A marble grave marker in the floor of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo.




ummification around the world either happens intentionally, or by accident. Sometimes one leads to the other. In Italy, a significant amount of mummification has taken place. In fact, the largest store of mummified human remains exists in Palermo. Italy holds an ancient view of death, and preseveration of corpses is not considered macabre. There is something silencing about seeing a formerly living human being whose body in death has shrunk to skin and bones with perhaps a bit of muscle left on the frame. They still look human, somehow, and it is this twilight phase of passing from one world into the next that leaves the viewer in awe. But some people--we saw several in the mummy museums--are horrified, perhaps contemplating for the first time their own demise.




he Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo on the island of Sicily south of the mainland came about half by accident. It all began in 1599 when Brother Silvestro of the recently formed Capuchin order of monks died. The Capuchins were break-aways from the Franciscians--they wanted to return to a purer interpretation of St. Francis' edict to help the poor and helpless. Brother Silvestro's body was placed in a well. The tufaceous (porous limestone) soil in the region did it's work and nine months later it was discovered his remains had mummified. After that, monks by the hundreds wanted to be mummified upon death, and cells called strainers were carved into the soil of the crypt and bodies placed there. Next the general population got in on the fun. By the time mummification was outlawed in 1881, the crypt contained close to 1,000 mummified bodies.


A corridor in the Capuchin Catacombs.

Brother Silvestro, the oldest mummy in the catacombs.

A row of priests and professionals.
Straw beneath the clothing creates body fullness.
A section of virgins.
A metal band around the head
indicates the girl was unmarried.

A rope around the neck identifies the mummy
as having been a monk, not a hanging victim.
The rope was the monk's belt.

Children have their own section.
Mummies are often
displayed in life-like positions.

In the 1920s an exception was made
and one more mummy was admitted entrance to the catacombs. Rosalia Lombardo
was embalmed by Dr. Solafia of Palermo, who took the secret of the chemical brew
he concocted to his grave. Her body is extremely well preserved.



he sleepy village of Ferentillo lies north east of Roma. Getting there took us 4 hours, by train, bus, and walking through the valley. We finally reached the town and ascended, finding la Chiesa di S. Stefano, a 16th century church with a crypt of mummies beneath. As in just about every place we went in Italy, we had to wait for the crypt to reopen in the afternoon, so we spent 2 delicious hours lying in the sun and watching the odd dog or cat stroll lazily down the cobble-stone paths. Only a small part of the crypt has been excavated. Mummies here are protected by glass cases due to thefts in the past.


The Church of S. Stefano, with the crypt entrance below.

One corridor and a case with three mummies.
The back of the crypt is lined with skulls.

A close up of two mummies.
Mushrooms in the soil are responsible for mummification.

Mother and child.

One of the few mummies clothed.

A lovely old coffin.
A small section of the skulls
at the back of the crypt.



n our journey up through the Italian Alps, we finally reached Bolzano near the Austrian border, a pleasant city with a distinct Austrian flavor--carts selling bratwurst lined the downtown streets, which were closed to traffic. We went to Bolzano to visit The Ice Man, found in the Alps between Italy and Austria in 1991 by mountain climbers. His remains have been studied, as well as his clothing and the artifacts he carried. Now he lies in a hermetically sealed glass tomb at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. From the wounds to "Ützi's" head and shoulder it appears he was attacked, likely for unwittingly trespassing into another's territory 5,300 years ago, when he lived. This mummy affected Nancy deeply. Seeing a roomful of mummies, there is a sense of 'them'. Ützi died alone, in the freezing Alps in the 4th millenium B.C. That he is so well preserved is a miracle. He may still be alone, but at least now he has visitors, some of whom care that he existed.


Photographs are forbidden. This image of Ützi comes from
The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology


Tapholov has other images of these mummies available.

Click here and go to his Gothic Pictures.

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