The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo are located exactly in the basement of the homonymous convent, located in Piazza Cappuccini 1 (a few minutes walk from the Cathedral and Palazzo dei Normanni).
Here the living meet the dead, and the latter offer food for thought on what is the temporariness of life and the uselessness of accumulating goods and riches destined to remain on this earth.
The history of the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo begins in the late 1500s, when the friars give burial to their deceased brothers in real mass graves, which were located exactly under the current church.
When the underground cemetery was later enlarged and it was decided to move the bodies, the Capuchin friars discovered 45 bodies mummified in a natural way. This phenomenon was interpreted as a divine sign, and for this reason it was decided to expose the bodies (which today many call the “mummies of Palermo“) inside specially created niches.
In the following years the embalming procedures were practiced to other confreres, but also to all those lay people whose families could afford the costs of such practices, which for obvious reasons were not economically accessible to everyone.
Today it is possible to admire not only the bodies of the prelates but also those of bourgeois of the time in “Sunday” clothes, soldiers in uniform, entire family groups whose members are standing next to each other, young deceased women virgins wearing their own wedding dress, children and nobles of the time.
Many of the bodies still have perfectly intact skin, nails, hair, beard and mustache, as well as the clothes they wear. They clearly give the sensation of sleeping and being able to open their eyes at any moment, giving a feeling of amazement mixed with restlessness.
Other corpses are not preserved so well, and little more remains of them than the skull and the evident straw that comes out of the clothes, which was used to give a shape to the corpses deteriorated in an irreparable way by time.
In this regard, it must be said that the embalming technique was not the same for the approximately 8000 corpses present, this is the reason why some mummies seem to be perfectly preserved and others appear to be compromised.
No in-depth inventory work has ever been done, which is why today many of the bodies on display do not have a name, and this is a shame because many of them seem to express the desire to be able to tell their own story.
Despite this, there are some mummies whose vicissitudes are instead known and somewhat represent the symbol of the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo.
We decided in particular to tell the story of two of the “guests” of the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo: little Rosalia Lombardo and Antonino Prestigiacomo.
The story of little Rosalia Lombardo, who died at the age of two on December 6, 1920 following pneumonia, is a story that fascinates and at the same time softens millions of people. Most of them visit the Capuchin crypt mainly to be able to admire “the sleeping beauty of Palermo“, as it has been renamed.
Following his death (which took place a few days before her second birthday) the parents, overwhelmed by pain, decided to give immortality to the little body of their beloved daughter and asked the greatest expert in the sector, Dr. Alfredo Salafia, to mummify the body of Rosalia.
At that time the practice of embalming corpses had no longer been in use for almost 60 years, due to the health and hygiene legislation that banned it starting from 1861.
But this did not stop the intentions of those who could not overcome the physical detachment from a loved one who passed away.
Dr. Salafia was at the time considered a luminary in the embalming of corpses, and in fact his intervention has perfectly preserved the little body of Rosalia Lombardo 98 years after her death.
A formula that has remained secret
The formula that the professor used has remained a mystery for many years and has become the subject of studies and research, since no other mummies present in the Capuchin catacombs have managed to be preserved in such an incredibly perfect way, as if time had stopped at the moment of death.
It is still possible today to admire the soft cheeks of the little girl, her blond hair and thick eyebrows, just as if she were simply sleeping.
Only a few years ago, thanks to the collaboration of Salafia’s descendants, it was possible to trace the chemical formula that was well preserved in one of the doctor’s many working notes: it is an injection of a mixture of formalin, glycerin, salts of zinc, alcohol and salicylic acid, plus paraffin dissolved in ether to maintain a lively and rounded appearance of the face.
An easily found detail also attracts the attention of the curious even more to the mortal remains of Rosalia. In fact, the little girl opens her eyes about once or twice a day, which causes some to cry out for a miracle or to see divine signs in this particular phenomenon.
Scholars, on the other hand, believe that the movement of the eyelids occurs due to variations in humidity inside the room and the case in which the girl’s mummy rests.
This seems plausible considering that even little Rosalia’s hair and eyelashes tend to be a much lighter color today when compared to photos of her taken 15 or 20 years ago, while her skin appears to have taken on a slightly darker hue.
This is the reason why Rosalia Lombardo’s sister filed a complaint, believing that the new hi-tech display case in which her sister’s little body was recently placed is responsible for these variations.
By Antonino Prestigiacomo it is said to have been an incurable lover of women: he died in 1844 and was subjected to embalming with an arsenic bath; his mummy is still today wonderfully intact and has been placed upright, inside a niche in the center of a long corridor.
It is said that he specifically requested to be given glass eyes when his body was exhibited, so that he could continue to admire women even after death. This is why his mummy was placed in such a crucial point of the catacombs and his gaze really seems to meet that of all those who pass in front of him.
In recent years there have been several television productions that have devoted their attention to the Catacombs of Palermo: among these Passage to the North West by Alberto Angela, whose TV documentary “The Capuchin Crypt” talk about this macabre tourist attraction that absolutely deserves to be included in the list of things to see in Palermo.
From the central station you can take the 110 Amat line (ticket price € 1.40, valid for 90 minutes) and get off at Piazza Indipendenza. From there, walk across the square, take via Cappuccini and turn right at the first intersection, the one with via Pindemonte.
Follow via Pindemonte for 500m and you will arrive at the monastery. If you arrive by car, consider that there is a small square with about 30 car parks right in front of the entrance to the Capuchin catacombs.
Visiting hours: from 09:00 to 13:00 and from 15:00 to 18:00, including holidays.
Admission price: € 3