The Spooky Side of Palermo: Catacombe dei Cappuccini

I have a friend who has been everywhere and visited the most weird places on earth. Who does not have a friend like this one? This friend of mine enjoys the most improbable museums and he always manages to find them even in the tiniest village. Therefore it is no surprise that it was him who first told me about this very spooky place in the heart of Palermo. A place which is, however, not exactly a museum […]

Spooky Catacombs in Palermo

If you are attracted to mysteries and to the spookiness of sacre and profane intertwining, than Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Catacombs of the Capuchins) in Palermo is for you a must-see. I went there with my husband and he was looking forward to visit this place as much as me, if not more. So we took a bus to the Cuba neighbourhood and went checking it with our own eyes.

The catacomb is open to public and it extends underneath a convent of the 16th century. What is so spooky about this place besides being a catacomb? In here, contrary to the Catholic Church’s preference of burying the dead on the ground,  thousands bodies of monks, priests and noble men are hanged with ropes on the walls. All dressed up. All perfectly mummified.

Monks hanged the bodies on the wall next to each other but some had their personal showcase.
Mummified child with the very ‘lively’ gesture of wanting to reach you with her small hand.
Mummies on the wall of the Catacomb.
the mummies

The first body was put there at the end of the 16th century; the last in the 19th century. Children have a place there too and, as it is predictable, were the most disturbing ones. It is known indeed that death and innocence create a great horror team. However, it is the exceptional status of preservation of one child in particular that stole everyone’s attention. The 2 years-old Rosalia Lombardo deceased in 1920 due to pneumonia appears to be dead for no more than a couple of days.

To say that it is not for every-day to see a mummified body is an understatement. Yet what truly fascinated me the most was the reason behind this alternative way of honouring the dead. In these crypts corps were mummified and put up for show not for tourists to enjoy, but to let them continue to project their power within the community they were once living into.

“Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.” There are the words of an Irish Sermon, but these monks who for centuries kept looking for formulas to better preserve these corps must have believed otherwise. All the dead in the catacomb are not like any other dead. These bodies did not loose their dignity to the worms. Their flesh survived the decay forced upon by time. These people received a miracle that was flaunted publicly to claim once again the power of their social status. A power that goes beyond the end of their life in this world.

Death and tourism

And yet, something must have gone wrong in time. This trip in the catacomb, beside the obvious spooky effect, felt like partaking in a Dantesque travel through the underworld. Dante Alighieri is the most famous Italian writer and in its masterpiece he imagines to travel through hell where all the people he meets are condemn to expiate their worst sin in life through a punishment that is somehow opposite to their evil side. As I see it, the mummies of the catacombs – who in life had the vanity of wanting their bodies to survive with dignity – are now being punished by having to undergo the scrutiny of thousands of tourists.

And it was with these thoughts in mind that it was especially nice to also be back amongst the living again: “and thence we came forth to see again the stars.” (Dante)

Via Maqueda, one of the main streets of Palermo.

©photos Derrick de Ruiter

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