Vittorio Emanuele II Theater (Messina)

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The Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II is the main theatre in the city of Messina. Inaugurated in 1852, the theatre currently offers a varied programme of plays, musicals, opera and ballet. On its ceiling is a fresco by the painter, Renato Guttuso, depicting the myth of Colapesce.

History and architecture of the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele in Messina

Construction of the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II began in 1842 as a special gift from Ferdinand II to the people of Messina for their loyalty to the Bourbon crown. It was initially named after St Elizabeth, as a homage to Isabella of Spain, the king’s mother. In 1860, after Garibaldi’s exploits in Sicily, it took its current name. The official opening was in 1852 when Gaetano Donizetti’s opera ‘Il Pasha di Scutari’ was staged. In 1891, the Vittorio Emanuele II hosted Lohengrin, the first Wagnerian opera to be performed in Sicily.

Interesting fact: Canadian soprano Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse, better known by her stage name Emma Albani, made her debut in this theatre on 22 December 1869.

The building was designed by Neapolitan architect, Pietro Valente, taking inspiration from Neoclassical architecture. The theatre is crowned by a marble group, made by Saro Zagari in 1857, representing Time Discovering Truth. The façade also features eight medallions with effigies of famous musicians and playwrights and two marble bas-relief plaques depicting Hercules choosing virtue and rejecting vice and Hercules marrying Hebe, goddess of youth. The interior of the theatre was entirely rebuilt after it was destroyed by the 1908 earthquake.

The myth of Colapesce by Renato Guttuso

What makes this theatre truly special is undoubtedly its ceiling, frescoed in 1985 by the painter, Renato Guttuso, with a representation of the myth of Colapesce. This is a legend whose most famous version is set in the city on the Strait. Nicola was the son of a fisherman from Messina who was very good at swimming. After diving, he would always talk about the wonders he had seen and often show the treasures he had recovered from the seabed. His fame reached Emperor Frederick II of Swabia who decided to put him to the test. The king, his court and Nicola boarded a boat off the Strait of Messina. Then, Frederick II threw a cup into the water and asked the boy to retrieve it. When he saw Colapesce return to the surface with the object, he threw his crown in at an even deeper point. Again, however, Nicola had no difficulty in recovering it. The king then moved the boat to an even deeper spot and threw in his ring. This time, however, Colapesce never returned to the surface. Legend has it that Nicola realised that Sicily stood on three columns. One of these was cracked and was in danger of breaking, causing the whole island to sink. He, therefore, decided to stay underwater and bear the weight of Sicily alone. In the fresco, Guttuso depicts Colapesce naked and diving into the water. The painting also depicts six sensual mermaids, some of whom are watching the scene, others feeding dolphins and others sunbathing.

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