The Grisly Mummies of Sicily’s Catacombs



Image: Umberto Agnello

The heads of some mummies have rotted away to be little more than skulls.

The air in the chambers is cool and dank, and a faint odor of rotting material and sour, scented dust hits one’s nose. Silence prevails in the dim light, and yet although you might be alone in these subterranean rooms, you certainly wouldn’t be the only human present. There are around 8,000 others down here as well; but unlike any visitors to this place, these occupants are dead.

These are the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in Sicily. Interred below a monastery there are thousands of mummies, all in various states of preservation. “I took these photos in 1983, when I was 21 years old,” says photographer Umberto Agnello. “At that age you feel so distant from death that you want to provoke it. The catacombs fascinated me as a place because the corpses were exposed as a collection, and each was as if [it] called to ask me [to take] a picture.”


Image: Umberto Agnello

The effect of gravity produces the creepy ‘screaming’ appearance of some of the mummies.

It almost feels like an intrusion being in these crypts, surrounded by row upon row of the dead. Walking among these bodies, which in life belonged to beloved relatives and friends, there is a sense of being a voyeur, of encroaching on the grief of others. And yet, these bodies were placed here by those relatives for the very purpose of being seen.

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