The Grisly Mummies of Sicily’s Catacombs

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.”

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.

This mummy’s twisted grimace seems to suggest it’s not resting in peace.

Time has not treated all these corpses equally. Some are beginning to fall apart, with exposed bones, peeling skin, and detached body parts. Many of their mouths are set in deathly ‘grins’, revealing rows of rotted teeth, or else hang open as if in some silent scream. Yet others are more intact, even as far as still possessing their eyelashes and hair.

ADVERTISEMENT

Amazingly, this mummy still retains his moustache.

For the steely-hearted, closer examination of the mummies reveals details about their lives. Monks wear their robes, soldiers their uniforms, and women the contemporary fashions of the time. Children, meanwhile, were clothed in their best party dresses in death.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s often hard to know what these mummies might have looked like in life.

Researchers have looked even closer, ascertaining the health problems, diets and general quality of life of the now-mummified people and the periods in which they lived. The scientists believe that by studying ancient cases of malaria, syphilis and other diseases, they may be able to apply the knowledge gained to dealing with those illnesses in the present. In this macabre case, the dead may be of invaluable use to the living.

A hand you probably wouldn’t want to hold

The histories behind many of these bodies have long been forgotten, but some are still known. The oldest mummy, for example, is that of Silvestro of Gubbio, a monk who has lain here since 1599. One of the last to be entombed, in the 1920s, was a two-year-old girl named Rosalia Lombardo. Looking like an incredibly lifelike doll, little Rosalia is probably the best-preserved mummy in the catacombs. A mixture of various chemicals – including zinc salts, glycerin, formalin and salicylic acid – was used to keep her in a state more resembling sleep than death. There is a sort of beauty in her preservation, which in a way makes it even more unsettling.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

This elaborate hat looks better preserved than the head on which it sits.

However, the majority of the mummies, many from the 19th century and earlier, were embalmed using an older and simpler procedure. First, the bodies were laid out in cells known as strainers, resting on terracotta slats. Then, over time, their fluids were allowed to seep down into a drain in the floor. This had the effect of drying out the corpses, until roughly a year later when they were ready to be bathed in vinegar, dressed and displayed.

Most clothes do not seem to have lasted well

Another method for preserving the bodies was to dip them in lime or arsenic – although this was mainly done during outbreaks of disease. The body cavities were also emptied before the dessication process began, and the bodies were often stuffed with rags, leaves or hay to keep them in shape. Nowadays, the stuffing occasionally protrudes through holes in the skin of the cadavers, making them look like nightmarish scarecrows.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

This mummy no longer seems to have his head on his shoulders.

All is not completely equal in death, proof of which is provided by the way bodies are segregated inside the catacombs. Men are separated from women, priest from monks and laypeople – who may have been lawyers, artists and writers, among others – and children from adults. There’s even a special section for virgins. Surely the saddest section, however, is the children’s, the mummies of whom range from those of tiny infants to those of six year olds. Some are dressed in their christening outfits, and in one poignant display an older child sits in a chair cradling a smaller child in her lap.

A lock on an aging coffin

The mummies were arranged in niches and coffins – which may have had their sides cut out to show their occupants – or else were hung on walls. Previous generations of families paid money to keep their dearly departed on display, and those who failed to keep up the fees had their relative’s remains shelved until the payments started up again. While they were out on display, the corpses could be visited, maintained and prayed for.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

As photographer Umberto Agnello says, “many of these faces seem caught up in the last cry of passage from life to death.”

It is not understood exactly why the mummies in Palermo are displayed in this manner. Although embalming exists in other cultures, the practice is rarely put on show as it is here. One theory suggests that the custom may have pre-Christian origins; that it was brought over to Sicily by one of the many cultures that migrated here over the years. Yet, whatever its origins, to have your dead body on show in the Capuchin Catacombs was once considered a sign of prestige.

An image from a nightmare, in what appears to be quite a stylish jacket

These days, the mummies are a tourist attraction for those with slightly morbid tastes. As for photographer Umberto Agnello, they held an attraction for artistic reasons. Regarding this series, he says “[From] a visual point of view my influences were Bacon and Munch, who sought to represent the cries and despair, and many of these faces seem caught up in the last cry of passage from life to death.” We thank him for sharing his photographs with us.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT