Welcome to Palermo, home of Italy’s most morbid tourist attraction.
When we met Capuchin friar Silvestro da Gubbio, he was propped up, wearing a name tag, the brown robe and rope belt of the Capuchin order, and a shocked expression — looking every bit his 400 years. We met him in the flesh — or what remained of the flesh— in Palermo, in Sicily, where he died in 1599, when Queen Elizabeth I still had four more years to live.
Fra Silvestro was among the first of 8,000 dead Sicilians — some friars but also many of the elite men, women and children of Palermo, even as late as the early 1900s — who have been residents of that city’s famous Capuchin Crypt at different times in its history. Today, visitors see about 1,800 fully dressed, standing corpses, double-decker, aisle after aisle. It’s been a morbid tourist attraction for decades.
The Palermo crypt is unlike the catacombs in Rome or Paris, where visitors see thousands of bones heaped in pits or layered on dirt shelves. It is said that the Capuchin friars had a special regard for the dead, one factor in their 16th-century split from the Franciscans; the Capuchini wanted to more strictly follow the asceticism of Saint Francis. So in Rome, the Capuchini founded a crypt (which you can visit, near Piazza Barberini) with a special display of bones arranged decoratively on the walls of several rooms, each devoted to a body part.
And in Palermo, the Capuchini outdid themselves. Some say the inspiration for the practice of preserving entire bodies was the Christian belief that at the Second Coming of Christ, they will be resurrected. But it is more than that, at least in modern times. There is a sign posted, a message to visitors: “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will become.”
The Capuchin method in Palermo was to dry corpses for a year in sealed rooms on top of terracotta grids, while their fluids drained. Then the desiccated bodies would be washed with vinegar and dressed in friars’ robes, or, for laypeople, in their own clothing. Sometimes, a bit of stuffing, wool or straw, would be used to fill soft-tissue cavities. When the dressed bodies were set in the crypt’s rooms and aisles, the exceptionally dry conditions there helped preserve them.
By 1700, the Palermo Capuchini expanded from just including their own brothers to accepting paying customers; the steep fees funded the friars’ charities. So there is the aisle called the Professionals, populated by lawyers and doctors suited up with coats and ties. And there is a room reserved for virgins, dressed in white gowns (Capella Vergini).
There are extremely moving rooms with young children and infants all arranged along the walls, the babies lying in cradles on the floor, facing you (Capella Bambini). Among the most interesting: the last addition, in 1920. Two-year old Rosalia Lombardo lies in a glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty, embalmed with a mix of formaldehyde, alcohol, glycerin and zinc. Many visitors say she does look like she is just sleeping, although we thought that that was a bit of an exaggeration.
According to Jacqueline Alio, Palermo guide and expert on the city’s history, the cream of society were eager to be seen here. “It was a local vogue and a show of power. The nobility wanted to prove their power in life and in death.” She said that even today, their descendants visit them occasionally.
But what you see are bodies flaking and peeling, and clothes — no surprise — extremely faded and torn. What is so arresting is that the residents of this crypt are upright! And there is nothing between you and them. What is most unpleasant — and likely to stick with you — are the shocked looks on their drawn, skeletal faces. But even with all that literally decrepit stuff to see and absorb, Alio says, this is not just a museum for curious travelers. Most Palermitans, and evenmany from other parts of Sicily, want to see it at least once in their lives.
But why include a stop at this famous crypt when visiting Sicily? Why add it to the spectacular Greek temples, Roman villas, glittering Norman cathedrals with their gold mosaics installed by Arab artists?
“This crypt is a unique historical site, not only for the huge number of preserved human remains placed there over a span of more than three centuries, but also because it contains evidence of utmost importance on the development of mummification,” says renowned expert in that field, Dario Piombino-Mascali, the scientific curator of the crypt and director of the SicilyMummy Project. Piombino is working to drawmore attention to the effects of urbanization around the crypt, which lay beyond the city walls when it was founded 450 years ago. He says development has raised humidity levels, caused water infiltration and acidic formations, and dangerously degraded the mummified bodies, requiring urgent attention.
The history of Sicily is of invasion and defeat, from the days of the Phoenicians all the way to the Spanish Bourbons, then Garibaldi’s invasion on his march north to unify Italy, and the Allied invasion of World War II. Some argue that a result of that turbulent history, and the Mafia’s reign of violence, has been an unusual familiarity— even a comfort level — with death.
Piombino says visiting the Capuchin crypt is a cultural experience. “In Sicily, there has always been a close relationship between the living and the dead, and that is expressed by the worship of the remains preserved there.”
The 1,800 mummified corpses in the Capuchin Crypt have long been a morbid tourist attraction in Palermo, Sicily, off the Italian coast.
Palermo seen from theMonreale Cathedral. Sicily’s history is one of centuries of invasion and defeat.