The Medieval Kingdom of Sicily Image Database

When we want to understand something about what the great monuments of Sicily looked like in the past, we often need to refer to old images – the drawings, paintings, and sketches of travellers, for example – to document their appearance prior to the ravages of recent centuries. These images can be found in libraries, archives, private collections, and museums from across Europe and America, and sometimes as far away as the War Museum of Canberra. 

Given this wide dispersal of critical visual resources, and with the support of the technological services of Duke University and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Medieval Kingdom of Sicily Image Database ( was created in 2009. This is an online digital archive of low-resolution images that might help tourists, scholars, and local residents to understand the past.

The database now has about 9000 images and focuses on medieval buildings from roughly 1000 to 1450 in Southern Italy and Sicily. The aim was to make accessible all images of cities and architectural monuments (including their furnishings and decoration) prior to destruction or transformation. The focused on Southern Italy was deliberate. Until the unification of Italy, it was a separate kingdom and a discrete political entity, one created by the Normans and ruled by successive regimes with consistent approaches to urbanism and architecture. Southern Italy was also one of the areas most affected by Allied bombardment in the early phases of the fight against fascism in 1943, bombardments that for this geographical area famously culminated with the destruction of the great Benedictine abbey of Montecassino in 1944.

At the conclusion of the war, many further changes took place. Destroyed or damaged buildings needed to be restored or replaced. There was a population surge toward the cities, which meant intense urban expansion. These phenomena had multiple effects: they often erased what remained of the city walls that enclosed many towns, and the construction of high-rise buildings dwarfed and altered the relationship between historic churches and the landscape.

Whereas the many important medieval monuments were meant to be viewed from the sea (the primary and most effective mode of travel and transportation), that relationship has been transformed by the post-war reconstruction of new harbours and warehouses. Most seriously, the repair and reconstruction of many damaged churches, including cathedrals, was often rushed and driven by a 1950s aesthetic that was not always compatible with the original medieval materials or structures. Perhaps the most painful example of this type of radical restoration is the Cathedral of Benevento north of Naples, which was rebuilt in a starkly modern style, even though significant portions of the venerable medieval structure remained after the wartime destruction.

The Cathedral of Messina, details of the painted wooden ceiling of c. 1250, by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1836, watercolor, Centre de Recherches sur les Monuments Historiques (CRMH) (Paris) , inv. # 101
  1. The Cathedral of Messina, details of the painted wooden ceiling of c. 1250, by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1836, watercolor, Centre de Recherches sur les Monuments Historiques (CRMH) (Paris) , inv. # 101​​

The Medieval Kingdom of Sicily Image Database is organized by geographic location; each place name has a list of the relevant medieval sites and the number of images available. The database can also be searched through a list of the repositories of images, and each entry includes a link to the original collection.

In addition, the artists, printmakers, or painters who produced the images can also be searched for under the rubric of ‘Creator’. This last category provides fascinating insights into the patterns of European travel in different periods and the emergence of new areas of interest, such as the fascination with Orientalism in the early nineteenth century, an interest that often focused on the remains of Islamic culture in locations such as Palermo.

Whereas some scenic locations are heavily represented, others are much less so, often the result of the limited availability of safe travel routes and worries about brigandage and malaria; moreover, piracy still occasionally presented a threat in the nineteenth century. Most interestingly, there was often great interest in harbours and port fortifications for defensive reasons; because of the Aragonese and then Spanish control of the island, these resources can today often be found in Spanish archives and museums.

  1. The Cathedral and City of Catania as viewed from the harbor by Louis-Jean Desprez in c. 1778, in the Musée Fabre (Montpellier) repository # 864.2.459 

Why is it important to understand and document the many lives of buildings and cities? They were powerful symbols, intended to represent strength and authority, and they tell us much about the people and cultures that created them. The enormous cathedral of Catania, for example, was intended as a highly visible symbol of regime change when the Normans defeated the Muslim caliph who had ruled that sector of the island: this was ‘power architecture’ to signify the new Norman and Christian order. Rising majestically over the port, this cathedral proclaimed to both seafarers and residents alike that the Normans were in control.

Buildings and cities thus ‘speak’ to us of dreams and goals, hopes and achievements, of power and sometimes even fear, as in the construction of forts and defensive city walls. The creation of the Medieval Kingdom of Sicily Image Database was rooted not only in a love of and deep curiosity about the past, but also a fascination with our common human heritage.

Embedded in the project is a sense of responsibility toward a deeper understanding and knowledge of how the spaces and places in which we live, or that we visit as travellers and tourists, have long and complicated histories that are usually hidden to the casual visitor. These histories, however, are important, because they reflect the ambitions and desires of the many people who lived in Sicily, this marvellous part of the world.

Caroline Bruzelius is a scholar of medieval architecture, sculpture, and urbanism in France and Italy, recently retired from Duke University where she co-founded the Digital Art History Laboratory. She has pioneered the use of digital technologies for the study of art and architectural history, including the Medieval Kingdom of Sicily Image Database. Her most recent book is titled Preaching, Building and Burying: Friars in the Medieval City (2014). From 1994 to 1998 she was Director of the American Academy in Rome. 

Read her recent article in MWCC.5, "Sicily Through the Centuries: Destruction, Change, and Renewal," 40-43.

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