Messina Family – By Harman Grisewood

This was a letter that my father had in his files. I am not sure how he had this as it is addressed to one ‘Aidan’ It is an interesting look at the Messina Family from one directly connected to them.  The photograph below was in my Grandmother’s collection and it is her writing that names the people (As shown, Concetta was my Grandmothers Aunt.).  It introduces you to some of the characters that are talked about in the letter. Uncle John and Uncle Frank would be  per letter “she had two brothers, Giovanni and Francesco”  and ‘Harman Junior’ would have been the father of Harman Grisewood who wrote the letter below.




















20th May 1979

Dear Aidan

Your mother tells me that you will want to know about the Messinas. I am glad. They have always seemed to be a welcome ingredient in our genetic hotch potch. Your great great grandfather, Herman Grisewood II, is responsible for having introduced what breeders of animals would call the Messina strain by marrying Contessa Concetta Messina over a hundred years ago. I have a little miniature of her as a girl – slim, longfaced and pensive. But I also have a miniature of her in later life – more as I remember her – and by then she was large, forceful-looking, with an obvious Italian appearance like a middle aged operatic contralto. My mother remembers her in purple silk dresses. But by the time I knew her she had assumed, like a uniform, the black draperies of Victorian widowhood.

You might think that the noble lineage of the family he married into would have afforded Harmon Grisewood some satisfaction. But there is no evidence for this. On the contrary such evidences as I have stored in my memory – mostly from my mother – suggest he was disconcerted by the Italianate characteristics of his in-laws and inclined to be apologetic for the unenglish ways of his wife.

A story was told to me of Lord Bath who in about 1870 had been entertaining at Longleat the head of some great noble families of France. They seemed to get on quite well. When the French Duc left Lord Bath was asked what he thought of him. He answered; “Quite decent table-manners for a foreigner”. That story reflects a pretty widespread outlook among the English of those days upon foreign nobility.

Concetta Grisewood’s table manners were not impeccable from the standpoint of strict english convention. My mother remembers a dinner party at which the hostess, Mrs Grisewood, was seen wrestling from her teeth with some difficulty, a piece of obdurate gristle. She was always solicitous for her husband’s delicate digestion. Further surprise grew among her dinner guests when she held out triumphantly the offending piece of gristle and said to her husband in ringing tones: “There, dear, That is precisely what I wish you to avoid”. She was keen on food but committed what to the English of the day was a social offence by talking about it enthusiastically. My mother was embarrassed – and so were others – when at the end of some specially enjoyable dinner, Mrs Grisewood would send for the chef, who was named Josef. The chef too was embarrassed at appearing in his working clothes in the glittering candlelight of the dining room. After congratulating him on whatever dish had specially appealed to her, she would caress his hands and murmur some words of comfort over the burns she saw upon them. “Ah Josef” she would say “That is what you suffer for the spun sugar”. Such demonstrativeness as this would not find favour with the very English Harman Grisewood.

But her children – my father among them – found these traits highly amusing and even at times endearing. They were divided people, her large brood of children, half apologetic for the somewhat flamboyant manners of their mother and half delighted at the ‘new dimension’ which foreign travel, foreign habits, foreign literature and tastes brought with them. My papa the eldest son was sent to a well known international school in Austria where the Jesuits trained notabilities of every nation, including, he told me, the heir to the throne of Portugal. Harman III had been born in Paris and arrived aged twelve at Downside (school) speaking English with a French accent. You were laughed at of course for your foreign eccentricities yet you were glad of them because you had something which the others had not.

Concetta Messina, who became Mrs. Grisewood was one of three daughters, herself, Josephine and Lucia.

She had two brothers, Giovanni and Francesco. They were the children of Count Rosario Messina, who was born in the eighteenth century. He was seventy or so when his youngest daughter Concetta was born. But Concetta remembered him quite well. One day she described to me a typical Maundy Thursday at her home in Malta. Her father Count Rosario chose twelve servants and washed their feet in a little solver bowl, while her mother walked behind him with a towel.

They lived in Malta because they were exiles. Rosario’s father was executed in the purge of the Neopolitan nobility which followed the revolutions in Naples after the Bonaparte successes in Italy. No doubt the then Count Messina would be high on the list for execution because for the many generations his family had been conspicuous in the service of those who ruled Sicily, from the Norman Conquest, through the centuries of Aragonese domination, and during the relatively short period when the Bourbons rules the the island from Naples as part of what was called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After their overthrow of the Sicilian Royal Family lived in Cannes as the Count and Countess of Caserta. My grandmother when she was a Grasse, which is not far from Cannes, enjoyed the company of her dispossessed compatriots. I can remember as a boy the rather ceremonious atmosphere of the unforgetting Bourbons to the Villa Marguerite. My grandmother never forgot that, for her, the old Countess of Caserta was royalty of a special sort: and the family did not forget their old association with the Messinas. I have a set of three pictures – part of a larger set – which the Count and Countess of Caserta gave to my grandmother in recognition of that special connection which the Messinas had had with the royal house. They are beautiful gauche paintings of Naples Bay.

