Sicily’s Catacombs of the Capuchins (Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Italian ) are unlike anywhere else I know of in the world. Described by some as a “ grisly one-stop shop for horror” or the “ultimate museum of the macabre”, I believe there is actually far more to them.
The catacombs were created in the 16th century when the Capuchin Monastery outgrew its cemetery and the monks decided to expand underground to create more space. In 1599 the monks mummified the remains of one of the recently-deceased brothers, Silvestro of Gubbio, and placed his body in the catacombs in order that others might be able to not just pray to him, but still pray with him.
The trend caught on and soon not just other monks, but priests and nuns were mummified and displayed in the Capuchin Catacombs as well… Although originally intended just for the monks, the entrepreneurial spirit of those responsible for the Catacombs of the Capuchins manifested itself before long and the entombment within the catacombs was allowed to become a status symbol over the following centuries. So, naturally, everyone wanted to be seen there (even if they were dead).
The way the process worked was that an individual or their relatives would make a contribution to the Catacombs of the Capuchins “for the preservation of the bodies”. In exchange, the designated individual would be provided with a niche in the catacombs where they would be displayed for all the world to see. As long as the contributions continued, the mummified body remained prominently displayed in its niche. However, when the families of the deceased stopped making contributions, the body would be unceremoniously put aside on a shelf unless payment was resumed. After all, the niches were prime real estate…
Now, given the costs involved in the initial preservation of the bodies and maintaining the necessary contributions, being preserved and displayed in the catacombs was something of a luxury… Thus, aside from the church figures, the majority of the inhabitants of the catacombs came from the upper social strata.
Human vanity being what it is, we want to look our best in both life and death. Thus, individuals would place stipulations in their wills detailing the clothing they were to be preserved in and some would even specify that the clothes be changed on a regular basis!
Soldiers were usually preserved in their dress uniforms, priests were generally preserved in their clerical vestments, monks would almost always be preserved in simple clothing, sometimes with ropes they had worn as a penance, and most others were clothed according to the fashions of the time. Those preserved in the fashions of their time provide the Capuchin Catacombs with the feel of of an ethnic heritage museum at times.
The catacombs are said to contain about 8,000 mummies, but my impression after visiting is that that seems a bit high. The exact figure is unknown as a detailed inventory has never been taken.
Famous people said to reside at the catacombs include the Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez, and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (author of The Leopard). It is known for certain that Lampedusa is not to be found within the catacombs (he is buried in the cemetery outside), but Velasquez remains more of a mystery (and one that those responsible for the catacombs are not eager to resolve given that it attracts visitors). In fact, supposedly only about 1,000 of the estimated 8,000 inhabitants have been formally identified, with their dates of birth and death.
It is believed that the last mummy added to the Catacombs of the Capuchins was in the 1920s.
The square outside the Catacombs of the Capuchins – Piazza Cappuccini:
The catacombs are housed within this fairly dilapidated-looking building:
A tunnel within leads down to the crypt:
The first impressions upon entering the catacombs are pretty powerful:
Relatives would often visit the deceased so the family could hold their hands and they could “join” their family in prayer. Creepy, huh?
There were several methods for preserving the bodies. This picture displays the most common method…
Called a “strainer”, this room was used to dehydrate the bodies over a period usually lasting around eight months. Placed upon a ceramic grid, the bodies would “drain” onto a limestone floor, while a tube high on the wall would ventilate the room. After the eight month dehydration period, the bodies were usually washed in vinegar before being removed from the “strainer” and placed in a niche in the catacombs.
Another method of preservation, rarely used except during epidemics, would involve dipping the bodies of the deceased in lime or arsenic.
Other bodies were preserved by embalming… The embalming technique perfected in the Catacombs of the Capuchins was only recently rediscovered. Performed by Professor Alfredo Salafia, the embalming procedure consisted of formalin to kill bacteria, alcohol to dry the body, glycerin to prevent the body from overdrying, salicylic acid to kill fungi, and the most important ingredient, zinc salts (zinc sulfate and zinc chloride) to give the body rigidity. The formula is 1 part glycerin, 1 part formalin saturated with both zinc sulfate and chloride, and 1 part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid.
Obviously, there was some variation in the talent of those tasked with preserving the bodies of the deceased as well as the reality that some of the preservation techniques worked better than others. Thus, some of the bodies have long ago lost their flesh and are now merely skeletons, while others have disturbingly well-preserved hair, flesh and even eyes:
This is the wife in a husband and wife team that was preserved:
The catacombs were organized by dividing the occupants up into categories. So, for example, one hall will contain children, while the next one over will contain men or women.
Other categories include virgins, priests and professionals. The “professionals hall” contains the remains of figures such as writers, doctors, lawyers and soldiers.
Below is one of the halls in the catacombs… Iron grills had to be installed in this section as too many body parts here were disappearing with visitors as souvenirs:
There is even a category for infants:
A hall for women… A necrophiliac’s dream?
Some of the inhabitants of the catacombs are well known. This giant was named Bartolomeo Megna:
A few of the other residents:
Included in the catacombs along with the mummies are hundreds of coffins. Some have the side removed or constructed of glass to display the deceased inside:
Chambers leading off of the main hallways of the catacombs contain specialized scenes, such as this one:
I thought this skeleton had a quizzical expression:
It’s an interesting place, but I think I would prefer cremation or cryogenic preservation for myself.
How to Visit
If you wish to visit the Catacombs of the Capuchins for yourself, the address is:
Piazza Cappuccini 1
If you have a GPS unit, I have been advised that the coordinates are:
38.111831° N, 13.339398° E
When we visited in 2009, the admission was 2 euros.
The official opening hours are:
Daily 9am-12 and 3-5pm (until 7pm in summer)*
The Catacombs of the Capuchins are closed on holidays.
* Bear in mind that the hours indicated above are Italian Time. So, in reality you could show up at any time and the catacombs might be open or closed.
I’m sorry but I can’t really understand what is so “fascinating” about all these poor dead bodies.. the idea of seeing as a museum and “place to visit” is not good. It is a graveyard..
I couldent agree more! This is odd
..you can go there for church rituals a.s.o. but not for sightseeing.. I understand that it is fascinating of course to be confronted with the own mortality this ways..
Different people have different tastes… Obviously, given the number of visitors to the Catacombs of the Capuchins over the years, a number of people find an appeal that you do not.
I suspect that bodies are being moved around, and some have broken apart. In one pic a mummy is MISSING ITS HEAD and not in another pic.
Pingback: 5 Top Things About Palermo Cruise Port-Sicily,Italy | Wherever I May Roam
It’s hard when you see the remains of babies and children. It doesn’t seem fair that they were just starting life and then God called them back.
The “women’s corridor” is a resting place for virgins, not a dream as you disgustingly called it.
You’ll have to forgive us for not being as informed on the subject of necrophilia as you; we weren’t aware that virgins were considered out of bounds by necrophiliacs…
Pingback: 5 of the scariest places you can actually visit - OutwardOn.com
Hello Justin. Ignore those negative comments from some rude readers, I found your column extremely interesting; the photos are awesome too, and to die for (no pun intended!). If I visit Italy in the future I must be visiting the Palermo catacombs for sure. Regards from Chile.
Completely fascinating, thank you for the info, you have convinced me to visit Palermo. I have been to similar in Rome and in Santo Domingo but nothing quite like this! I would appreciate any other tips on travel to Palermo. I’ll be coming from Malta and spending at least three full days.
very good information thank you. I found Evora Portugal also intriguing.
Pingback: 5 Top Things about Palermo Cruise Port, Sicily, Italy