"View of Etna from the Woods," etching by Allix. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Printed Book & Periodical Collection.

A Voyage to Sicily, Part 1

The Decorative Arts Trust’s upcoming tour of Sicily will be the first time the organization has gone there, but the island has been a travel destination for centuries. This two-part series presents a selection of images and translated texts from one of the first travel guides for Sicily, a copy of which is available in the rare books collection of the Winterthur Library, the monumental series Voyage Pittoresque ou Description des Royaumes de Naples et de Sicile, by the French noble and amateur artist Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non. Many of the sites described in his book will be enjoyed by trust members come October.

Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non (1727-1791), painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya
Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non (1727-1791), painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

In 1785, Saint-Non sent the fourth and final volume of Voyage Pittoresque to publication. The project began thirty-six years earlier in 1759, when he traveled with his friends Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Hubert Robert down the Italian peninsula into the Kingdom of Naples, spending a great deal of time at the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Upon his return to France, Saint-Non determined to produce an illustrated record of his travels, using the sketches and paintings the three artists made as guides for etchings depicting significant buildings, ruins, and views of the countryside. Subsequent trips up until 1780 provided more material and more views.


Although he was listed as author, Saint-Non served more like an executive editor, incorporating travel accounts acquired from other sources. For Sicily in particular, he incorporated descriptions and illustrations supplied by the commander of the sailing vessel Dolomieu, who had traveled extensively in the Val di Noto region. Likewise, Saint-Non enlisted the best artists and printmakers of his day to produce the illustrations, although many of his own works appeared in the volumes as well. It was the most ambitious privately published book of its era, eventually consuming Saint-Non’s personal fortune, and then those of his brothers.


Despite being a financial flop, Voyages Pittoresque became the forerunner of a genre of books, which were often referred to as “Voyages Pittoresque” because of their titles. These lavishly illustrated travelogues recounted journeys to remote or exotic locales. Categorizing southern Italy and Sicily as remote may register as unusual to modern ideas of accessibility, but Saint-Non lived in an age of political unrest and few good roads. That the same man ruled the same territories of Naples and Sicily as Ferdinand IV, the III, and the I (in that order), perhaps best illustrates the uncertainty of the era. Southern Italy also happened to be in a period of geological turmoil, with Mount Vesuvius erupting thrice during Saint-Non’s work on the publication, and a series of earthquakes and tsunamis destroying the cities and towns, including Messina in 1783. Risks of volcanic incineration aside, Saint-Non’s travelogue appealed to the 18th century hunger for landscapes and the growing delineation between rational and non-rational experience of aesthetics.


Sicily being an island, many of the main cities are ports or harbors, including Palermo, which was Saint-Non’s first stop. He enjoyed remarking on the geography, and how it had changed since ancient times.

Palermo is entirely different from what it formerly was. One no longer finds the Panormos of antiquity, although the location is still the same. This city was initially separated into three parts. The middle, which is the most ancient, was called Panormos by the Greeks, and in Latin Totus Portus, or Port of All Nations. It almost stood on an island, surrounded on one side by the sea, which advanced westward via a canal following the city walls, and on the other by the Oreto River, which after running for some distance through a pleasant valley in the foothills of the mountains, bordered the city on the southern side.

Beyond the river, a suburb named Neopolis, or New City, formed the second part of ancient Panormos. The Romans encircled this part with palisades when they took the city from the Carthaginians during the First Punic War in the Roman year 499. Finally the ancient city was again an inland port that, by the canal and the riverbed, received the vessels of the day in its very center, and nearly all around the walls of the old city. Nothing remains of this ancient port save for a small bay filled with Sicilian barques, and a few other vessels which one dares to leave out in winter due to the North wind that would blow them aground. This bay, as well as Palermo, is situated at the base of a gulf formed by Cape Lazarano, Mount Catalfano, and the undulating hills of Mount Ereto, today known as Mount Pellegrino.

Temple della Concordia

Saint-Non and his companions, like many of their contemporaries, were fascinated by ancient and antique ruins. They spent a great deal of time in the vicinity of Agrigento in the “Valley of the Temples,” which, inexplicably, is located on a hill overlooking the city.

From the Temple of Juno, we passed to the Temple of Concord, the most intact of the monuments of Sicily, and the only one to have been maintained. It is in the same direction as the first, placed the similarly, near and under the walls of the old city, and built to the same plan, with the exception of the bedrock, which is not as elevated, and the lateral walls of the interior of the temple where each side has six centered doors.

From the Temple of Concord, we followed the ancient walls of the city, of which there only remains a section placed on the same rock, it survived as the base and foundation of the famous murals so vaunted that Virgil mentioned his heros viewing them, it is true, long before they were actually built, which was not until after the battle of Imera by the Carthaginian prisoners taken then, under the reign of Theron, and when Gelon reigned in Syracuse. These times were well after the voyage of Aeneas, but perhaps he would have talked about the Castle of Cocalus, built, as we have said, on the top of the mountain today known as Girgenti.


The Decorative Arts Trust would like to thank Emily Guthrie and Lauri Perkins of The Winterthur Library for their kind assistance during this project.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.