Catacombs of the Capuchins (Catacombe dei Cappuccini) – open graves in Palermo, where there are the remains of over eight thousand people. Here famous citizens and members of the elite found a place of eternal rest. Catacombs Capuchins are especially interesting with the presence of a huge number of mummies – embalmed corpses are in a variety of poses and even create bizarre compositions.
Viewing the once-living “exhibits”, any visitor can feel both horror and disgust and delight at the same time. There is an experienced hand of mummification and embalming masters, because all the bodies and skeletons are very well preserved, despite the fact that they are more than a hundred years old. You can easily tell from the clothes what era the body belongs to, what was the status of this person in life and financial situation.
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Video: Capuchin Catacombs
The catacombs are dug under the Capuchin monastery, which can be found near the historic center of Palermo. It has been in existence for centuries. At the end of the XVI century the number of the clergy of the cloister significantly increased. It was urgently needed to create a solid and spacious place for the burial of the monks. The covered underground passage under the monastery was perfect for this purpose. The first burial was made in 1599 – the body of Silvestro de Gubbio was buried in the crypt of the temple. After that, the bodies of several monks were reburied here and all the dead continued to be buried within the walls of the temple.
Eventually there became too little room, so the Capuchins were forced to make another long tunnel, thus expanding the available space. Wealthy people began to ask to be buried here. Additional corridors were created for the burial of ordinary citizens. A system was introduced of issuing permits for a separate plot in the catacombs. The Archbishop of Palermo, the leader of the Capuchin order or the abbot of the monastery could issue such a paper. Soon enough the place became known as the most prestigious cemetery in the city.
Capuchin Mummies The Capuchin Catacombs
The Capuchin Catacombs were only closed at the end of the 19th century. During this time, many inhabitants of Palermo were buried here, among whom were both members of the clergy and ordinary laymen. After the cemetery ceased to function, some people were buried here by special request, among them the U.S. Vice Consul Giovanni Paterniti and a two-year-old girl Rosalia Lombardo.
Today, the Capuchin Catacombs are a popular exhibition of mummies, attracting people from all over the world. The branching tunnels of the crypt are divided into compartments – there are rooms for men, women, children, virgins, priests and monks. The mysterious half-light, the freezing cold and the particularly dark atmosphere of the place spice up the experience and cause a rush of adrenaline even for the most phlegmatic visitors.
Already when the cemetery beneath the monastery was opened, it became known that the specifics of the earth and air in the underground passages contributed to the good preservation of the bodies. The most common method of preparing human remains for preservation was to dry them for several months in separate chambers. The mummified bodies were then wiped with a solution of vinegar, dressed up in beautiful robes and placed in certain places in the Catacombs. Relatives could ask to have the corpse placed in a coffin, but often the remains were displayed in wall recesses and on shelves. During outbreaks of epidemics another method of preserving the bodies began to be used – they were placed for a time in a lime solution, or a solution of arsenic. In 1837 it was forbidden to place bodies in this manner, but this obstacle could be circumvented by removing one of the walls of the coffin or by inserting a window in the wooden box.
Entrance to the Capuchin monastery
Of particular interest to visitors to the catacombs is the body of the aforementioned child, Rosalia Lombardo. According to the records of the doctor who performed her embalming, formalin, alcohol, glycerin, zinc salts and salicylic acid were injected into the dead girl’s artery. The substances were then distributed under pressure to all of the girl’s vessels. The result was amazing – the body of the child preserved its original appearance of a living person. Many tourists who have been here, it seems that the baby just sleeps.
The many corridors of the Capuchin Catacombs
The layout of the Catacombs is uncomplicated, the corridors and cubicles are divided on several grounds – gender, social, age. There are corridors: men, women, monks, priests, professionals, a new corridor. Also in the Catacombs of the Capuchins there are cubicles of children and virgins (you can see metal crowns on their heads as a sign of their purity).
If you look at the general plan of the Catacombs of the Capuchins, it looks in the form of a rectangle, each side of which is a corridor, at the bottom of this figure is another line – the corridor of the priests. At the intersection of each side can be found one of the cubicles or chapel.
