Sicily’s tale of Nicola di Messina nicknamed Colapesce (‘Cola the Fish’) boasts at least 18 officially recognised re-versions or reboots featuring the brave sea-loving fish boy, who, under choppy waves shoulders a broken pillar which holds up the towns of Catania, Messina and Mount Etna that houses the monster Typhon.
Tremors and earthquakes in southern Italy are said to result from Colapesce adjusting this colossal weight upon his shoulders. Interestingly for me with one foot in Abruzzo, he is depicted on the cornerstone of its famous medieval fountain, Fontana delle 99 cannelle in L’Aquila, formerly part of the Kingdom of the II Sicilies, which suffered Italy’s last major earthquake in 2009.
Colapesce’s Tale of Love and Heroism
Once upon a time on Sicily’s north-east rocky shore in Cape Peloro, a fisherman’s wife gave birth to a beautiful boy whom she named Nicola di Messina.
Nicola like all little boys loved to listen to the hypnotic song of the foaming waves and dive thru them body-surfing to the shore. As he grew he spent more than half his time frolicking in the salty turquoise sea, becoming an expert at holding his breath, diving in the deeps where he made friends and enemies with fish, mermaids, dolphins and octopi alike. He’d faced the snake-like sirens, warning fisherman and preventing their eternal sleep under the waves, and the monster Scilla, that lived deep in the Straits of Messina where the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas battled. Nicola’s colourful stories and escapades captivated fisherman and sailor alike so much that his stories along with his flaky skin from spending so long in the sea made them certain he was half-man half-fish and the earning him the fishy nickname of Colapesce.
News of Colapesce reached the ears of the powerful thirteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor King Frederico II and his daughter Costanza. Many a brave boy had fallen in love with the pretty princess but failed to return from the challenges she and her father set in order to win her hand in marriage; she hoped that Cola may succeed to become her heroic husband.
A Goblet of Wealth
The King decided to test the stories about Colapesce’s powers and he threw a golden goblet into the swirling waters asking Cola to fetch it. Cola was gone until midday when the sun’s hot rays bounced off the goblet almost blinding the King and his daughter as Cola held it high from the water. He told the King he’d seen lots of ugly but clever capone fish hiding deep, as it was spring when they became the islanders favourite supper, but it was the bright light that shone from a submerged cave lit by the fires of Europe’s highest volcano Etna, that, had acted as a torch in the deep and helped him recover the goblet.
A Crown of Power
The King whisked off his crown and threw it into the swell asking Colapesce to dive deep and bring it back to the surface. Cola spent 2 days down in the depths seeking the crown and on the third day rose from the now still sea at dawn, clutching the crown still with its precious jewels intact. Colapesce told the King that whilst recovering the crown he had discovered Sicily was held up by a trinity of pillars, the first in good condition, the second cracked, and the third about to fall after carrying the weight of Etna, the towns of Messina and Catania and the constant grind of pumice.
A Ring of Love
Impressed, the Princess Costanza pulled off her ring and threw it into the sea as a symbol of her love and agreement to become his wife if he could recover it. Despite Cola recognising how tired he was, he dived once more into the depths where he saw the pillar had now completely broken. Over the love of Costanza, Colapesce chose to honour his community and stop the island from sinking, he swam over to the column, braced himself and took the weight of the island on his shoulders.
Worth a Visit to Eat and Tell Stories
Fellow blogger Saskia – Ciao Tutti and I loved being told one version of this tale by Rick Zullo under a frescoed wooden panel dedicated to Colapesce at Osteria Vino Di Rosso, Taormina, Sicily. A friendly cosy restaurant where you can choose to sit in or out, it is a tad more expensive than other Taormina’s eateries, but its setting behind the cathedral and excellent freshly cooked fish dishes and impressive wine list makes it stand out amongst Taormina’s restaurants.
Taormina was visited as part of the UNESCO Mirabilia2015 blog tour of the Aeolian Islands
Vico Spuches, 8-98039 Taormina.