Italy's Undead

by Hugues Leblanc

The world is full of mummies. The famous ones are usually Egyptian and are on display in science-oriented museums. That makes them educational, distant and safe.

I was in Italy recently and saw the 'Ice Man' in Bolzano. Ützi is famous. He lives in a refrigerator. I could only see him through a small rounded glass, all alone. The rest of the display was about his clothing and possessions. The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology also offers and exhibit I liked of a tree-coffin, which resembled a skeleton lying in a 'pirogue' (boat). I wished I could have taken a picture.

Many mummies are found in small towns, usually in quantities that defy the imagination. Having seen the mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico a few years ago, ma compagne Nancy and I made our way to Italy in April of 2003 in order to see more mummies at a closer range. Our itinery included visits to cemeteries and churches with depictions of the Danse Macabre from the 15th-16th century.

Rome was busy and charming, filling with 2,000 year old buildings and statues. After settling in, we immediately headed to the Bone Chapel of the Capuchin, on Via Veneto. Enforced security around the nearby US Embassy disoriented us a bit at first but we were able to reach our destination without Nancy having to ask our way too many times.

Prior to our arrival, I imagined Italy as small villages full of black-clad widows and little old men sitting on public benches playing dominos. Always dressed in black, as is our gothic custom, Nancy and I felt that we would simply blend in easily. That wasn't the case.

Italians are modern colourful people, quick to engage in conversation, slow to understand our interest in the macabre. No one wears black. We found everything on our own; nobody seemed to know where we wanted to go. Only within reach of our goals could we feel forgotten and safe, as we usually feel when inside a cemetery.

At the Chapel beside the Church of the Immaculate Conception, we met our first Capuchin monk. Capuchin's look weird too. I smiled. He asked for a donation.

The Capuchins separated from the Franciscans in 1525 in order to get back to a more fundamental interpretation of St-Francis' edict to help the poor and the helpless. The bearded Capuchins wear sandals with no socks, and a tunic with a hood. They are without a doubt the most macabre religious order. Or so they were in the 18th-19th centuries. The present-day monks that we saw along our journey were mostly old and shared little of our enthusiasm. The dead monks didn't care that I took surreptitious pictures with my digital camera.

The Bone Chapel filled us with joy. It was creepy and in need of a good sweeping. Beautifully arranged in patterns and towers and chains, and specific objects like lampshades, were the bones of about 4000 individuals encircling many bowed or supine monk mummies. We went from room to room, there are six in all, and couldn't take our eyes off the entire lovely 'tableaux'. At the end of the corridor was the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, three unidentified young children being the centrepiece. More mummified friars lined the walls, interspersed with rows of skulls, and bones forming floral motifs. On the ceiling was a small 'reaper', a delightfully delicate death figure holding a scythe in one hand and a scale in the other. We didn't want to leave; we wanted to camp there overnight.

I always feel a little cheated when I see dressed mummies. These dried-up friars seem to hide something and exude menace despite their restful positions. Initially, the whole crypt felt small and plain but looking at every detail made us realize all the artistic work that had been done there in the late 1700s. It's such an amazing amount of bones. Looking at an old postcard, I saw that apart from a few fallen skulls, the place hadn't changed a bit over the years. The weak light bulbs were also playing tricks with my picture taking; I couldn't use a flash and the results were less than what I expected. The only advantage of the digital camera is its total silence.

We quickly grew bored with the traditional ancient Roman catacombs. Bodies were either removed or walled into the sections that could be visited, but only with a tour guide and a gaggle of school kids. We moved to Naples. There wasn't anything there for us. We witnessed a car accident and it vividly reminded me that cadavers are bloody while mummies are dry. In Naples we stuck to the tourist sites, like Pompeii. The Capuchin connection coming on our trip held so much more promises.

Soon, we were on the overnight sleeper train from Naples to Palermo on the Island of Sicily, a harrowing experience. Sleep was impossible for Nancy but I was fuelled into dreamland by plenty of exquisite Italian wine. Finally we reached a warm, southern slow city and within a few hours found our way to a complex that included a church, the Capuchin Catacombs, and 'The Capuchins Great Burial Place'. The catacombs and cemetery date from the sixteenth century when, because of the huge increase in the number of men becoming monks, a more spacious burial place was needed. We waited in some shade for the museum to open at 2 o'clock.

The catacombs of Palermo are probably the largest in the world. Nearly 1,000 mummified bodies are on display. And it all started with the death of Brother Silvestro in 1599, whose body was placed in a well. Within the year someone noticed that he had mummified, the result of the proximity of tufaceous soil (porous limestone). Soon, many more monks were mummified; their corpses placed into cells called 'strainers' which were dug into the subsoil. They were left there for about eight months, until the flesh had dried. The mummified remains were then washed in vinegar or dipped in arsenic or lime before being exposed to fresh air. Very quickly, mummification became fashionable with the general population. Once they had dried out, the locals were dressed in the finery of the day, and placed in the catacombs.