The oldest line forms the corridor of the monks. The most revered Capuchins are placed in the first part of the corridor, their necks wrapped in ropes. All the dead are dressed in simple robes.
The smallest line is the women’s corridor. Most of the bodies rest in special niches. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the niches were protected by glass. The women’s remains are dressed in fashionable (for their time) silk dresses with lace ruffles, with hats on their heads.
The corridor of the men is the first long line of the Catacombs rectangle. The bodies have been preserved according to the will, some dressed modestly and some in the most luxurious outfits of their time. Most of the deceased are benefactors of the monastery.
Information for visitors
One should be prepared for a special atmosphere in this unusual museum. Most of the exhibits look really creepy, so the nervous people and children are highly discouraged from visiting this place. If you dare to go on this mystical excursion, you can be sure that it will stay in your memory for a long time. Everyone can visit the Catacombs of Capuchins from 8.30 am to 6 pm. The price of the entrance ticket is symbolic and is 1.50 euros.
Catacombs of the Capuchins and the mummy of Rosalia Lombardo
What is the Museum of the Dead in Palermo
A place that certainly cannot leave anyone indifferent. Many tourists from all over the world come to Palermo just to visit this amazing place. If you have a vulnerable nervous system and a weak stomach, it is better just to read this article, watch photos and videos about Catacombs of Capuchins, but I do not advise to visit this museum of the dead.
Of course, it is undesirable to visit the Catacombs in Palermo with children . Photo and video shooting on the territory is prohibited, so you can hardly post a photo to Instagram against the mummies. Catacombs of the Capuchins remains one of the largest museums of the dead in the world. Eerie impression is made by the non-standard location of the mummies in the Catacombs, here mummies stand, hang, sit and lie, so the feeling that you are not in the cemetery, and in the real city of the dead. Many mummies are even dressed in the latest, at the time of burial, fashion. Capuchin Catacombs fascinate by the fact that there are mummies of all three types, both embalmed and mummified, as well as skeletonized.
Layout of the Museum of the Dead
The room where the museum is located is enormous, with about 8,000 people buried here. They are narrow corridors that form two schematic rectangles.
It should be noted that access is not allowed to all areas of the Catacombs. For example, the corridor with the remains of the most revered Capuchin monks is closed.
Also, the most creepy mummies are not on display so as not to traumatize visitors, although you can get enough creepiness in this place without them. As you walk through the museum, you get the feeling that the mummies are looking at you and even moving. They are all frozen in different poses, with different turns of their heads, and some have remnants of hair and mustaches on them. Brrrr! The sight is breathtaking and repulsive at the same time! You see the remains of flesh, and in fact you are not separated from the mummy by a sarcophagus or even a partition.
Many of the dead are dressed in expensive clothes, some even willed their descendants to come and change their dress every six months. In fact, the Catacombs of Capuchins is a cemetery, the descendants of some buried here residents of Palermo still come to visit their relatives. Moreover, 2 centuries ago to rest here was considered very prestigious, and people paid a lot of money for the opportunity to be buried here.
History of the Capuchin Catacombs
From the eerie description, let’s move on to the history of this burial place. Why did the Capuchins mummify people and store them in the catacombs?
The Capuchin order was founded in the 16th century as one of the branches of the Catholic Church. The order was widespread throughout the world in the 17th and 18th centuries, with monasteries present in Austria, Switzerland, Spain, USA, Asia, Africa and even Russia (there was a small Catholic parish near Astrakhan) in addition to Italy. The order was also actively developing in Palermo, with many residents donating their money to it and even donating entire buildings. One of these buildings housed the monastery. The Catacombs were organized under the monastery. At first, it was just a small corridor in which the bodies of the first Capuchin monks to pass away were left.
The fact is that the space under the monastery has a unique natural environment (humidity, temperature, chemical composition of the air), which suspends the process of decomposition of the flesh. At first, the fact that the first remains were very well preserved was perceived as a miracle. That is why it was decided to bury the monks in a similar way. Various methods of mummification were used for better preservation.
