. Compared with other cities of similar age and historical significance in Italy, Messina is still shiny and brand-new. This is because of all the natural disasters mentioned above.
This campanile, along with the cathedral and a handful of other buildings, were so important that the people went to great lengths to protect and rebuild it every time something bad happened. After all, why would you spend all that time and money – on the construction supplies, custom-made extra-large clock bits, bronze-gilded statues, bells, etc. – if it wasn’t something 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.
The Campanile’s Tricks
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the campanile 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 has animated bronze-gilded statues. You read that right. Animated.
Carousel of the Days of the Week
The bottommost section is the called the Carousel of the Days of the Week. It 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 (the Roman god from whom the day takes its name) racing his chimera-pulled chariot.
Carousel of Ages
The next section up the campanile 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. In this dream, she 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 in the campanile shows a dove flying in a circle, and a church rising out of the hilltop.
The Catholic Church follows its own calendar. In it, days last from sundown to sundown (just like in the Jewish tradition), and the year is divided into seasons based on the major religious holidays. The section above the scene of the founding of Montalto portrays biblical scenes, which are related to the current liturgical season. There are four scenes which rotate through:
- Between Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany (December 25th – January 6th): the shepherds adore the baby Jesus.
- Between the Epiphany and Easter (January 6th – the first Sunday in spring): the three wise men come bearing gifts to the baby Jesus.
- From Easter to Pentecost (50 days after Easter): Jesus rises from the tomb.
- 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.
La Modonna della Lettera
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
Translation: I bestow my benediction upon you and your city. The scene in the campanile shows the representatives to the Holy Land and an angel giving them Mary’s letter.
The Sicilian Vespers
Now comes the fun part. In the 13th century, a territorial dispute tore Sicily apart. On Easter Monday, a group of people in Palermo gathered for prayers at their church. 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 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. The people of Messina credit them with saving the city, and immortalized them as bronze-gilded statues on the campanile.
Between Clarenza and Dina sits the majestic gallo (gah-loh; 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 sufficient espresso.
At the very top of the tower is the star of the show: Il Leone (eel lay-oh-neh; the lion). 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.
When the Clock Strikes Noon
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 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.
Visiting the Campanile:
Getting there: The campanile is right in the middle of Piazza del Duomo. You’ll find the entrance to the campanile through a door at ground level, facing the cathedral.
Admission: You can buy two types of tickets to visit the campanile:
- For the campanile itself: €4 adults, €2 concessions
- For the campanile and the Tesoro del Duomo (Cathedral Treasures Room) combo: €6 adults, €3.50 concessions
Opening hours: Opening hours depend on the month. In February, the campanile is closed to the public. Other than that, Saturday or Sunday are generally good options. When in doubt, book a tour ahead of time. See the campanile website for more details.
Good to know: In the event of bad weather, the campanile may close without prior notice.