Dora B. Montefiore Justice, 17 December 1910

Messina Two Years After the Earthquake


Source: Justice, p.5, 17 December 1910;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Imagine a city which two years ago had 160,000 inhabitants, and now has scarcely 60,000; which then had fine municipal and public buildings, and now has only a little wooden post-office; which then stretched up from the blue water’s edge, in palace and church and white villa, and now lies in crumbling heaps of masonry and twisted ironwork and fallen column; and you will be able to picture Messina, under a blue and merciless Italian sky – Messina, once a beauty and a coquette among cities, and now, suddenly despoiled of her charms, a withered and faded enchantress. As our steamer crept along the Straits in the early morning of November 5, preparatory to anchoring for nine hours outside the town, we were able, from the deck, to note the, wreck and ruin wrought by the tidal wave, which caught the luckless inhabitants as they fled in the early dawn from their toppling houses on the hill, and overwhelmed them, and whatever the earthquake had spared, in one swirling horror. This tidal wave undermined all the fine stone buildings outlining the sweep of the Bay of Messina, and made them unsafe for business or habitation; so that, though in some cases the walls still stand, the empty windows stare with black, sightless gaze, while twisted balconies and ironwork hang from unroofed upper storeys.

I started off with my camera to walk through what was left of the town, and, before many minutes, found myself in the Piazza Municipale, an oblong, open space, planted with palm trees, and surrounded by the Chambers of Commerce and of Art, and by a long line of municipal buildings. The palm trees were dusty and uncared for, the surrounding buildings were gutted, and the Piazza, except for myself and a fellow-traveller, was deserted. Just beyond stood a shop and house, which seemed to have escaped intact. The shopkeeper was at his door gazing at a heap of ruined masonry opposite. As business did not seem to be brisk, I ventured on a conversation, carried on partly in French and partly in a very limited Italian.

“Yes, his house had escaped; but the Signora would see that the rest of the street had disappeared in the disaster.”

I looked down the street in the direction in which he pointed, and saw half a mile of absolute ruin on either side.

“That is where the theatre of Victor Emmanuel stood; his statue was in front; and there were shops, many and fine shops, on either side of this street.”

“But these ruins,” I questioned, as the full horror of what all the inhabitants call “the disaster” crept slowly over me, “have they been turned over, or are there still human bodies lying beneath?”

“Much of the upper part of that debris was lying in the streets,” he replied; “and it took months to clear the streets, and lay down fresh lava slabs where the old ones had been displaced or destroyed. There may be still some bodies of human beings and of animals, but most of them have been taken out and buried. The Signora is doubtless going to drive up to the cemetery, the Campo Santo; it is very beautiful.”

I admitted that I meant to drive there later on, when I was tired of wandering through ruins; but I refrained from confessing to him that I had not much use for Italian cemeteries, which always seem to me expressions of the vulgarest form of bourgeois sentiment – bead wreaths, and appalling specimens of the stonemason’s craft. A little handful of white ashes cast into the blue sea, or tucked away among the roots of a Persian rose-bush, always appeals to me as a much more desirable funeral than any that begins with orthodox mourning coaches, and ends in that charnel house, the cemetery. This, however, by the way.

There was an immediate problem, however, at the back of my mind needing solving “How came it that two full years had gone by, and so little had been done to rebuild and restore?”

“Ah, Signora! But we are so poor; we have, most of us, lost everything – everything; and the few well-to-do people have gone away because we are told the disaster will come again before many years. 1903 destroyed much; but 1908 has made us despair.”

And the tears came into his sad little-dark eyes, and he made a gesture, as he pointed to the cracked and sagging municipal buildings, which was pathetic in its hopelessness.

