The Mummies of the Palermo Catacombs
From the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy
Background of the mummies
Perhaps the largest catacomb of preserved mummies is found under the church and monastery of the Capuchin monks in Palermo, Italy.
The Capuchin monks had arrived in Palermo about 1534. When one of their members died, he was buried (apparently rather ingloriously) in an adjacent grotto. By 1599, the grotto was full of deceased monks, and a new resting place was dug. When the bodies were exhumed from the grotto, many were well-preserved (author Melanie King puts the number at 45). So when the catacomb was begun in the crypts beneath the monastery and church, the monks already knew that with proper care and preparation, other monks might become well-preserved after death.
Brother Silvestro of Gubbio became the first monk placed in the newly-created catacomb in 1599. Priests soon followed.
Eventually, the well-to-do and famous people were allowed to be buried there. Apparently, they had to pay an annual fee, according to J. Ross Browne, a newspaper reporter who visited the catacombs around 1853. He learned that the catacombs were "supported by contributions from the relatives of the deceased, who pay annually a certain sum for the preservation of the bodies. Each newcomer is placed in a temporary niche, and afterward removed to a permanent place, where he is permitted to remain as long as the contributions continue; but when the customary fees are not forthcoming the corpses are thrown aside on a shelf, where they lie till the relatives think proper to have them set up again."
The last clerical burial occurred in 1871, though Rosalia Lombardo was buried there in 1920, one of the last allowed.
How they were made
Before the catacomb was begun, bodies placed in the grotto were preserved naturally. Beginning in 1599, however, the monks helped create the mummies artificially.
Method One (most common method): The body was placed in a small room called a "strainer" which lined the main passageways of the crypt. These tiny rooms were edged with a ceramic grid so that bodies laid upon the grid could drain into limestone gravel beneath the grid. The bodies were then allowed to dry over a period of eight months or so.
Arthur Aufderheide describes the strainer cells this way: "It was a rectangular room about 4 meters X 5 meters with a vaulted, stone-lined ceiling. A ventilating tube about 8 cm in diameter placed high on one wall traversed the rear wall of the room to reach the outside air. The floor was dirt (limestone)."
After eight months, the bodies were washed in vinegar before their removal from the strainer cell. Then they were dressed and placed in coffins or hung from hooks in niches on the walls of the catacombs.
Method Two (rarely used except during epidemics): The body of the deceased was dipped in arsenic or lime.
Method Three (again rarely used): The body of the deceased would be embalmed. This technique may have been used only once on the now-famous corpse of Rosalia Lombardo.
A trip to the catacombs
The entrance to the catacombs is barely visible today.
A trip to the Capuchin Catacombs is quite thought-provoking and, depending on your imagination, a bit eerie. The day I went it was raining, and the downpour outside was evident in the crypt. Water was dripping, even echoing, as the rain poured outside. The catacombs were empty of tourists that day, as I walked along the limestone corridors observing the many people buried there.
One account of a trip to the catacombs was written by American explorer and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens in his book, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petra and the Holy Land (from Chapter 17). He wrote
at Palermo I had seen the bodies of nobles and ladies, the men arranged upright along the walls, dressed as in life, with canes in their hands and swords by their sides; and the noble ladies of Palermo lying in state, their withered bodies clothed in silks and satins, and adorned with gold and jewels; and I remember one among them, who, if then living, would have been but twenty, who two years before had shone in the bright constellation of Sicilian beauty, and, lovely as a light from heaven, had led the dance in the royal palace; I saw her in the same white dress which she had worn at the ball, complete even to the white slippers, the belt around her waist, and the jeweled mockery of a watch hanging at her side, as if she had not done with time for ever; her face was bare, the skin dry, black, and shriveled, like burnt paper; the cheeks sunken; the rosy lips a piece of discolored parchment; the teeth horribly projecting; the nose gone; a wreath of roses around her head; and a long tress of hair curling in each hollow eye....
Another excellent account, by journalist J. Ross Browne, was published as a chapter in his book,Yusef, or the Journey of the Frangi, published in 1872.
