Back at the beginning of the 20th century, Mario Lombardo begged Alfredo Salafia to make his young daughter “live forever.” Heartbroken by the death of his child Rosalia, Lombardio was forced to seek out the help of this master taxidermist to mummify her remains. The result was as eerily beautiful as it was incredibly unsettling.
Struck with a fatal respiratory infection, little Rosalia Lombardo lost her life on December 6, 1920. This, tragically, was just a week before her second birthday. All this time later, her perfectly preserved body – which is nicknamed “Sleeping Beauty” – today rests in an open casket in a famous Sicilian catacomb.
There are those, however, that believe young Rosalia’s mummified corpse isn’t quite as inanimate as you might expect. In fact, it’s said that the body itself is inhabited by the little girl’s restless spirit. And apparently, it’s been seen – and photographed – in the midst of doing some seemingly impossible things.
The living and the deceased share a notably special connection in Sicily. The place is, after all, an ancient Italian island which is home to a complex tapestry of different cultures. And of its funerary practices specifically, the art of mummification was practiced intensely at the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.
These catacombs are said to be a major tourist attraction in Sicily. Indeed, the site claims to house “the largest and most extraordinary collection of mummies in the world.” In fact, the catacombs are home to some 2,000 skeletons and mummies, darkly displayed for the sake of fulfilling the public’s curiosity.
The catacombs were carved out of limestone caves in the late 16th century. This supposedly occurred after a local order of Capuchin friars ran out of burial space. The legend goes that when they disinterred 45 dead monks from the overflowing cemetery to move them to the newly built tombs, they made a shocking discovery.
To the friars’ surprise, the bodies of their 45 dead brothers had not decomposed. And although the likeliest explanation for this was natural mummification due to environmental conditions, they interpreted it as a Godly miracle. The dead monks were put on display inside niches and their ‘miraculous’ remains were revered.
Soon after, mummification became something of a status symbol. The Capuchin catacombs were now the most desirable place to be buried. Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, huge numbers of affluent Palermites paid for the privilege of eternal rest in its corridors. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be remembered that way?
The catacombs had, in essence, been transformed into a kind of macabre “museum of the dead.” Inside, the mummies were displayed according to the social status, sex and the profession which had applied to them in life. In fact, there were specially allocated corridors and chapels for men, women, children, virgins, families, clergy and various professional specialists.
But in 1880 the catacombs closed their doors to new arrivals. That is, except for a pair of rare special cases. First off, in 1911 the body of Giovanni Paterniti – who was Vice-Consul of the United States – was admitted. And later, in 1920, little Rosalia Lombardo joined the catacombs, as well.
Unfortunately, there is no surviving documentation regarding Rosalia’s parentage, so little is known about her background. According to local lore, though, she was the daughter of wealthy nobleman Mario Lombardo, who served as a military general. If true, his wealth and status probably helped him to secure her a place in the exclusive catacombs.
According to legend, Rosalia was a faint and delicate child, prone to illnesses and infections. Indeed, she was born in an age where only the most robust infants survived. According to one academic study, for example, around a quarter of all children born in the pre-modern age died before reaching the age of one. Nearly half died before becoming adults.
As such, Rosalia isn’t merely a haunting symbol of death, but also of childhood diseases that were, until recently, often incurable. Of course, if she’d been born just ten years later, she may well have survived into adulthood. For it was in 1928 that Alexander Fleming made a game-changing discovery – penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic.
The specter of childhood death was pervasive in the early 20th century. But Mario Lombardo was still nonetheless broken-hearted by the loss of his daughter. So much so, in fact, that he commissioned a master taxidermist named Alfredo Salafia to preserve her body. In so doing, he ensured that her memory endured for generations. And, by all accounts, it was also Salafia’s most memorable work, if not his finest.
Born in 1869, Salafia had attended medical school, but never concluded his studies. Instead, he taught himself chemistry and taxidermy and devoted his life to the preservation of dead bodies. With a deep regard for aesthetics, he developed a highly effective method of embalming that preserved its subjects in an eerily lifelike state.
Over the course of his career, Salafia embalmed no less than 100 bodies – many of which were highly distinguished. His subjects included politicians, noblemen, intellectuals, high-ranking church officials and even his own brother Ernesto. But when Salafia himself succumbed to death in 1933, he took his methods with him – or so it seemed.
In 2009 an Italian anthropologist named Dario Piombino-Mascali contacted Salafia’s descendants. These people, in turn, provided him with access to the embalmer’s papers. Piombino-Mascali then searched through Salafia’s memoirs and located the formula for his secret embalming fluid. “He elevated embalming to its highest level,” he told National Geographic in 2009.
According to Salafia’s handwritten notes, he embalmed Rosalia with a special chemical formula. This was apparently composed of “one part glycerin, one part formalin saturated with zinc sulfate and zinc chloride, and one part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid.” Unlike many forms of animal taxidermy, Salafia didn’t extract the girl’s organs.
Instead, Salafia drained Rosalia’s blood and injected the formula, probably through the femoral artery. The glycerine had the effect of staving off desiccation. The formalin eliminated bacteria that caused decay. The salicylic killed off any fungi. And the zinc salts preserved her body in a rigid state.
So immaculate was her preservation that certain cynics asserted that Rosalia was, in fact, made of wax. However, the History Channel put an end to such speculation when they x-rayed her coffin in the 2000s. The x-rays revealed not only her skeleton, but the remnants of her brain, which had diminished by half its size.
