|Cities of the Norman worlds|
Messina is in a very special geographical position as the gateway to Sicily across the narrow straits separating it from Reggio de Calabre. In 1061, the first Norman expedition came to grief before its walls. The town was taken the following year and remained a major transit port and the seat of the "companies" of the seafaring cities of Italy. In addition to the commercial harbour, there was an arsenal, and certain Greek texts still referred to the ancient town with the unambiguous epithet of "megalopolis ".
Messina was one of the most active trading posts in the Mediterranean, with a cosmopolitan society of seamen and merchants. Greeks and Latins often came from Calabria, following the Norman reconquest, but living alongside them they had Normans, Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, Englishmen… not to mention Jews and "native" Arabs. Some, like the Amalfitans or the Venetians, had districts of their own, others their official representatives like the consuls of Pisa or of Genoa, attested in the 12th c. Messina was also one of the rare cities of the Norman kingdom to enjoy a degree of political autonomy, with tax exemptions granted under William I in 1160.
In a town with such influence, the Normans certainly produced a considerable amount of architectural work, a lot of which was lost however in earthquakes and rebuilding. The fortifications were soon resumed, in Roger the Great Count’s day (1060-1101). But Roger II’s royal palace (1130-1154) was lost. The first cathedral (Saint Nicholas's), built in 1096, was destroyed in 1783, and the second, Santa Maria, begun under Roger II but consecrated by Henry VI of Hohenstaufen in 1197, suffered a similar fate in 1908. Reconstruction work in 1930 uncovered archaeological elements testifying to the introduction of the Benedictine Cluniac type of plan by the Normans. But only the church of Santa Annunziata dei Catalani, built under William II, still shows the design of the Siculo-Norman type domed churches in its east end.