But those who are not Sicilian, Sicily is thought of as a barbarous extension of southern Italy but it is only since the ‘risorgimento’ of the last century that Sicily lost her sovereignty and became politically part of the Italian state. Culturally and ethnically Sicily looks east to Greece and Byzantium rather than northwards to Rome. Though a Roman province the island was never romanised. Ir was for the eastern empire she was recovered from the vandals by Belisarius in the sixth century. The whole of her history and the nature of her people and their loyalties, are characterised by the difference from the Italian mainland. Europe owes an unacknowledged debt to the enlightened Norman Court of Palermo which, in the thirteenth century, became a channel that brought Greek and Arab learning to the west. If what is called ‘race memory’ and blood have a part to play in the make up of an individual then the descendants of Concetta Messina do in varying degrees have some share in these propensities and in that consciously separated outlook.

The earliest titles of nobility in the Messina family are of the twelfth century – Baron Comichi and Baron Gurafi. When my brother Peter went to live in Sicily he made known the fact that his grandmother was a Messina and he was treated as a hero by the Mafia and always called Barone. When returning from England one day he was greeted by a brass band so glad were they to see the ‘Barone’ back again. He found the old Messina Palace at Palermo and told me it was a children’s orphanage.

It is likely supposition that the Messinas at the time of their enoblement were warriors of the Norman conquest that took place in Sicily about the same time as ours in England. It was part of their process of government for the Normans to enable their military supporters and to give them estates.

The Messinas prospered as other powerful families of westernised countries – and supplied bishops and governors and other sorts of ruling-class office holders during the succeeding centuries. When the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was founded – and before – the Messinas turn up on the Italian side of the strait as court official and holders of appointments in Calabria and the South. And then, when the revolutions took place at the end of the 18th century, and when the last Count Messina to hold an office was executed, the heart of the family ceased to beat. The paths which the family had trod fro six centuries and more were filled up with debris of revolution. And the young Rosario, son of the executed father, set sail for Algiers.

In the Messina collection at Malta I remember seeing two most marvellous jewelled daggers given to Rosario by the Bay of Tunis. He Rosario was a successful trader at the North African ports. My father who was incapable of being fair to the Messinas, judged them by the absurdities of his uncle, told me he believed their main financial successes were as moneylenders to the Pope. The family devotion to St Joseph – he is my patron saint – is said to have begum when Rosario was in great danger from the Moors in Algiers. And St. Jospeh, so my grandmother told me, appeared to Rosario and warned him to turn back from a certain road where an ambush was waiting for him.

Well, Rosario retired having made enough money to live comfortably. But there was no going back to Sicily. The Kingdom was at an end. And he no doubt was a ‘wanted’ man. So he married and settled in Malta.

He married a girl whose father was greek tho’ she looks Italian in a far from beautiful portrait which I gave your Uncle Daniel. She had some Austrian blood too. I believe my grandmother said her mother was Austrian but she did not tell me the name of the family. Her father’s name was Atalleotis. And I have a miniature of him – Count Nicola Attaleotis. My grandmother used to say that she was called in her youth ‘La Bella Triestina”. I wonder. Her portrait makes it hard to believe that the name was deserved.

Research of this family of Messina is hard to make in England because there are so few records to consult. What books I used are mostly in the British Museum and they are in Italian. If you want to delve deeper you will have to go to Sicily – which I expect you will greatly enjoy. And in Malta you will be able to find an entertaining piece of Architecture – the Messina Mausoleum which looks like a fragment of the Pavilion at Brighton. The pam trees, which are the pillars of the building, are a tour de force of stonework. It is a monument to a family which is aa casualty to history. But they had a good innings of six and a half centuries – from the Norman conquest of Sicily to the revolutions in Naples. And now they are extinct in the male line. My father always said that any of us could acquire a right to use the titles by a fairly substantial bribe to an official of the Italian Government. And I expect it is true.

Harman Grisewood
20th May 1979

Photograph from my Grand Mother’s collection – Contessa Concetta was her aunt. The photo shows her handwriting describing the photograph.

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