The 20-foot walls up to the vaulted ceilings are lined with mummified bodies, on shelves, lying in coffins or standing in rows. There is a section devoted to priests, one for professionals, one for professors, the last the newest part of the catacombs. Women have their own section, and at the centre of the back of the crypt is an area devoted to virgins; steel bands around the head indicate these women from the 1700s and early 1800s were unmarried. A rope around the neck of a 'screaming' head symbolizes the Capuchin Order, but felt to us as if they had died by hanging. It takes a little getting used to, the strange and horrifying facial expressions of mummies.

Contrary to the Bone Chapel of the Capuchins in Rome, I felt that the mummies in Palermo were really dead people as opposed to wax-like hooded figures. The Palermo bodies are not hunched over. All are dressed in finery and, in a nostalgic way, it is a bit of a fashion show from the past. In any case, the sheer number of mummies also means that a diverse quality of mummification is displayed. Not all have flesh, most are skeletons, and the bodies beneath the clothing are filled with hay. I went round and round many times, looking for those that still had ears. Picture taking-verboten-- was the usual cat-and-mouse game. We stayed many hours, as Nancy and I always do in interesting places. The quality of certain coffins is remarkable too.

Old postcards had given us the impression that we could stroll around from one open coffin to another, and touch the mummies. The actual situation has changed. Now there are busloads of tourists going around the premises quickly, startled by the immensity of the place, horrified by the mummies, and very glad that it doesn't smell. A 6-foot tall wire-mesh fence protects the mummies from the public, which made close-up contact impossible.

Nancy and I were enchanted by Palermo and its contradictions. We spent that evening eating pizza and e-mailing to our friends at an internet café. From Palermo, we flew to Milan to see more cemeteries there and in Genoa. We also rented a car to see several Danse Macabre paintings in the Italian Alps. On our return, we detoured by Venice to see the island cemetery, where it snowed upon our arrival-first time in living memory, they said.

There was one last place we travelled to on our mummy quest. The small sleepy village of Ferentillo is a hike North East of Roma. It took us four hours to make the trip by train and bus and walking along the valley through the mountains. We got there at the beginning of the famous Italian lunch break. The place was completely empty, like a ghost village. Climbing one of the mountains, we reached La Chiesa di S. Stefano, a 16th century church near the top, close to the remains of an ancient Papal fortification. It is a lovely old church, and underneath it lays the crypt, now the Museo delle Mummie. We waited two hours until the museum re-opened, resting in the warm sun on the irregular stone steps. The silence was incredible.

Inside the crypt we found a couple of dozen mummies in coffin-like glass and wood cases, usually containing several mummies each. What is so interesting with the mummies of Ferentillo is that, as in Mexico, they are naked. We could see the flesh, the holes, the dried out insides. It's also a place that has it all, mummies and bones, together, but not so artistically organized. I clicked away at the mummies despite yet more disastrous lighting conditions.

One sheet of information in English identified a few of the mummies. Three mummies in one case were French soldiers who invaded Italy during Napoleon's time. One was hanged, one tortured and one had an autopsy done on his skull. Another case held the young Chinese couple that came to Italy on their honeymoon and died of cholera. The man's teeth are remarkably intact. Her long braid was stolen. There is even a mummified bird, the result of an experiment to test the soil. It convinced sceptics that some microscopic agent really was at work in the mummification process--when they tried to remove some of the mummies, they began to decay.

At the back of the crypt sits an old wooden coffin, the wall behind piled high with skulls and discarded bones. The crypt at Ferentillo that has been excavated is only a small part of a much larger crypt, which remains sealed. Maybe one day the sleepy village will decide to burrow further beneath the old church. Who knows what treasures will be revealed?

Nancy and I really like mummies. We visit them in order to pay our respects, to see with our own eyes these humans whose belief in eternity stopped time. As individuals, they are still witnessing and being witnessed by the world. They interact with us. They wished to remain as they had been on departing this life. In a sense they are time travelers, and only animation eludes them. They came to this life naked, as infants, and go on as naked adults on the physical plane of their afterlife. They hardly decay. They are priceless treasures.

But won't they too fall apart, eventually? Who in the future will dismantle the last remains of the mummies of Palermo and arrange the bones in an out-of-this-world exotic assemblage? It won't be me, unfortunately. I'll also be long dead and hopefully, in my own little crypt.

While Nancy and I are busy trying to buy and import dirt from Ferentillo, you can have a look at my website:

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