The first paragraph reads
Entering the ancient and ruinous court of the convent, distant about a mile from the city, I was conducted by a ghostly-looking monk through some dark passages to the subterranean apartments of the dead. It was not my first visit to a place of this kind, but I must confess the sight was rather startling. It was like a revel of the dead a horrible, grinning, ghastly exhibition of skeleton forms, sightless eyes, and shining teeth, jaws distended, and bony hands outstretched ; heads without bodies, and bodies without heads the young, the old, the brave, the once beautiful and gay, all mingled in the ghastly throng. I walked through long subterranean passages, lined with the dead on both sides; with a stealthy and measured tread I stepped, for they seemed to stare at the intrusion, and their skeleton fingers vibrated as if yearning to grasp the living in their embrace. Long rows of upright niches are cut into the walls on each side; in every niche a skeleton form stands erect as in life, habited in a robe of black; the face, hands, and feet naked, withered, and of an ashy hue; the grizzled beards still hanging in tufts from the jaws, and in the recent cases the hair still clinging to the skull, but matted and dry. To each corpse is attached a label upon which is written the name and the date of decease, and a cross or the image of the Savior....
Some unanswered questions
Information about the catacombs is difficult to come by, and I have a number of lingering questions after my research. Most accounts report that 8,000 bodies were interred in the catacombs, but it is unclear how many remain today and what happened to the rest. Some reports indicate that only 2,000 or so bodies are now exhibited.
What happened to the others? One author wrote: "American troops removed and carried them off as souvenirs" during World War II. I do not know if this is true. Another author indicated that Allied bombing during World War II damaged the catacombs and destroyed many of the bodies interred there. Again, I do not know if this is true. If you have any information to share, please send it along.
Except for closing the chapel to visitors and other minor attempts to vandal-proof the catacombs, the Capuchin friars have not attempted any type of restoration, according to The Telegraph. However, "they are launching a project, co-funded by the European Union, to conserve the mummies."
"This is a major tourist destination, but our facilities are no longer capable of welcoming so many," Father Calogero Peri told reporters. "This is our very rare heritage which we must open up to academics from all over the world."
The restoration will include an elevator, a fire alarm system, closed-circuit television cameras, and a glass walkway that will lead visitors though the mummies.
In other words, if you want to see the catacombs in their relatively undisturbed and low-tech state, now is the time.
In addition, research will be conducted on the mummies. According to The Telegraph, "Only around 1,000 of the mummies have been formally identified, with their dates of birth and death. The project will extract DNA from the mummies to group them together into families, identify their age, sex and likely cause of death.... The researchers are particularly interested in discovering the process of mummification. One occupant who will be given special attention is Rosalia Lombardo, a two-year-old girl who appears to be in perfect physical condition, despite being buried more than nearly 90 years ago."
Visiting the catacombs
The catacombs are on the outskirts of Palermo at Piazza Cappuccini. They can be reached on foot (if you enjoy walking--and Palermo is a beautiful city for a stroll) or by cab. I walked there myself from the city center, and though it took awhile, I enjoyed every step.
If you wish to fly to Sicily, Palermo has a good, small airport (which is a 45-minute train ride from the airport to the central station; it costs about €5). The largest airport on Sicily is found on the other end of the island at Catania (under the dramatic gaze of Mount Etna). From this airport, visitors can take a direct bus to downtown Palermo (the trip takes about two and one half hours and costs about €14).
If you are in Naples, another alternative for visiting Palermo is to take the ferry from Naples. You can also drive down the length of Italy to the Straits of Messina where you will cross by ferry.
More information about the catacombs
The following books contain some information about the Capuchin Catacombs:
The Dying Game: A Curious History of Deathby Melanie King
The Living Dead by Marco Lanza
The Scientific Study of Mummies by Arthur Aufderheide
The Goth Bible by Nancy Kilpatrick
Handbook of Death & Dying by Clifton D. Bryant
Modern Mummies by Christine Quigley
Famous Caves and Catacombs by W. H. Davenport Adams
An article entitled "The Well-Dressed Dead" by Bob Brier can be found in the May/June 2003 (vol. 56, no. 3) issue of Archaeology.