Messina was born in Sicily but emigrated at a very early age to Genoa, where he worked as a marble cutter for the monumental cemetery of Staglieno while attending courses of drawing and sculpture at the Ligustica Academy of Fine Arts. He completed his training with travels to visit the major museums in the European capitals. The late Symbolist character of his early work gave way to a modern sculptural solidity and participation in the Venice Biennial of 1922 (Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della città di Venezia) established his place on the art scene.
Messina took part in the exhibitions of the Novecento Italiano movement in Milan from 1926 to 1929, the year in which he held a major solo show at the Galleria Pesaro with a presentation by Carlo Carrà. He moved to Milan in 1932 and took over from Adolfo Wildt as professor of sculpture at the Brera Academy two years later. A room was devoted exclusively to his work at the 1939 Rome Quadrennial and he was awarded the international prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennial of 1942.
His artistic vocabulary was moulded through contact with various Italian and European movements but ultimately distinguished by simplicity of form derived from a combination of life studies and reflection on ancient and primitive statuary under the influence of Arturo Martini. Addressed from the very outset in small-sized works, the subject of dance was to occupy a particular place within a broad repertoire including monumental sculptures, portraits and major commissions for religious works.
The deconsecrated church of San Sisto al Carrobbio in Milan has housed his studio-museum since 1976.