THE CAPUCHIN CATACOMBS OF PALERMO

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are burial catacombs in Palermo, Sicily, southern Italy. Today they provide a somewhat macabre tourist attraction as well as an extraordinary historical record.

Palermo's Capuchin monastery outgrew its original cemetery in the 16th century and monks began to excavate crypts below it. In 1599 they mummified one of their number, recently-dead brother Silvestro of Gubbio, and placed him into the catacombs.

The bodies were dehydrated on the racks of ceramic pipes in the catacombs and sometimes later washed with vinegar. Some of the bodies were embalmed and others enclosed in sealed glass cabinets. Monks were preserved with their everyday clothing and sometimes with ropes they had worn as a penance.

Originally the catacombs were intended only for the dead friars. However, in the following centuries it became a status symbol to be entombed into the Capuchin catacombs. In their wills, local luminaries would ask to be preserved in certain clothes, or even to have their clothes changed at regular intervals. Priests wore their clerical vestments, others were clothed according to the contemporary fashion. Relatives would visit to pray for the deceased and also to maintain the body in presentable condition.

The catacombs were maintained through the donations of the relatives of the deceased. Each new body was placed in a temporary niche and later placed into a more permanent place. As long as the contributions continued, the body remained in its proper place but when the relatives did not send money any more, the body was put aside on a shelf until they resumed payment.

The last friar interred into the catacombs was Brother Riccardo in 1871 but other famous people were still interred. The catacombs were officially closed in 1880 but tourists continued to visit. The last burials are from the 1920s. One of the very last to be interred was Rosalia Lombardo, then two years old, whose body is still remarkably intact, preserved with a procedure that was lost for decades, but was recently rediscovered. The embalming procedure, performed by Professor Alfredo Salafia, consisted of formalin to kill bacteria, alcohol to dry the body, glycerin to keep her from overdrying, salicylic acid to kill fungi, and the most important ingredient, zinc salts (zinc sulfate and zinc chloride) to give the body rigidity. The formula is 1 part glycerin, 1 part formalin saturated with both zinc sulfate and chloride, and 1 part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid.

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Rosalia Lombardo

The catacombs contain about 8000 mummies that line the walls. The halls are divided into categories: Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Some bodies are better preserved than others. Some are set in poses; for example, two children are sitting together in a rocking chair. The coffins were accessible to the families of the deceased so that on certain days the family could hold their hands and they could "join" their family in prayer.

Famous people buried in the catacombs include:

Colonel Enea DiGuiliano (in French Bourbon uniform)

Salvatore Manzella, surgeon

Lorenzo Marabitti, sculptor

Filipo Pennino, sculptor

Son of a king of Tunis who had converted to Catholicism

Allegedly Velázquez, Spanish painter, was buried in the Fuensalida vault of the church of San Juan Bautista (Madrid, Spain), and within eight days his wife Juana was buried beside him.

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....

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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....

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