The Capuchin Catacombs (or Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Italian) is a world famous burial site for mummified bodies that has become a gruesome yet popular tourist spot in Palermo, Sicily, southern Italy. Visitors can descend into the large underground catacombs of the monastery, deep beneath the bustling city streets above to walk amongst the dead.
In the catacombs corpses hang from the walls, they are stacked on shelves and sealed in glass cases, all are fully clothed, with some still wearing their traditional robes. Together they make a macabre spectacle; and a stark reminder of the fine line between life and death.
Having outgrown the original cemetery in the latter half of the 16th century, the monks of Capuchin began to excavate the crypts below the monastery. Around the same time, in 1599 they began the mummifying process of their fellow brother Silvestro of Gubbio. Taking advantage of the particularly dry atmosphere in the catacombs, they placed his body on a rack of ceramic pipes, leaving it to naturally dehydrate before being washed in vinegar to finish the embalming process. A year later, Silvestro of Gubbio was dressed in his traditional robes and hung him from the crypt wall where he remains to this day.
So began a legacy which would over time see the underground catacombs lined with 8000 corpses and 1252 mummies. Today, visitors to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini can wander through the dimly lit corridors and halls which are divided into religious figures, virgins, children and wealthy individuals who purchased their place upon the walls. Originally intended for religious figures affiliated with the monastery, it became a status symbol to join the ranks of the dead interned within the catacombs.
Wealthy individuals and professionals began to request in their wills to be preserved in their finest attire and be either hung from the walls, set in poses or placed in coffins that would be accessible to their families so that on certain days they could once more hold hands with their loved ones in prayer. However, if the families of the deceased stopped contributing financially, the bodies would be put aside until payment resumed. And as demand grew the monastery’s influence and coffers grew.
The final friar to be buried in the catacomb was Brother Riccardo in 1871, and the site was officially closed in 1880, though interments continued into the early 1900s. One of the last was that of 2-year-old Rosalia Lombardo who died December 6, 1920, of pneumonia. Her strikingly well-persevered body and the glass coffin in which her body rests, has become the catacombs the star attraction for curious tourists that flock to see the “Sleeping Beauty” each year.
Devastated by the loss of his child, Rosalia’s father tracked down Alfredo Salafia, a renowned Sicilian professor of chemistry and a talented embalmer. So successful were Salafia’s efforts that Rosalia retained a warm and pink complexion, giving her the appearance of merely being asleep and in time earning her the enduring nickname of the “Sleeping Beauty”.
Considered to be one of the best-preserved mummies in the world, Salafia passed away before revealing his methods and the knowledge was thought to be forever lost. That was until anthropologist and curator of the catacombs, Dario Piombino-Mascali uncovered Salafia’s handwritten notes revealing his secrets. The chemicals used were one part glycerin, one part formalin saturated with both zinc sulfate and chloride, and one part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid to give the body rigidity.
And while one mystery of “Sleeping Beauty” was solved another began when Italian newspapers began to report that Rosalia’s eyes would occasionally be seen to open and close. Recorded in time lapse photos and videos, the phenomenon has been the subject of various speculations for some years. While the curator of the museum has repeatedly claimed that “It’s an optical illusion produced by the light that filters through the side windows, which during the day is subject to change,” some visitors remain unconvinced. Either way, the body of little Rosalia Lombardo and the mummies of the Capuchin Catacombs continue to capture the imaginations of people throughout the world and are a must-see, albeit macabre, destination for any tombstone tourist.
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