A trip to Reggio Calabria

Dustin McKenzie (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, 2019–20) recalls his recent time spent at the BSR and his trip to South Italy as part of his research focusing on the Strait of Messina, and the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria.

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Waterfront and Monument of Athena, with Sicily in background. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

In January 2020 I took up residency at the British School at Rome as the Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, and began, almost immediately, to think about how space shapes our experiences — the BSR’s position on the edge of the Valle Giulia, looking out at the other academies; the seemingly endless routes a taxi can take between the BSR and Termini; the proximity to the city, while being just far enough away that each trip out the door is a journey. I am currently undertaking a PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney in ancient history and archaeology — titled ‘Landscape, Empire, and Identity in the Roman Strait of Messina’ — and much of the focus is on the relationship between ancient peoples and their natural and constructed environments. It is not surprising that Rome is an excellent case-study of this relationship. Whether it be how the hills and valleys shaped the city in antiquity, how the Tiber impacted infrastructure decisions in antiquity and the modern day, or how the lack of a metro to Trastevere still makes organising your Friday ‘aperitivo’ for ten people a logistical nightmare, this relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit captivated me during my time in Rome.

While I have been fortunate enough to visit the Eternal City on several occasions, I cannot stress the degree to which the varied experiences, disciplines and backgrounds of my fellow award-holders made my residency. Not only am I now proud to call these colleagues friends for life, but their own experiences and interests in Rome led me to spaces I never would have found on my own. One particular day led us down into the undercroft of the Basilica di San Clemente, opening my eyes once more to the stratified history of Rome — the current Basilica was built in the twelfth century, atop a fourth-century Roman basilica, which itself was built atop the ruins of a Republican era villa. While Rome is always a joy to walk through, I must confess its true purpose for my research was as a forward research base while I travelled south to my true destination, and the focus of my PhD research – the Strait of Messina, and the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria.

The Strait of Messina separates Italy from Sicily by only a few kilometres, but that short distance has a long history. The waters of the Strait are infamously changeable, and in antiquity were the inspiration behind and mythical home of Scylla and Charybdis. The uplands of the Strait were inhabited by early bronze age groups before its coasts were colonised by Greek settlers in the eighth century BCE. By the end of the third century, Rome controlled the Strait, and Messina and Reggio Calabria each played major roles in securing not only the waterway, but the whole of South Italy and Sicily for the Republic. The close relationship between Messina and Reggio Calabria, despite their separation by the Strait, was well understood in antiquity and throughout history, with the prospect of a bridge across the Strait being proposed by no less than the Romans, Charlemagne and the Normans, with a further nine attempts made since the unification of Italy. In my opinion, this is beside the point — the strength of the relationship between Messina and Reggio Calabria is not in the potential of a bridge, but in the ways people have been bridging this gap for thousands of years through a shared sense of space and identity.

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Reggio Street, looking to Sicily. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

Before the pandemic I was able to spend a week in Reggio Calabria, having visited Messina years prior on a separate research trip. Owing to my research interests in space and landscapes, I opted to catch the train. While these trips took the better part of an entire day by themselves at a brisk seven hours  each way, it was fascinating to watch the landscape shift and change as the train travelled down the coast, darting inland or through tunnels when it wasn’t hugging the coast. I spent most of my time in Reggio walking through the city and visiting the public archaeological sites and museums, and was taken aback by the degree to which the city has adapted to its environment and physical space. First and foremost, there is a strong sense of navigability in Reggio. Much the same way as I navigate Rome by knowing my location relative to manmade and natural landmarks, I could find my way through Reggio with relative ease. Many of the east–west oriented vie have clear lines of sight to Sicily, which dominates the western horizon, and to the Aspromonte Mountains to the east. While the streets and levels of Reggio can be a little disorientating or steep at times, these aspects of the landscape actually allowed me to re-orientate myself, and firmly placed in my mind not only the impact of physical space on an individual’s everyday experience, but how such a space encourages identification and engagement with those experiencing it. Moreover, while a lot of my research has me thinking of horizontal space (distances from A to B, city limits, urban layouts), Reggio Calabria and Rome reminded me of the importance of vertical space.