His small stock-in-trade was not inviting; but I had to invent imaginary needs, so as to cheer for a moment the heart of the little Sicilian merchant; and whilst I selected and bought he chatted about the kindness of the Inglesi and the Americani, who had sent so much money for the poor sufferers in the disaster. But I am I bound to add that he implied most of the English money (about a million, I believe, was subscribed) was taken by the Sicilian officials, and some was spent on a wretched little English church, which my cabdriver eventually pointed out to me. I regret to say this driver had the same story about the English money which was subscribed not being applied to the purposes for which it was intended; but he pointed to rows of wooden cottages and huts, which he assured me had been erected by order of the Americani and of Queen Elena. Finally, he drove me to his own cottage, a two-roomed one, of which he was mightily proud; and his stout, dark-browed wife showed me the tiny bedroom, containing a vast and gaudy bedstead, which nearly filled it; and she, too, sang the praises of the Americani, and told how much they had done for the poor and the homeless.

But before I took this drive with my friendly, gesticulating driver, I had done another hours ramble through the dusty streets and among the heaped-up ruins, I had noted the girls with round, white pads on their heads, and floating yellow veils, carrying on these pads every conceivable sort of load, from a washing-basket full of eggs to a classic-shaped pitcher of water just drawn from a fountain; I had observed how, wherever there was a safe piece of masonry left, either a joiner, or a carpenter, or a harness-maker had taken possession of it, and was there, among his boy apprentices, carrying on temporarily his trade; I had wandered up the main street, built now entirely of one or two-storied wooden shops and shanties, where the whole depressed trade and life of the town is now carried on; and I had pondered over the crumbling and convulsed churches, with their exposed sanctuaries, and their apses and frescoes laid bare to the sky. I had read much about the superstitious piety of the Sicilian women, and had in my mind’s eye a description by Norma Lorimer in “Queer Things About Sicily” in which she tells how two young women crawled on hands and knees licking the pavement with their tongues from the great west door of the church of Our Lady of Tindaris right up to the altar where the Madonna. was enthroned. It seemed to me that Providence, who is supposed by most people to have sent, for some inscrutable reason of its own, this disaster, was hardly “playing the game” with these poor and blindly trusting people. If their churches had been spared when their theatres and brothels were wrecked, they might at least have been able to point to the fact that licking church pavements was a form of insurance for churches in times of earthquake; but now, after the ungrateful and discouraging way in which Providence has behaved, it is enough to make them forswear pavement-licking, and start studying the first principles of hygiene. But what pleased me most was that on the outside wall of one of these ruined churches was pasted a notice, telling how “oggi,” which means to-day, there would be a lecture in a certain hall on Francesco Ferrer! Irony, I thought, could go no further, and I determined, if possible, to be at that lecture. So, before I had done with my driver, I disclosed my purpose to him, and told him to drive me to the hall, that I might find out what time the lecture began, for the notice said: “13 o’clock,” and I required an exact translation of what appeared to me a remarkable hour of the day. My driver, for the first time, seemed surprised, but did my bidding. After a long and rather mixed conversation with two or three doorkeepers at the hall (all of whom asked me the same question: if I was not a Signora from the “vapore” (steamer), and who, on my replying “Yea,” looked at each other as though they thought I required a keeper), I extracted the information that the lecture on Francesco Ferrer was not till the next day, Sunday; and that the notice I had seen should not have been put up till Sunday morning. I am convinced, however, that some Freethinker with a sense of humour had chosen the wall of that church, with its outraged apse, displaying, plaster saints kicking their legs in the air, for advertising the meeting in memory of the man and of the martyr who was on the same side in politics as the earthquake in preaching “ bas l’Eglise!”

But the world moves slowly, and Sicily, in spite of its physical convulsions, still dreams and wanders in the past as far as modern movements are concerned. Men toil in the sulphur mines for twelve hours out of the twenty-four for two shillings and a penny a day; in the church of Taormina there is an inscription to a little girl-child who died in child-bed at the age of thirteen; ignorance and superstition brood over the land where still stands the ruin of the exquisite temple of Concord at Girgenti, one of the most perfect Greek Temples in the world. When, I asked myself, as from the deck of the steamer, I watched the vanishing Messina, when will the worker of the world erect their living Temple of Concord, which will mean that they are united in the one and supreme object of gaining the world for the Workers?

DORA B. MONTEFIORE