Palermo: The Capuchin Catacombs, the Museum of the Dead

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Perhaps the largest catacomb of preserved mummies is found under the church and monastery of the Capuchin monks in Palermo, Sicily, Italy.

The beginning of this unique cemetery goes back to the end of 16th century. The Capuchin monks had arrived in Palermo about 1534. Another burial place used initially but because of the increasing number of the monks, it was necessary to create a new, more decent and spacious.

In 1599 the first monk, Brother Silvestro of Gubbio, buried there. At the same time, remains of other monks exhumed from the grotto that used previously. Many of them found well- preserved thanks to the environmental conditions.

Initially the place used for Capuchin monks only. Priests followed and eventually, -mostly in 19th century- mummification became a “trend” in Palermo for all the well-to-do and famous people. They buried there for an annual fee, paid by their relatives according to J. Ross Brownie, a newspaper reporter who visited the catacombs around 1853.

Over the centuries the first passageway was enlarged and new ones made because of the continuing requests for a place in that cemetery. The present entrance opened in 1944. The original one -still in existence- was next to the vestry.

The “Sleeping Beauty”

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Image via Wikipedia

The last clerical burial occurred in 1871, though Rosalia Lombardo was buried there in 1920. Rosalia, a 2 years old girl, died of pneumonia, and is nicknamed the “Sleeping Beauty” because of her incredibly well – preserved body. She looks like a sleeping doll. She was one of the last corpses to make it to the catacombs before the local authorities discontinued the practice. Rosalia was embalmed by Alfredo Solafia, a Palermitan doctor, who took the secret with him when he died. It is only known that it was based on injections of chemicals and nothing else.

Another method used in a few cases for preservation of the bodies, was that of dipping the bodies in arsenic or lime. This was done mainly during the periods of epidemics.

The most common method used was that of desiccation by placing the bodies in cells, situated along the passageways. These cells were called “strainers”. As mentioned before, the drying of bodies came about because if the environmental conditions.  In fact it is known that the subsoil is mainly tufaceous. The bodies were closed in the cells for about eight months then taken out and washed in vinegar before being exposed in the fresh air. They were then dressed and put in the niches or in the coffins, depending on the instructions given by the person while still alive or by the relatives.

The catacomb has a number of sections arranged along five long limestone corridors: Men, Women, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals.

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At Men’s section the skeletons are placed all along the walls in niches or in coffins. In connection with priests section there is a children’s section. Until the end of 1600’s the walls on the stairs and the empty niches were covered with biblical pictures and inscriptions. Today only a few traces remain.

At Women’s section you can admire the clothes used by the women up until the beginning of 1800’s. Some bodies have the head surrounded by a steel band, this indicates the unmarried woman. Some very well -preserved children’s bodies you can find also there. Crossing over the Professor’s section the visitor goes into the most recent part of the Catacombs. There aren’t niches in the walls because the laws of 1837 forbade the exhibition of bodies. The majority of the coffins there, destroyed during the bombing of 11th March 1943 and the fire of 30th March 1966. You can admire the floor of majolica tiles and decorative paintings on the walls.

 At Professor’s section, are also doctors, lawyers, painters, officers and soldiers of the Bourbon grey_loader.gif and Italian army. Some famous names among them are those of the painter Velasquez, the sculptors Filippo Pennino and Lorenzo Marabitti and the surgeon Salvatore Manzella.

At Priests section placed bodies of the priests and clergy of the diocese and any other religious communities who asked permission. The body of Monsignor Franco D’Agostino is there, bishop of the Byzantine rites of Piana delgi Albanesi, dressed in his pontifical ornaments. After a few meters the visitor finds the chapel of Saint Rosalia . Until 1866 this chapel was dedicated to the Lady Of Sorrows. In this chapel between two children’s coffins, there is a glass coffin with the body of Rosalia Lombardo (died 6th December of 1920). She was brought there for embalming and remained.

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Into the second part of Monk’s section it is possible someone to see the Priests with the stole, a sign of their dignity, and other monks with a rope around the neck as a sign of penance. Into the first part, the visitor can see Brother Silvestro from Gubbio and also one of the last monks buried there in 1871, Brother Riccardo from Palermo.

This unusual place was written about by Ippolito Pindemonte who visited the catacombs on 2nd November of 1777, and inspired his poem “The Sepulchres”. For this, Mayor of Palermo dedicated to him, the street which goes from Corso Calatafime to the convent and the catacombs.

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See also:

Bagheria: “Villa of the Monsters”

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