Education The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo: The place where the living meet the dead

Sep 15, 2020
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The conservation status of the countless corpses exposed make the cemetery of the Convent of the Capuchin Friars, known as the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, one of the most impressive places to visit in the world.

A macabre spectacle that brings out the uses, customs and traditions of the Palermo society from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.

A unique cultural heritage that in many centuries has attracted and fascinated onlookers from all over the world, including many intellectuals, poets and writers such as Alexandre Dumas, Mario Praz, Guy de Maupassant, Fanny Lewald and Carlo Levi.

A place so evocative that did not remain insensitive even Ippolito Pindemonte, who visited the Catacombs of the Capuchins November 2, 1777 and wrote in the verses of his “Sepolcri”:

“Death looks at them and it seems to have missed all shots.”

The city of Palermo expressed gratitude to the illustrious poet, calling the road leading to the church of Santa Maria della Pace, and then to the cemetery, via Pindemonte.

A place suspended between life and death

The practice of mummification is an ancient tradition that has taken hold particularly in Sicily and the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are the highest expression of this tradition, because of the huge number of preserved human housed in them.

A fascinating overview that lead to reflection on the meaning of death and it allows a better understanding of this solemn tradition of the anciant Sicilian society, particularly evident in the Palermitan aristocracy and Palermitan people.

Mummification process

A mummy is a corpse that has been preserved after death and it has not decomposed. It is considered a mummy, and not simply a skeleton, the body that retains a bit of its tissue, such as skin, hair, muscles. This can happen as a natural process, called natural mummification, or as an intentional process, called artificial mummification.


Natural mummification

Most of the bodies found in the Catacombs of Palermo were preserved naturally.
The natural mummification is a process of transformation of the body which is based on dehydration: removing the fluids present in the tissues it stops the growth of bacteria and consequently also the process of decay of the body.
And this is the mummification process that the Capuchins perfected after the miraculous discovery of forty-five corpses intact.
Shortly after death, the bodies were placed in a preparation room called the “colatoio”, where were removed the internal organs; in their place were added straw or bay leaves, in order to facilitate the process of dehydration.
The bodies were placed in a supine position on grids made of terracotta tubes, so their bodily fluids could drain away and their flesh dessicate. The colatoio, which rappresented the optimal environment for mummification, with drier air and very low humidity, were then shut off for close to a year. After the corpses were exposed to the air, washed with vinegar and dressed, often in clothes of their own choosing, before being inserted in the wall niches.
At the end, the skin took on the consistency of leather and the body was characterized by a reduced weight and general stiffness.

Arsenic baths

Natural mummification, however, was not the only metod employed by Capuchins for cadaver preservation.
During periods of epidemics, they bathed the bodies in arsenic. The results were mummies surprisingly intact, still nowadays. Is this the method used for the body of Antonio Prestigiacomo standing in the Catacombs within a niche with rose-colored face.

Artificial mummification

The artificial mummification, also called embalming, is achieved by injection of chemicals.
In the Catacombs of Palermo this process of preservation of the bodies was used only occasionally.
Famous is the case of Rosalia Lombardo, a child of two years died in Palermo in 1920 and embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia, which results are still visible: the serene face, the golden curls that fall on the forehead, the soft and relaxed skin give an incredible feeling of life so as to be considered the “world’s most beautiful mummy”.

Source: palermocatacombs

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