Then, in 2009, National Geographic went a step further and conducted an MRI scan of Rosalia. The result was an astonishing 3D map of her body, revealing the position and condition of her every organ. Considering that her coffin had not once been opened in some nine decades, the images were remarkable.
In truth, however, Salafia’s work speaks for itself. Lying face-up in her casket, with full cheeks and a head of golden hair tied in a bow, little Rosalia looks more like a sleeping child than a lifeless corpse. It’s for good reason – albeit a little morbidly – she’s often touted as “The World’s Most Beautiful Mummy.”
Indeed, her body is so well-preserved that it’s hard to believe she died almost a century ago. The only object displaying signs of decay is a charm bearing the likeness of the Virgin Mary which lies on her blanket. Heavily oxidized, its image has almost completely faded. Rosalia, meanwhile, appears peaceful in her state of eternal rest.
But according to many people, the doll-like Rosalia isn’t really at rest at all. On regular occasions, supposedly, she is said to “awaken.” She opens her cool, blue eyes, naturally startling those there to observe it. Had Salafia actually succeeded in making her “live forever,” just as the girl’s father had once implored?
Rosalia is reported to open her eyes several times each and every day – and the phenomenon is well-documented. And at least one photographer, in fact, has captured several images of the girl’s eyes gradually creeping open. But what on Earth could possibly cause such a terrifyingly creepy thing to happen?
Both paranormal enthusiasts and skeptics have tried to find an answer to this crucial question. Superstitious sorts, on the one hand, believe that the girl’s body still has possession of its soul. Other people, however, point to more rational explanations, such as the potential effects of humidity and ambient temperatures.
Piombino-Mascali, the curator of the catacombs, has his own thoughts. “It’s an optical illusion produced by the light that filters through the side windows, which during the day is subject to change,” he has said in response to the observations. “[Her eyes] are not completely closed, and indeed they have never been.”
Indeed, it’s a testament to the skillfulness of Salafia that Rosalia’s ghostly irises have not succumbed to any physical decomposition. William Shakespeare once said the eyes are the window to the soul. This being the case, it’s understandable that some might gaze into Rosalia’s face and glimpse something of her eternal essence.
But whatever the reason for the little girl’s apparent wakefulness, the effect is undoubtedly highly unnerving. After all, it means peering into the eyes of a perfectly frozen young child who died far before her time. As such, it’s understandably hard not to feel a mixture of sorrow and unease.
That said, Rosalia also seems to have a bewitching effect on many of those who visit her. Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder. So while some people find her preserved remains beautiful, others consider them creepy. Yet the innocence of the girl might generally serve to evoke deeply felt sentimentality.
In fact, Rosalia has been the subject of cultural output for many years, including paintings, articles and documentaries. A google search for “Rosalia Lombardo” delivers more than 800,000 results, including over 17,000 videos. Arguably, she has transcended the limitations of her body and entered a mythic realm. In some sense, she has become immortal.
Of course, spirituality was a central concern of the world’s most potentially ardent mummifiers – the ancient Egyptians. Conducted by expert priests, their embalming practices are said to have emerged from around 3200 B.C. They believed that mummification was necessary for souls to come back from the afterlife and into their earthly bodies.
However, the ancient Egyptians weren’t the only civilization to have practiced mummification. Embalming is an old and relatively widespread cultural practice which arose simultaneously in various parts of the world. Indeed, the oldest evidence of mummification was recovered across Chile and Peru, dating back between 5000 B.C. and 6000 B.C.
In Europe, however, the practice of embalming was historically less pronounced. In fact, most corpses were buried promptly after death, with no requirement for preservation. That said, there was scientific interest in embalming from the Renaissance onwards. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, embalmed bodies for the purposes of study.
That said, Christianity did observe some interesting beliefs around bodily preservation. According to both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, if an individual died and their body didn’t decompose, this was a sign of sainthood. So-called “incorruptibility” was believed to be a supernatural miracle. And it was usually accompanied by the “odor of sanctity” – a flowery and sweet aroma.
Meanwhile, in modern times, embalming is often conducted for medical reasons, or for funerary practices. Among many cultures, there’s a belief that the pain of grief can be hastened by viewing the body of the deceased before their burial or cremation. Embalming permits such viewing to take place without the unpleasant effects of decomposition.
In some special cases, however, the embalmed body is neither buried nor cremated, but placed on permanent display. In the Soviet Union, for example, the body of Vladimir Lenin was embalmed and transformed into a shrine. Almost a century after his death, the Soviet revolutionary continues to receive a stream of visitors. Stalin, too, was embalmed, but then buried when subsequent leaders sought to dismantle his legacy.
Finally, the practice of cryonics represents a high-tech form of embalming. Cryonics involves freezing corpses at extremely low temperatures of around −320.8 °F. Adherents hope that such immaculately preserved bodies might be thawed and reanimated by some hypothetical future technology. However, this would require businesses practicing cryonics to remain financially solvent until such a breakthrough occurred. So far, many have not.
In recent years, Rosalia has been moved to a new glass casket where she lies hermetically sealed from the elements. “It was designed to block any bacteria or fungi,” Piombino-Mascali said, in relation to this development. “Thanks to a special film, it also protects the body from the effects of light.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Rosalia will continue to open her eyes now that she has been moved. The young girl’s new resting place, after all, may well have put a stop to such occurrences. But in any case, Palermo’s Capuchin catacombs continue to offer fascinating insights into Sicily’s peculiar fascination with death.