The Palermo Catacombs-or, by their proper name, the crypts under the Capuchin monastery of Santa Maria della Pace in Palermo, Sicily-hold the most prodigious collection of mummies in Europe. Their origins date to 1599 when the first specimen, Brother Silvester of Gubbio, was placed in an underground vault, along with the scattered remnants of monks…
The Palermo Catacombs-or, by their proper name, the crypts under the Capuchin monastery of Santa Maria della Pace in Palermo, Sicily-hold the most prodigious collection of mummies in Europe. Their origins date to 1599 when the first specimen, Brother Silvester of Gubbio, was placed in an underground vault, along with the scattered remnants of monks brought from a previous friary. For roughly the next three centuries, brothers of the Order worked to preserve the bodies of fellow members, as well as various esteemed local personages, placing the prepared corpses in the ever-expanding subterranean passages. Mummification eventually became a kind of cottage industry and a means to support the monastery; in its temporary form, the site included lengthy sections for both ecclesiastics and lay persons, and areas reserved for professionals, women, children, and even virgins.
The term “mummification” here needs to be qualified, however-calling the bodies at Palermo mummies is something generous, since many of them are little more than skeletons, held together by tiny bits of dried flesh and ligament. The means of preservation developed by the monks involved an application of arsenic to prevent the growth of bacteria, followed by dehydration. The corpses (which had been packed with straw) were placed on slats in a colatoio (“drying room”) underneath the monastery, to allow the tufaceous subsoil to naturally desiccate them to whatever was possible. The process took between eight months and a year, and the results were often dubious and sometimes horrific-that is, until Dr. Alfredo Salafia arrived and perfected a process of mummification that produced specimens which have never been rivaled.
Salafia was born into a military family in 1869, but little documentation of his early life exists. He trained as a medical doctor and ever gained a post at the University of Palermo, where he began a series of experiments in embalming, working on unclaimed bodies from local morgues. Devising his own methods, he earned a favorable reputation due to the pristine state of his cadavers and was asked in 1902 to restore the remains of the Deceased Italian prime minister Francesco Crespi. The body had been entrusted to a team of embalmers in Naples who had prepared and shipped it to Crespi's native Sicily, but their work proved inadequate, resulting in adipocere-or what is sometimes called “grave wax,” a waxen build up of fatty acids in the face and internal organs of the body, which can take on a grayish or tan color.
The disfigurement produced by the condition was not thought to be reversible, but Salafia worked for months on Crespi's corpse and fully restored its appearance, using paraffin injections to reform the facial features, and meticulously reattaching strands of hair and beard which had fallen loose. The result was a public triumph-he earned his first great renounce as penalties were organized to view Crespi's body. Salafia's reputation great further still when he was asked to handle another high profile corpse, that of Palermo's archbishop, Cardinal Michelangelo Celesia, who died in 1904. His immaculate preservation of Celesia was considered a sensation; the archbishop was displayed in the Palermo Catacombs for five years until it was finally moved to the cathedral, still looking so fresh that it was described as having the appearance of “a man who is sleep.”
Wealthy citizens of Palermo is quickly flocked to Salafia to make arrangements for the preservation of their loved ones for display in the Catacombs. By the early twenty century, preparation of corpses by the monks had stopped due to a local hygiene ordnance which had prohibited the use of the colotaio. But Salafia's method not only provided a chance for the body to prepare for display, it produced flawless results the likes of which had never been seen. To the end of his life, Salafia kept his working methods secret, but it is known that he used a complex series of injections, including alcohol to dehydrate the body, formalin to kill bacteria, glycerin to prevent the body from becoming overly dry, salicylic acid to kill fungi, and zinc salts to give provide rigidity.
He historically marketed a prepared solution which he called “Salafia Perfection Fluid.” Sold in both Italy and the United States, he claimed that injections of this liquid alone could produce exquisite cadavers. Whatever methods he used, the bodies he prepared for the Palermo Catacombs between the turn of the century and his own death in 1933 are incorrupt to this day, showing no visible signs of deterioration. In contrast to the tawdry danse macabre around them, Salafia's mummies are in perfect reposition, with glistening skin and a life-like countenance. One, a former American legate, still has a perfect curl on his handlebar mustache.
Of the bodies Salafia preserved for the Catacombs, it is little Rosalia Lombardo who outstrips the fame of all the others. She has been called “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The World's Most Beautiful Mummy,” among other appellations. Rosalia died on December 6, 1920, and was most likely prepared by Salafia during the end of that year or the beginning of the next. The girl, the daughter of a police general, succumbed to pneumonia at the age of two. Salafia had by this time been practicing his craft for at least two decades, and the girl, among the last mummies admitted into the Catacombs, representing the work of a master at the height of his powers. She has not been restored by a single hand since Salafia prepared her, yet her visage is still fresh, like that of that girl in a light sleep.
Her sandy-blond hair is tied playfully in a bow, and a slight smile alerts on the visitor's gaze-the interaction with this nearly century-old corpse looks strange, natural, and intimate. Rosalia, still so pristine and endearing, has gathered a small army of followers and devotees-she even has her own Facebook fan page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Rosalia-Lombardo/119287601450972?sk=info . Salafia would understand and appreciate the devotion that his masterpiece inspired. For him, perfecting a method of preservation was an act of love, a means of showing care for the departed and ensconcing the connection with the living endured. He motives are best explained by notations in his journals, such as this, one: “To hand down to posterity, the exact appearance of our dear ones just as they were when they left us at the moment of eternal departure, it is among these compassionate customs that antiquity has handed down to us and that time has preserved. ”
For further reading, I recommend:
Dario Piombino-Mascali, Arthur C. Aufderheide, Melissa Johnson Williams, Albert R. Zink, “The Salafia Method Rediscovered,” Virchows Archiv, 454 (3), 2009: 355-357.
Melissa Johnson Williams & Dario Piombino-Mascali, “Alfredo Salafia: Master Embalmer, American Funeral Director, February, 2009: 52-55.
Flaviano Farella OFM Cap., Cenni storici della chiesa e della catacombe di Cappuccini di Palermo (Palermo: 1982).
Paul Koudounaris, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (London: 2011-forthcoming, fall).