Welcome to Palermo, home of Italy’s most mor­bid tourist at­trac­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY NANCY NATHAN travel@wash­post.com Nathan is a Washington-based tele­vi­sion news jour­nal­ist and free­lance travel writer.

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.

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