One of the best known folktales from Sicilly is the story of the amphibic boy Colapesce, who saves the city Messina (or the island of sicily according to some texts) from drowning. There are several divergent versions of the story, apparently the oldest one dating back to the 12. Century and this is also the one commonly found online. I found another version, which tells about the rape of Colapesce’s mother by a dolphin while she went swimming in the sea. There are numerous similar stories of sexual encounters – some romantic and consentient, others forced and violent – between women and sea animals like seal, fish or whales from Alaska, Scandinavia as well as the Mediterranean.

I could not find an english translation of this version but here is the more common and much shorter version as can be found online in english:

“There once was the son of a fisherman named Nicola (Cola) who lived in Messina. Cola spent his days swimming in the sea and exploring the underwater world as if it was his own. His mother didn’t approve of this pastime, since Cola would often release fish caught for food back into the sea. One day, filled with anger, she yelled at him “Cola! May you turn into a fish!”.

As time passed, his skin turned scaly, and his feet and hands began to look like fins. Cola’s fate quickly became the talk of town all over Sicily, and even caught the attention of the King. The King, incredulous that Cola’s condition could be true, made the trip to Messina to see for himself.

Testing the young Cola, the king threw a gold cup into the sea and ordered him to retrieve it. Cola did as he was asked, and the King repeated the same test twice more, using even more valuable objects. For the last test, rather than the gold cup, the King threw his very own crown into a deeper part of the sea. While Cola was searching for the crown, he saw that his island, Sicily, was held up by only three columns. Two of the columns were intact, but the third was perilously filled with cracks and looked ready to collapse at any moment. Cola decided to stay in the ocean and take the place of that third column so that his beloved Sicily wouldn’t fall. To this day, Colapesce holds up that part of the island. Every so often, between the regions of Messina and Catania, the earth trembles. Locals say that there’s no need for concern— it’s only Colapesce moving the island from one tired shoulder to the other.”

from this site.

Picturing disaster in the 18. Century

 In 1783 an unsual seismic event sequence occured along the Strait of Messina between the island Sicily and mainland Italy. Katrin Kleemann from LMU Munich writes: “Between 5. February and 28. March 1783, five strong earthquakes shook Calabria and Sicily and were followed by hundreds of aftershocks in the following years. The earthquakes caused ten tsunamis.”

That same year additional earthquakes were reported from western France and Geneva on July 6., in Maastricht and Aachen on August 8., and in northern France on December 9. This was not too long after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit Lisbon in 1755.

All these events were widely communicated and written about all across Europe. It was the age of enlightment and the disasters challenged religious, philosophical and political views of the time but also sparked artistic creativity.

Societies were in high demand for images of the disasters and artists, who naturally could not work from first hand observation and experience, were forced to invent formal solutions for this problem.

One strategy was to combine different temporal levels in one painting: the moment before the event, the aftermath, and sometimes even events that had no logical connection other than in the public mind.

Katrin Kleemann writes about this image: “This hand-colored copper engraving portrays the Strait of Messina from the north at the moment the earthquake struck. To the left it depicts the coast of Calabria, to the right the harbor of Messina, and to the far right an erupting Mount Etna, although it did not actually erupt in 1783”, but in 1780 and then again in 1787.

Another striking example is the painting »Vue
de la Palazzata de Messine au moment du tremblement
de terre« by French artist Jean Houel.

Hans-Rudolf Meier writes: “Jean Houel published in his »Voyage pittoresque« one year after the earthquake in the Sicilian port. Houel, who had traveled in Sicily before the earthquake and had not himself seen the extent of the destruction—to say nothing of the event itself—successfully recorded before and after in one picture by depicting the palace in the margins as a ruin, but showing it still intact in the middle of the picture. Here the special quality of buildings for impressive representations of the effect of a disaster becomes evident: on a building the sudden transformation from a consummate cultural achievement to a ruin can be perceived as a symbol of transience. In Houel’s engraving the observer, similar to today’s television viewer, witnesses the moment of destruction from a secure distance. The churning sea in the foreground cannot bridge this distance either, but
it is intended to suggest something of the danger—and
thus the authenticity—to which the fictive recorder of
the scene might have been exposing himself.


Katrin Kleemann, Living in the Time of a Subsurface Revolution: The 1783 Calabrian Earthquake Sequence (2019)

Hans-Rudolf Meier, The Cultural Heritage of the Natural Disaster: Learning Processes and Projections from the Deluge to the »Live« Disaster on TV (2007)