In Palermo, the chief town of Sicily, one the main tourist attractions is the Capuchin chapel, also known as the Capuchin Crypt or the Capuchin Catacombs. That is an ancient monastery where, in 1599, the monks excavated crypts below it to bury the mummified body of their dead father Silvestro of Gubbio. Several crypts and catacombs were built inside the Chapel, so much so that they started hosting many mummified bodies. It was for this reason the Chapel became a real cemetery enriched with various corpses. In the beginning, only the friars were buried in these catacombs.
They were different from monks because they belonged to another religious order. The friars were regarded as less noble than monks and their burial was considered like a penance, even though they were regularly embalmed. In the following years, also many other nobles and wealthy people asked for being embalmed and buried inside the chapel. First, it was the turn of the monks and then of priests, artists, sculptors, painters and so on. It is said that even famous Sicilian writer Tomasi of Lampedusa was buried in this chapel, but in reality, he lies in the cemetery next to it.
Those who wanted to be buried in the catacombs asked for being embalmed, dressed with rich clothes and exhibited in the chapel in order their relatives could see and pray for them. Naturally, embalming was possible only because the wealthy families sent considerable donations in favor of the monks who managed the chapel. When the families stopped to send money, the corpses were removed from the view and set aside into a shelf. They were shown again only when the relatives resumed sending donations.
Although this chapel has still today a large tourist relevance, the effect of this church, with a cemetery inside of it, is a little macabre. Despite all, many tourists arrive from all over the world to admire the mummified corpses dressed in rich garments.
Some corpses are in good conditions, others a bit of less, the main feature of these bodies is the rigidity and dehydration gained through an ancient chemical process that went lost over the centuries. However, many international and national televisions have showed the interior of the chapel and this ancient method to embalm dead bodies. It is probable that dead people were embalmed also with splashes of vinegar in addition to strange immersions into chemical compounds such as zinc sulfate, glycerine and zinc chloride that served to give rigidity. Today, the chapel keeps 8000 bodies and 1252 mummies, all together disposed and lined with the shoulders against the wall.
They are split for genre and age and hence in men, women and children. Among the children, there is also the mummified body of Rosalia Lombardo, a two year old little girl dead in 1920 ( see the image) I’ll speak about Rosalia in another post. The Cappuccini or Capuchin Chapel is opened to tourists. The corpses are protected with iron grills to prevent that tourists tamper or pose with the bodies to take macabre images. This chapel is, however, a such evocative place that highlights the ancient customs and habits of the Sicilian society that lived from XVI to XIX century.
This is also the place where the living meets the dead. The Capuchin catacombs have fascinated and attracted many famous people, such as Alexandre Dumas, Mario Praz, Guy de Maupassant, Fanny Lewald and Carlo Levi. Not even poet Ippolito Pindemonte was insensitive to the great allure of the catacombs when he visited the chapel in 1777. Much enchanted, he praised this ominous and evocative place in his poem titled The Graves.