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Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

catacombs of Palermo

The Capuchin convent in Palermo, in the Cuba district, is annexed to the church of Santa Maria della Pace. Church and convent date back to the 16th century, although built on earlier structures. In the basement there are the famous catacombs of the Capuchins in Gothic style, so called but in reality cemetery and not catacomb, that is a place of worship and early Christian reunion.

Strolling it does not return to be polite and presentable as the citizens of Palermo, lined up in the underground corridors of the Capuchins in Porta Nuova. They stand there withered and enjoy everyone’s esteem.

Thomas Mann – The enchanted mountain

Description of the catacombs

The Convent is known all over the world for the presence in its basement of a vast cemetery, which attracts the curiosity of many tourists, since the last centuries obligatory stop of the Grand Tour (it was also visited by Guy de Maupassant). The macabre spectacle of the countless corpses on display is a starting point for reflection on the transience of life, on earthly vanities and on the uselessness of the attachment of men to their external features. The galleries were excavated at the end of the 1500s in Gothic style with subtitles with ribbed ribbed ogival vaults and ogival vaults; these form a large rectangular cemetery. The bodies present there have never been inventoried, but it has been calculated that they must reach the figure of around 8,000.

The mummies of the Catacombs

The mummies, standing or lying down, dressed up all over, are divided by sex and social category, even though most of them belong to the upper classes, since the embalming process was expensive. In the various sectors we recognize: prelates; traders and bourgeois in their “Sunday” clothes; army officers in gala uniform; young virgin women, deceased before they could get married, dressed in their wedding dress; family groups standing on high shelves, bordered by thin railings similar to balconies; children; etc.

The mummies over the Catacombs
The mummies over the Catacombs

The embalming method

The embalming method first of all involved having the body “drained” for about a year, after removing the internal organs. Then the body, more or less withered, was washed with vinegar, filled with straw, and covered with his clothes. Other methods, used especially in times of epidemics, included a bath of arsenic or lime water.

Rosalia Lombardo mummy

Among the bodies of the Catacombs of the Capuchins, Rosalia Lombardo‘s is particularly known, visible in the Chapel of Santa Rosalia at the end of the first corridor, on the left. Born in Palermo on December 13, 1918 and died of pneumonia on December 6, 1920, the child was one of the last people to be admitted to burial in the crypt. The embalming, strongly desired by the distraught father, was curated by Professor Alfredo Salafia, the same one who embalmed Francesco Crispi. As it was discovered only in 2009 thanks to studies carried out on Salafia’s notes, a mixture composed of formalin was used for the operation, to kill the bacteria, alcohol, which would have contributed to the dehydration, glycerin, to prevent excessive drying up, salicylic acid, which would prevent the growth of fungi, and zinc salts, which give rigidity. The child appears intact (in fact, through an accurate X-ray you can see that even the whole body of the child is perfectly intact, you can clearly see both the cerebral hemisphere and the organ of the liver) enough to arouse the impression that she is sleeping , and to deserve the nickname Sleeping Beauty. Although the mummification process is one of the best, if not the best, the body shows small signs of decomposition. It was therefore necessary to place the historic coffin inside a hermetic steel and glass case, saturated with nitrogen, which prevents the growth of microorganisms, kept at a constant temperature of 20 ° C and with a humidity of 65%

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