Capuchin Catacombs

Catacombe dei Cappuccini di Palermo
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The Capuchin Catacombs are one of the most famous and eerie places in Palermo. This “museum of death” has been attracting curious people from all over the world since the 18th century, when it became an essential destination for travelers on the Grand Tour. Of all the mummies in Sicily, these are the most numerous and the best preserved.

History and origins of the Capuchin Catacombs

Palermo's Capuchin Catacombs in a vintage print
Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs in a vintage print

The foundation of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo dates back to 1599, when the friars decided to build a cemetery more suited to their needs. Until that year, they buried their brothers in a mass grave, lowering the bodies from above with a sheet. In 1597, the friars decided to create a larger underground cemetery by digging a room behind the high altar of the church of Santa Maria della Pace. While moving the bodies, they noticed that 45 bodies were left almost intact, mummified of course. The friars decided not to bury them, but to display them upright in niches built in the newly excavated corridor. Over the years, interest in these mummies grew and in 1783 the Capuchins decided to grant burial to all those who could afford the cost of embalming.

The Plan of the Capuchin Catacombs

The current plan of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo is the result of an expansion process that lasted until 1823. New tunnels were dug to meet the increasing demands of the wealthier classes of Palermo. Today the catacombs appear as four corridors forming a rectangle intersected by a fifth. Each corridor corresponds to a different sector where the mummies are arranged according to sex, category and age.

The painting "Three Skeletons in the Capuchin Convent in Palermo" by artist Laurits Andersen Ring
Three Skeletons in the Capuchin Monastery near Palermo – Laurits Andersen Ring

The Corridor of the Capuchins

The tour of the Capuchin Catacombs begins in the oldest part of this underground cemetery. After a few flights of stairs, you reach the first corridor where the Capuchin monks rest. They are dressed in their habit and have a cord around their neck, a symbol of penance or a crown made of plant material. On the left, as you enter, you can see the mummy of Silvestro da Gubbio, a lay brother who was the first to be buried in the new cemetery in 1599. Going down the corridor on the left, one reaches the Chapel of Santa Rosalie, where the body of the little Rosalia Lombardo was found.

The Prelates’ Corridor

Leaving the entrance door behind and going straight ahead, one enters the men’s corridor, which almost immediately intersects with the prelates’ corridor. They are clearly distinguished from the Capuchins by their rich priestly vestments. Also in this area is the body of Giovanni Paterniti, U.S. Vice Consul, who was buried in 1911 and still has a distinctive appearance with his thick mustache. A part of this corridor, certainly the most touching, is reserved for the children. They were dressed in their caps and bonnets, and two of them were even placed on a chair.

The Men’s Corridor

Returning to the Men’s Corridor, we find some of the most famous mummies in the Capuchin Catacombs. Among them is that of Antonino Prestigiacomo, who died in 1844 and was probably treated before being exhibited. In fact, the body has a reddish tint and the remains of what were probably glass eyes. A little to the right, however, is the mummy nicknamed “the Giant” because of its size.

The Women’s Corridor

Just before the end of the Men’s Corridor, the Women’s Corridor begins on the left. The clothes they are wearing give valuable information about the lifestyle and fashion of these women when they were alive. In fact, the corpses are wearing elegant silk and colorful French dresses. Part of this corridor contains the unmarried women. They usually lie on their backs and can be recognized by the metal crowns or palm branches they wear. Also in this corridor, in a chest, lies Angela Lojacono. The girl, who died in 1876, has with her a photo from when she was alive. In the chapel of the Crucifix are the women who died before marriage, wearing a white dress.

The Professors’ Corridor

The last corridor is that of the “professors”. This term referred to anyone with special expertise in certain disciplines or practical activities. Here are the mummies of doctors, lawyers, painters, officers and soldiers. Among the most famous are that of the sculptor Filippo Pennino, a pupil of Lorenzo Marabitti, and that of the surgeon Salvatore Manzella, dressed in a white robe. The last two mummies in this area are those of the so-called “painters”. In 1980, the Cuban photographer Jesse Fernández was impressed and had a photo taken with the two bodies in the background.

The embalming techniques of the mummies of Palermo

In the Capuchin Catacombs there are at least 1284 mummies, plus those in 665 coffins or urns, for a total of 1949 subjects. Many of these bodies are the result of a natural drying process. However, there are also some mummies obtained through artificial techniques that have become widespread since the 19th century.

Natural Mummification

Natural mummification is a process based on dehydrating the body to prevent bacterial growth and decomposition. This technique became popular among French and English monarchs in the 12th century and then spread throughout Europe. This technique was first used to preserve the bodies of monks and then continued throughout the nineteenth century. The bodies were placed horizontally in underground rooms called “colatoi” and left there for about a year. They were then brought out into the open air and cleaned with vinegar. Finally, they were dressed in their best clothes and placed in the niche reserved for them.

Artificial Mummification

Artificial mummification, on the other hand, originated in the late 17th century, when systems for preserving anatomical parts for study began to spread. The method was also applied to the treatment of corpses, which were immersed in preservative liquids with disinfecting and desiccating properties. Later, intravascular injection of embalming solutions was used. In 1835, Giuseppe Tranchina, a physician from Palermo, published the method he had developed, which was to become the most widely used. It was based on a simple injection into the carotid artery of an aqueous or alcoholic solution of arsenic deutoxide and mercury deutosulfide. Another important figure in the history of body preservation in Palermo was Alfredo Salafia. He was a taxidermist and embalmer active in the first quarter of the 20th century, who developed his own method, which remained unknown until 2007. In that year, the expert Dario Piombino Mascali discovered that the technique involved switching from solutions containing mercury and arsenic derivatives to less toxic ones.

The mummy of Rosalia Lombardo, the Sleeping Beauty of Palermo

The mummy of little Rosalia Lombardo on the left and embalmer Alfredo Salafia on the right
The mummy of Rosalia Lombardo on the left and Alfredo Salafia on the right

The most famous mummy in the Capuchin Catacombs is certainly that of Rosalia Lombardo. It is a little girl who was born in 1918 and died two years later of pneumonia. Little Rosalia was one of the last to be buried in the Capuchin cemetery. Her body is one of three in the catacombs prepared by Alfredo Salafia. The other two are that of his brother Ernesto and that of the American vice-consul Giovanni Paterniti. The results of the method introduced by Salafia can still be seen today: long eyelashes, a plump and colorful face with a thick head of golden curls gathered in a yellow ribbon. For this reason she is also called “the most beautiful mummy in the world” or “the Sleeping Beauty of Palermo”.

Visiting the Capuchin Catacombs: Hours, Prices and Directions

The Capuchin Catacombs are located in the Cuba neighborhood and are part of the Church of Our Lady of Peace. They are relatively close to the center and can be reached on foot. The walk from Palace of the Normans is about 20 minutes. The Capuchin Catacombs are open daily from 9:00 to 12:30 and from 15:00 to 17:30. The entrance fee is €3.00, but children under 12 are free. In order to preserve the condition of the mummies, visitors are not permitted to photograph, videotape, or touch the artifacts.

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