Piazza Italia sits at the centre of Corso Garibaldi, Reggio’s main commercial and pedestrian-only street, and is the seat of the municipal government and provincial administration. While I was aware that the Piazza was built atop the location of the Greek agora and Roman forum, I had no idea part of the Piazza was excavated and viewable. Like the Basilica di San Clemente back in Rome, the square rests atop centuries of viewable history, with a section of subterranean excavation revealing the earliest storefronts of the Greek agora and a portion of the Roman-period street. Elsewhere, a few streets east and uphill, are what remains of the Greek odeon, now located behind a locked door within a gated residential block. While seeing the odeon proved, uh, ‘tricky’, it quickly became clear that thanks to its elevation and orientation, the audience in antiquity would have enjoyed an uninterrupted view downhill and across the Strait (similar in scope to the vistas afford by the amphitheatres of Taormina and Segesta in Sicily), a suitably poetic backdrop for the presentation of the arts. The constructed waterfront of Reggio Calabria seems to have maintained this desire for a poetic and picturesque vista.

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Roman street under Piazza Italia. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

The coast of Reggio Calabria and the lungomare (waterfront) heavily influenced my understanding of the space of the Strait and the impact it continues to have on those living there. A friend and PhD student at Sapienza — Università di Roma, who was showing me around the city, proudly claimed that early twentieth-century Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio referred to the lungomare as ‘il più bel chilometro d’Italia— ‘the most beautiful kilometre in all of Italy’ — and with its views of Sicily from Cape Pelorus to Mount Etna on a clear day, it is easy to see why. Indeed, to stand on the beach in Reggio and look north towards Cape Pelorus is to believe you are on the shore of a lake rather than a strait. This illusion has duped many in the past — one tradition, preserved by first-century CE Roma geographer Pomponius Mela, claims that Cape Pelorus is named for Hannibal’s helmsman of the same name. Upon sailing into the Strait, Hannibal scanned the horizon and, believing the shore to be continuous and impassable, killed Pelorus for betraying him. The waterfront also houses some Roman period remains, including tombs, a section of a baths complex, and part of the impressive city walls, as well as numerous signs detailing the ancient foundation of the city on the waterfront, each of which serve to highlight the continued inhabitancy of the city for nearly 3,000 years.

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Waterfront Roman baths. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

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Waterfront ancient city wall. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

During our day together, my PhD friend, with her own roots in Reggio, was taken aback that I had been studying Reggio for over a year and had never visited. ‘If I want to understand the city’s history’, she reasoned, ‘I must understand the present city and its people.’ My home in Australia may be on the other side of the world, and the global pandemic may be keeping us all in our homes for now, but I have made a start in understanding Reggio Calabria, and I will be back for another attempt

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Waterfront looking north. Where does Italy end and Sicily begin? Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

Dustin McKenzie (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, 2019-20)

2 thoughts on “A trip to Reggio Calabria

  1. Interesting study. Your post popped up as suggested reading on WordPress, no doubt due to my blog (and book) dedicated to Calabria, where I lived for 4 years, 2 of which in Reggio, a beautiful city, indeed. I’ve repeated the D’Annunzio quote, myself, on numerous occasions, even though no one has ever been able to ascertain the source. Funny thing about Calabria and Sicily being so close – About a week after arriving in Locri where I first lived, having taken the night train that cuts across at Catanzaro and goes down the Ionian coast, I decided to take the train to Reggio to go to the archeological museum on a stunningly clear day. When the train rounded the toe, I was face to face with Etna, like I could touch it and I was confused for a few minutes as I couldn’t believe that I had somehow not been aware of a large volcanic mountain in Calabria… It was a glorious sight.

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