Catacombe dei Cappuccini
Have you heard of the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Sicily? It was initially used as the final resting place for the Capuchin Monks. Now it looks like a Halloween attraction. There are over eight hundred people in the Catacombs. However, the dead in the Catacombs aren’t buried in coffins. Their bodies are mummified and are displayed standing in niches, displayed in coffins, and posed on benches.
The cemetery for the Capuchin Monks was full by the 16th century. When Brother Silvestro of Gubbio died in 1599, they decided to excavate the catacombs under the monastery instead of expanding the cemetery. The monks perfected the practice of preserving bodies. There were several drying rooms (called colatoios) in the catacombs. The bodies were drained, the internal organs were removed, and the bodies were stuffed with hay. They were placed standing up over a drainage system of ceramic pipes and sealed in the colatoio for about a year. That combined with the dry air and low humidity mummified the body. After the body was removed from the colatoio it was bathed in vinegar, dressed, and placed on the wall.
Centuries later, the monks allowed people to bury their loved ones in the catacombs. It was expensive and only the richest families could afford it. The bodies were preserved and dressed in whatever clothing the family provided. People were buried in different rooms based on their status and gender (of course). Dead members of rich families were often buried in glass coffins. Men and women were in different rooms (can’t have those corpses hooking up). Children are buried in another room. There are rooms dedicated to monks and professionals. Even virgins had a separate room! The Capuchin Monks kept detailed records of who was buried there.
Being mummified and buried in the Catacombs was a status symbol. An expensive one. It required large donations to the monastery. If a family stopped making donations, their loved one’s body was removed from display and put on a shelf until payments resumed. People left instructions in their Wills that they wanted to be buried there, including what they wore. Some paid extra to have their clothes changed frequently. After a while, changing the clothes caused parts of the skeletons to fall off, and had to be stopped.
The Catacombe’s most famous and perfectly preserved resident is two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. Rosalia died of pneumonia in 1920. Her family had her buried in a glass coffin and wearing a beautiful party dress. To this day she looks like she’s sleeping. The room she is in is called The Santa Rosalia Chapel. Little Rosalia is often referred to as the world’s most beautiful mummy. Rosalia is one of the last people to be buried in the catacomb.
Rosalia was embalmed by Alfredo Salafia, a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer. Salafia died in 1933. Dario Piombino-Mascali, an Italian biological anthropologist who works with the Institute for Mummy Studies, contacted Salafia’s living relatives. They showed him Salafia’s notes which included the formula he used to embalm Rosalia. It was a mixture of formalin (to kill bacteria), alcohol (to dry the body), glycerin (to keep it from getting too dry), zinc salts, (to keep the body rigid), and salicylic acid (to kill fungi).
Thanks to the dry conditions and preservation techniques, the bodies are well preserved. Although some are in a more advanced state of decomposition than others. There are completely intact skeletons still standing on the walls. The monks are dressed in either their full religious garb or their daily robes, including ropes that they wore around their necks for penance. Military and law enforcement are still wearing their uniforms, and others are wearing anything from day-to-day outfits to tuxedos. Some skeletons still have bits of skin and a few men still have facial hair. One skeleton has glass eyes that make him look like he’s watching you!
These days the Catacombe dei Cappuccini is a morbid tourist attraction. Walking through the catacombs is like being in another world. When you walk in, the first body you see is Brother Silvestro of Gubbio. Followed by row after row of skeletons. Gravity has pulled their jaws open, giving them a permanent look of terror. Over the years cages had to be placed in front of the bodies to keep disrespectful tourists from stealing bones as souvenirs (yes, people unfortunately did). Click here for a great five-minute video tour of the catacombs.
Walking through the Catacombe dei Cappuccini looks like an amazing experience. Walking around underground past all those skeletons has to be a chilling experience, to say the least. One that I hope to have the chance to do one day.