Messina, at MuMe the “virtual” city before and after the 1908 earthquake

Photo of author

By John

And yes, we were there. We were there on that night more than a century ago when time stopped. A night that we all know, through family tales and shared mythology, one of the strongest and most persistent of the Strictese communities. A night that the “immersive room” of the permanent exhibition «1908 CityMuseumCity»open from today to the public at the Regional Interdisciplinary Museum, in the premises of the former Mellinghoff spinning mill, brings to life in every detail.

There, at MuMe – which noIt is not a collection of remains but a living story of the dead cities that followed one another in the places where we live today – in the midst of the paths and finds and narratives that intersect, technology performs yet another miracle, and restores life and movement and depth and sound and emotion to the story, to the memory. As the title itself states, it wants to be a symbolic “return” of the city to the city: an operation of the future.

Somehow, that “immersive” room is the heart of the exhibition, which is also entirely structured on the dialogue between the most modern technologies and the vestiges of the past. Let’s say that for those who know it well (and those who don’t know it can take advantage of it and not miss out on such a strong and important experience for longer) the MuMe is very dear for this very reason, for its quality as a living machine of memory, of laboratory of belonging and citizenship. Opened in its entirety after years and years (just in 2017), with the double mandate of being a museum and therefore preserving, but being so in a place destroyed over and over again, whose “body” has been variously dispersed, the MuMe has been built in an innovative way, and the desire to dialogue with the city and with the present time in all possible forms – from the choice of exhibition itineraries to the events, to the quality of the exhibitions – is in its genetic makeup, but it is also a mission to which it adheres with the director Orazio Micali, who is the curator of the exhibition, is enthusiastic.
And that segment was missing. The last of the works exhibited in the Museum rooms is from 1907, on the brink of destruction, of the abyss, of the “epoché”. Immediately before that night – between 27 and 28 December 1908, at 5.20 and 27 seconds (in the immersive room there appears, in a bourgeois interior overlooking the city, a clock on the wall, with the hand advancing , advances…) – which had a double, and singular, consequence: being indelibly fixed in the memory of all generations to come and yet being the basis of a gigantic alibi, that of the “cancellation” of memory which would justify the decadence of a entire territory. In reality, both things are true: a huge and destructive caesura in the history of the communities of the Strait, yet a founding event of the identity of the Straits.
The exhibition clearly tells us what we have lost: the sparkling polychromy of the marbles, the beauty of the capitals, the columns, the statues they tell us not only about the magnificent appearance of the “city of a hundred churches”, but about the work of specialized workers, the refinement of the clients, the economy of what was the fifth largest Italian port. A city of exchanges, of crossroads, of movements, of culture, of talents. News that a first short video tells, in the escalation of technology that builds the backbone of the exhibition: audiovisual, augmented reality, immersive virtual reality (with the work of an exceptional, young team and of Capitale Cultura Group / ARtGlass).
The finds are chosen with wisdom: among them the crowned eagle’s head, the absorbed “Madonna della Misericordia (or della latte)”, the “Angels” by Innocenzo Mangani who seem to be in dialogue, the breathtaking wall of colorful marble slabs coming from the destroyed Church of San Gregorio. And then the torn and mutilated art, the damaged paintings, from the oldest crucifixes to Letterio Paladino’s eighteenth-century “Academies of Nudes”: the Museum as a place where they are preserved, even the wounds are shown. A story that continues through documents, illustrations and posters: the work to recompose the archives is part of conservation, as underlined with great participation by the director Micali, who acted as our guide on the first visit, careful to show the incessant work of the Museum , because conserving means planning and acting, giving a place to things means reconstructing their full weight, presence and path.
But the image of the lost city is not entrusted only to its fragments, albeit magnificent. By wearing the visor (which is not “blackout”, but allows you to maintain the vision of the surrounding environment) and earphones and “pointing” at six of the exhibits on display you can, literally, walk inside the center of the vanished Messina, of which the a prodigious technical team reconstructed the urban and architectural fabric in every detail (the pavement tiles, the flowerbeds, the shop signs), and also, always rigorously based on period images, the figures of the citizens, workers or passers-by. Because, as the CEO of Capitale cultura, Antonio Scuderi, clarified, “if there is no depth of research, digital is an empty shell”. And there is a lot of research behind this exhibition (and it won’t end here: «We are already working on the growth of the contents, the strengthening of the sections, the inclusion of further technologies, also thinking about schools and the younger generations», he said Micali, and we consider it a promise).
After the six-stage route that allows you to wander around the heart of the still intact city, the “immersive room” is entrusted with the task of taking us back there, to that night. Starting with the music of Aida, which was performed that evening at the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele and which in some way acts as a background and sound premise, with its prescient beauty: the protagonists die buried alive, as really happened to the Asti tenor Angelo Gamba, who with his entire family was among the hundred thousand victims (and who is said to have sung the aria «O terra addio» before dying, but this seems like one of the numerous legends that accompany the earthquake of 1908, which was, as every catastrophe, even a formidable mythopoetic occasion). The enveloping “immersion” in the city, which precipitates from the nocturnal quiet to upheaval and collapses into rubble in its symbolic places, with a high-impact soundtrack, has a very strong evocative power. And it made me think of another admirable and recent work, the novel “Trema la notte” (Einaudi) in which the writer from Messina Nadia Terranova carries out a similar operation: restoring, through narration, the memory, recomposing the plot broken, describing the upheaval of that night but above all its “after”.
The “after” that we find in the following rooms, one of which in particular, which constitutes an artistic installation rather than an exhibition of finds. They are the marble and stone remains of angels, cherubs, children, all gathered together, confused, piled up like victims (and the contemporaneity of images of war victims thus piled up creates a disturbing short circuit with our present).
«Victims», we murmur, in fact, walking around that sculpture made of wounded sculptures. And it is there that the MuMe achieves its purpose, which belongs to this exhibition but is always present: we feel the wound of memory as a wound of the flesh, it touches us with unexpected force. And we won’t forget her.