At first, the bodies were simply dried in a special chamber, then treated with a solution of vinegar and placed in the Catacombs, often suspended on hooks, so the bodies were better preserved. Then, not only monks, but also famous personalities and the nobility of Palermo began to be buried here. Keeping the body imperishable for a longer period of time, as if to defeat death, was considered prestigious. Other methods of embalming also began to be used at that time, bodies were placed in lime or arsenic. The Catacombs of the Capuchins gradually expanded, new corridors and halls were built, until in 1882 the authorities banned burials in the Catacombs. After that, only a few more people were buried there, and then only by special permission of the authorities.
Who is buried in the Museum of the Dead in Palermo
Interestingly, all the dead are separated by social, gender and age categories. Women and men were buried separately, while children, virgins and monks are buried in different rooms. About this in a little more detail, as can be seen in the diagram, this cemetery is divided into different sections:
Only women are buried here. I would not be surprised if many of them were fashionable and real beauties, but now it is an absolutely creepy sight. Many of them are dressed in gorgeous clothes in the fashion of yesteryear (dresses, bonnets, shoes). Especially impressive is the preserved white lace from which the disfigured dark remains of the bodies stick out.
Cubicle of Virgins
Virgins are revered in all religions and buried in a special way. So here, too, the remains of the girls are housed in a separate small room. It should be noted that there are not many of them. A wreath of metal is present on each of the bodies as a sign of purity.
Corridor of priests.
Here are laid to rest the various ministers of the church, all dressed in smart robes, and it is impossible not to note that it becomes especially creepy when you see a skeleton (the symbol of death) dressed in a religious robe (a symbol of immortality).
This part of the Capuchin Catacombs contains the last burials made after 1837. Here all the bodies are placed in coffins.
Corridor of Men
Here are the men, mostly ordinary Palermo residents who donated good money to maintain the monastery. But money, as you know, you can’t buy immortality, and now these once successful men are just forced to show the ugly face of death.
The corridor of the monks
This is where the most revered Capuchin monks are buried. This part is the oldest and is closed to the public. It should be noted that all the monks were buried in simple hooded canvas robes, typical of this order, with a rope around their necks. These are the traditions of Capuchin burial.
Cubicle of Children.
This is where the little ones are buried. All are buried in open or closed coffins. The most profound impression of this hall is made by the central composition – the eldest brother sitting on a chair and holding the remains of his little sister in his arms.
In this corridor are buried well-known figures from various professional fields: doctors and lawyers, artists, university professors and military officers. The most famous are Francesco Enea (military colonel), Filippo Pennino (sculptor), Salvatore Manzella (famous surgeon) and Lorenzo Marabitti (sculptor).
Chapel of St. Rosalia Lombardo
Here is perhaps the most famous and successful mummy in the world. These are the remains of a two-year-old child, Rosalia Lombardo. This mummy is known for the fact that it has remained completely imperishable, as if the girl had just fallen asleep. Rosalia was preserved so well thanks to the excellent work of the famous professional in the field of embalming, Alfredo Salafia, who took the secret formula with him to the grave.
Capuchin Catacombs opening hours, cost to visit and how to get there
- The museum is found not far from the historical center of Palermo in Piazza Capuccini 1.
- To get there take bus No. 109 or 318 from the main railway station and get off at the Piazza Indipendenza stop and walk a short distance to Piazza Cappuccini.
- Alternatively, take the subway, stop Palazzo Reale-Orleans and walk to Piazza Indipendenza and then along via Cappuccini to Piazza Cappuccini.
- The Palermo Catacombs are open from 9.00-13.00 and from 15.00-18.00.
- The cost of a visit is 3 euros (information current as of December 2015).
- The official website: http://www.catacombepalermo.it/.
Videos from the Palermo Museum of the Dead
A few documentarians did have permission to film in the Capuchin Catacombs, here are the most interesting videos:
I hope I didn’t scare you too much with my impressions of the place. Actually, the Capuchin Catacombs are really extremely interesting and, if you ignore the creepy smell and don’t turn on your imagination, you can find this place very interesting for understanding the history and culture of Catholicism and Palermo. However, I recommend to visit this place still in the daytime and better on an empty stomach. While I was writing this article and choosing wonderful pictures for you I finally lost my appetite, instead of dinner tonight I just had a glass of good Sicilian wine, maybe it is not bad at all! Cheers!