Rosalia Lombardo: The 8,000 Skeletons, 1,252 Mummies and a Fallen Angel Who Rest Within the Catacombs of Capuchin
On the historical island of Sicily sits the Sicilian capital of Palermo, resting on the toe of Italy’s boot-based geographical shape. It is a location rich in history – between Europe and Africa – on the banks of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenician Empire who we have spoken about many times on STSTW Media as one of the defining civilisations of our time. Later it became part of the Roman and Arab Empires before unifying with the modern-day Kingdom of Italy in 1861. A city steeped in religious history; it was also home to a Catholic sect called the Capuchins (An order of friars and one of the main offshoots of the Franciscan order –created by famous religious devout Francis of Assisi). Much of their rules involved living in as much austerity that was practical.
Friars live their lives in servitude to society and the Capuchin friars created a monastery which in due course had the crypts below it excavated in 1599 when the graveyards filled – henceforth known as the Catacombs of the Capuchins. They began to mummify dead friars and before long this technique of preservation after death became a sought after practice for the high classes of Sicily. Their families would continue to fund the monks who cared for the deceased for example with new clothes.
Into the crypts
Palermo is a city with amazing architecture which much of its designs remaining from the Norman and Arab invasions. The Normans were a group from France unified by a famous Viking called Rollo who took over much of Europe. They were famed for their Romanesque architecture, characterized by semi-circular arches.
“The impact of a new culture of Nordic tradition on Sicily in the 11th-12th century led to a new architectural style: Palermo’s Arab-Norman architecture introduced innovative elements from the north of Europe, such as…towers at the sides of façades, within Byzantine layouts, such as the greek-cross plan inscribed in a square, and structural or decorative details of Islamic origin, such as pointed arches…”
Another writer speaks of the temptation and sights that Palermo offers to some famous people of history past,
“A unique cultural heritage that in many centuries has attracted and fascinated onlookers from all over the world, including many intellectuals, poets and writers such as Alexandre Dumas, Mario Praz, Guy de Maupassant, Fanny Lewald and Carlo Levi.”
Its stunning streets and crossroads run to the Capuchin Monastery, another building of fine intricate beauty. However, once down the stairs the scene begins to change to a more basic overlay. For after all, the dead have no need for grand decorations in this realm they leave behind. A multitude of skeletons line the walls in these catacombs to give a more than eerie vibe, and having experienced it for myself a strange sensation runs through as one enters the cold surroundings. Many find it too overwhelming to be underground with what looks like an army of the dead from a horror film, including an Argentinian companion of mine who had to surface for air and rejoin the mortal beings above.
Amazingly, 8000 skeletons (although a more accurate number is said to be closer to 2,000) and around 1250 mummies inhabit the catacombs. All of which would have had a unique story to tell. They are arranged in sections such as religious figures, professions, women, virgins and children.
Rosalia Lombardo – The sleeping beauty
One resident was not famous in her short life but became infamous in death. Her name is Rosalia Lombardo who died on November 6th, 1920 with only two summers to her name and remains the youngest on show. (The oldest is a friar from 1599 called Silvestro da Gubbio). Rosalia died due to pneumonia in a region which becomes extremely cold in the winter months. Her father Mario Lombardo was understandably so beset with heartache that he sought out a renowned local embalmer by the name of Alfredo Salafia. He used many modern and original techniques to mummify young Rosalia to perfection.
Concoction of conservation
When reports of Rosalia Lombardo’s eyes opening shocked the local community an Anthropologist called Dario Piombino-Mascali investigated the catacombs. He has worked on many projects in the past including Ötzi – the Tyrolean Iceman from Italy and the Kabayan Mummies also known as the fire mummies of the Philippines. The mystery was soon solved when he observed that a filtration of light from the windows was catching her eye-lens to cause the illusion of life. He also sought the embalmer’s elixir of preservation which has kept her form so perfect even until this day. The embalmer’s relatives gave him several of Alfredo Salafia’s documents.
“Salafia recorded the chemicals he injected into Rosalia’s body: formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.”
They act as such:
Formalin (formaldehyde and water) – eliminates bacteria
Alcohol – dries the body
Glycerin – keeping the body from becoming too dry
Salicylic acid – to stop the growth of fungi
Zinc salts – to keep a state of preservation
Zinc – to petrify the body
This added to an intricate system of drying rooms within the catacombs which implement pipes to drain any excess water and ultimately keep the bodies of the deceased dry. After which, they were bathed in vinegar and stuffed with hay. Many of the bodies who hang on the walls were protected in cages because some tourists had a kleptomaniacal penchant for taking bones as souvenirs.
In regards to the prized and most adored attraction – Roaslia -a glass case has been added with Nitrogen gas to further stop the process of decay after signs of decomposition began to show in 2009. It is so amazingly well-maintained that even X-rays show the internal organs to be intact.
A memento mori
Life is full of constant reminders that we will one day die. The older we get, the more constant they appear. A visit to the Catacombs of Capuchin is the ultimate reminder – or Memento Mori (in Latin) – that we too will join the endless ranks of the dead alas perhaps in not such a spectacular setting. The beautifully peaceful yet pallid face of the fallen angel Rosalia Lombardo is a chilling aide-mémoire that death can come anytime and to anyone.
Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Children of Llullaillaco: Where Young Children Were Sacrificed to the Gods“.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini | Palermo, Italy
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