The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo were built as a simple cemetery in which to bury the monks of the monastery. The Capuchin friars were established in Palermo 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 something incredible had happened: forty-five friars were found naturally mummified and magnificently preserved. They had not decomposed and their faces were recognizable.
The Capuchins believed that this instance was an act of God and, instead of burying the remains, they decided to display and adored the bodies of their brothers as relics, propped in niches along the walls of the first corridor of the new cemetery.
The news of the 45 bodies found intact in the Capuchin convent 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 requesting it. So it was that the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo expanded and additional corridors were created. And what was the private cemetery of the Friars became a sort of museum of death.
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, thousands of people, especially wealthy citizens of Palermo and rich celebrities, could gain burial in the Catacombs: with generous donations they could afforde the Friars mummification process and prepared for eternal display in the wall niches of the undergound 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 and venerate not just ordinary graves, but dead bodies well preserved.
The Catacombs became so popular and a sort of free zone when it comes to all civil legislation concerning cemeteries that had been issued in the following years, as for example the Royal Decree of 1710 by which it was ordered to bury the corpses to a mile away from the urban centre and no longer inside the churches. The cemetery was definitively closed in 1880, with one exception to accommodate two more bodies in the early years of the twentieth century: the first, in 1911, regarded the body of Giovanni Paterniti, Vice-Consul of the United States; the second, in 1920, was one of the little Rosalia Lombardo, who died at the tender age of two years and today known as the “world‘s most beautiful mummy“.
Most of the bodies found in the Catacombs of Palermo were preserved naturally. The natural mummification is a process of transformation of the body which is based on dehydration: removing the fluids present in the tissues it stops the growth of bacteria and consequently also the process of decay of the body. And this is the mummification process that the Capuchins perfected after the miraculous discovery of forty-five corpses intact.
Shortly after death, the bodies were placed in a preparation room called the “colatoio“, where were removed the internal organs; in their place were added straw or bay leaves, in order to facilitate the process of dehydration.
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 rappresented the optimal environment for mummification, with drier air and very low humidity, were then shut off for close to a year.
After 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.
The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are made up of five subteranean limestone corridors. They are interconnecting and occupy an area of about 300 square meters. In these salons are housed about 2.000 skeletons and mummified bodies, making the Catacombs of Palermo the largest and the most extraordinary collection of mummies in the world. The bodies face death erected in white niches, with clothes remarkably preserved for centuries and with a label upon which is written the name and the date of decease.
The mummies were arranged throughout the corridors by profession, sex and social status. The oldest part consists of the corridor of the Capuchin Friars, mummified wearing the habit, typical dress of their order. Then there is the hall dedicated to priests who retain priestly regalia. Suggestive is the corridor of the women, dressed in embroidered clothing and ornamental caps on their heads. In a chapel, known as the “Crucifix“, there are the bodies of young virgin women. The corridor of the men contains the bodies of members of palermo‘s prominent families. In the middle of this corridor there is also the last visible preparation room, the “colatoio“. There is the chapel of the children and the corridor of families (which includes mummies of the same family). The corridor of professionals keeps the mummies of doctors, lawyers, painters, officers and soldiers, including the painter Velasquez, the sculptors Filippo Pennino and Lorenzo Marabitti and the surgeon Salvatore Manzella.