In Sicily, there are many mysterious places. Because of their history, they have a unique, sometimes even spooky, charm. One of these places is located in Palermo and it is the Capuchin Catacombs, we are in the underground of the city and it is here that many secrets are kept. Do you want to discover them with Sicilian Secrets? Let’s go!
«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
Welcome to Palermo, we are in the Cuba district, where the Capuchin catacombs are located in the underground of the Capuchin convent, annexed to the church of Santa Maria della Pace. The visitor is welcomed by a dark, silent, sometimes macabre atmosphere. You come across a cemetery characterized by Gothic-style galleries dating back to the sixteenth century, here about ten-thousand mummies rest, they are dressed as if they should be suddenly alive again and are grouped by social class and gender.It all sounds very spooky, but this place was one of the main stops of any European aristocrat who went to Italy for their Grand Tour, and even the famous writer Guy de Maupassant loved it.
Who is buried in the Capuchin catacombs?
Walking through the narrow spaces of the Capuchin catacombs, it is inevitable to be intrigued, even if only out of curiosity, by the bodies that populate this environment. We wonder who these people were, what role they played in society, we imagine their stories. There are bourgeois recognizable by their ‘nice clothes’, priests, wealthy merchants, army officers in uniform, women who died before marriage and were buried in their wedding dress. And then again entire families, children and obviously some friars of the Capuchin order. This place is a level, as Totò would say. Some mummies are well-known such as the one of Friar Silvestro da Gubbio, the first Capuchin buried in the catacombs of Palermo, the one of Antonino Prestigiacomo and the one of Rosalia Lombardo.
The sleeping girl
It is perhaps the symbol of the Capuchin catacombs; they often call it the sleeping girl because this is actually how Rosalia Lombardo’s little body looks. Seraphic. This child, who died in 1920, was one of the last people to be buried in this crypt before health regulations banned this practice altogether. It was her father the one who wanted the little daughter to lie right there, she died because of pneumonia. It is a sad story but with some implications, from a scientific point of view, certainly interesting. In the early nineteenth century, the technique used for embalming was carefully studied: a mix of substances that allowed the body to be perfectly preserved, including internal organs, so much so that even Rosalia’s brain could be observed.
This one-of-a-kind collection of mummies recently caught the attention of British researchers at Staffordshire University. In particular, children’s bodies are the centerpiece of this study, the goal is to discover their identity but also the diseases that have affected them and the embalming techniques. Thanks to the help of mobile laboratories and radiological equipment, bio-archaeologist Kristy Squires is leading this mission. The English study will start from the 41 bodies of the so-called ‘Children’s Chapel’, data will be cross-referenced with the archival information of the Capuchin friars and also the photos that will be taken will be used to trace the growth of the children, biographies and much more. How many secrets can be revealed? Infinite.