One of the most disturbing places on the planet, but also one where I would very much like to visit has to be the Capuchin Catacombs Of Palermo.
Many decades ago as a young child I became aware of the infamous Catacombs as they featured in a copy of the Legendary occult paranormal magazine, Man, Myth and Magic. My father bought home several copies from a friend, and thought I might find them of interest.
I remember being fascinated and astounded that such a place could exist, where corpses could be viewed by the general public like a ghoulish side show, but this was one tourist attraction that wasn’t meant to happen.
The Catacombs represent a macabre spectacle that brings out the uses, customs and traditions of the Palermo society from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Many intellectuals, poets and writers flocked to se this spectacle for themselves. Ippolito Pindemnte was a visitor on the November 2nd in the year 1777, he wrote in the verses of his Sepolcrim,
“Death looks at them and it seems to have missed all the 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.
The Capuchin Catacombs were built as a simple cemetery in which to bury the monks of the monastery , The order of Capuchin Friars were established in 1534 at the Church Of Santa Maria Della Pace (Lady of Peace). They had created a cemetery in which deceased friars were buried digging a mass grave that opened like a tank under the altar of St. Anne.
Soon, however, the Capuchin community grew and by 1597 the first room of the cemetery, the pit/tank, became insufficient. For this reason, excavations were begun to create a large cemetery behind the main altar, using the existence of ancient caves. After two years the new cemetery was ready and it was decided to transfer the brothers from the overflowing charnel house to the new resting place.
However, when the friars exhumed the corpses they discovered something quite astounding, forty five friars were discovered naturally mummified, and preserved. They had not decomposed and their faces were recognizable. The Capuchins took this to be a sign from God and, instead of burying the remains, they decided to display and adore the bodies of their brothers as relics, propped in niches along the walls of the first corridor of the new cemetery.
The body that had the dubious honour of being the first to be housed in the newly-created catacomb was that of Fra Slvestro da Gubbio still exposed in a simple brown robe and headdress clutching a sign commemorating the event (16 October 1599).
The news of the mummified cadavers attracted great attention and, little by little, the Capuchins began accepting more and more laypeople until finally, in 1783, they decided to concede burial to anyone who for some strange reason requested it. So that was how the private cemetery of the Friars became a kind of museum of death.
Up until the nineteenth century, it became a status of wealth and importance to be interned in the catacombs, though to be honest I can’t see the attraction, of decomposing on display for all eternity!
A generous enough donation could gain entrance for a corpse and after being suitably mummified the deceased had their own niche in the wall of the underground cemetery. Mummification became a status symbol, a way to preserve status and dignity even in death with the possibility for the families of the deceased to visit not just ordinary graves, but dead bodies well preserved.
The cemetery was definitively closed in 1880, but two more bodies were ‘lucky‘ enough to be admitted. In 1911 the body of Giovannio Patererniti, Vice-Consul of the United States found his own ’niche’ so to speak. Little Rosalia Lomardo was the last in 1920 when she died aged but two years old, and has since come to be known as “the world’s most beautiful mummy.
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 represented the optimal environment for mummification, with drier air and very low humidity, were then shut off for close to a year. After which 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.
Natural mummification, however, was not the only method 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 Prdstigiacomo standing in the Catacombs within a niche with rose-colored face?
The artificial manner of mummification is also known as embalming in which chemicals are injected into the corpse. In the Catacombs of Palermo this process of preservation of the bodies was used only occasionally. This was the method used by Dr Alfredo Salafia to preserve little Rosalia Lombardo.
Unlike Rosalia, most of the other occupants of the catacombs range from mildly disturbing to downright terrifying. Dressed in their everyday clothing, their faces decayed or even fallen in, what skin remains slowly peeling off the putrefied faces, some with open jaws as if emitting a dying scream. The hay that was used to stuff their corpses pokes it’s waythrough their necks and flaking skin.
Monks still robed their skeletal faces like an army of terrifying grim reapers follow the many visitors with their empty eye sockets along the many corridors where cadavers are displayed in order, monks, women, officers, in all over 8000 corpses are housed, in a grisly display that only becomes more terrifying with every step. I wonder how many visitors make it to the very end or turn tail and run, with horrifying images burned into their imagination, that will never be forgotten, perhaps I would be one of them, perhaps you would too.
Images found using Google search. They belong to their respective owners. Used only for visual reference and not for profit gain.
The Monk’s Corridor
Another charming corridor