palermo catacombs

In school, I had to present my research on the Palermo Catacombs found in Italy, which is home to thousands of mummified remains including the “Sleeping Beauty” named Rosalie Lombardo. Hope you enjoy reading about the research as much as I enjoyed writing about it.

The Residents of the Palermo Catacombs

picture2Thousands of souls now call the Capuchin Catacombs their home, which is located in Palermo in Sicily, Italy at the Church of Santa Maria della Pace (“Lady of Peace”). Capuchin friars arrived in Palermo in the year 1534. The bodies of their fellow fallen friars would be placed in a mass grave under the altar within the church. Due to the sheer amount of bodies that by 1597, it was overcrowded and could no longer taken on additional bodies. For the next 2 years, the friars excavated the bodies and found the 45 friars’ bodies were in perfect mummified condition. Their bodies had not decomposed and their faces were still recognizable. They believed this to be an Act of God. (Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo)

picture3Father Silvestro da Gubbio was the first body to be interred in the Palermo Catacombs on
October 16, 1599. He is dressed in his friar robes with the historical date printed on a sign placed on his chest. At first, the Palermo Catacombs were only meant for the church’s use but by the 18th century, wealthy citizens could begin paying fees to be displayed and mummified in the catacombs. However, if the family defaults on a payment, the body would be removed from the display and placed onto a shelf. (Deem)

The mummification process was quite detailed and included placing the body in the colatoio (a preparation room) shortly after death. Their internal organs were removed and then the body cavity was stuffed with straw or bay leaves to help the dehydration process. The bodies were then placed on terracotta tube grids (also called a “strainer”) where the moisture from their body would be drained out and onto porous stone, which allowed for absorption. (Sineo 156) The flesh would dessicate and dry out, becoming a leather-like substance. The bodies become stiff and hard but much lighter in weight. (Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo)

After 8 months to 1 year, they would be removed from the preparation room and their bodies washed with vinegar. The bodies were then dressed in their best clothes or the clothes of their status or position. (Wiesner) They were then inserted into the wall niches and hung by hooks at their neck and feet. (Deem) The corridor that they were interred in depended on their position. There were separate corridors or rooms for priests, friars, men depending on profession (doctor, lawyer, etc.), women, virgins, or children. (Wiesner) Their heads were then bent as if they were in prayer. (Telegraph)

Other methods were used including arsenic baths. Bodies would be bathed in arsenic baths during epidemics to clean the body. The body of Antonio Prestigiacomo was bathed in arsenic and now has a rose colored tint to it. Another method used in the Palermo Catacombs was embalming, which is the injection of chemicals. (Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo)

picture4The most famous resident of the Palermo Catacombs was embalmed and her name is Rosalia Lombardo, also known as “The Sleeping Beauty”. She was born in 1918 and died at age 2 in 1920 from pneumonia. Her father was so distraught at losing his daughter that he begged the local embalmer, Alfredo Salafia, to mummify her. She was placed in a glass coffin with the amulet of the Virgin Mary resting atop her blanket. (Lange)

For decades, Rosalia did not decompose and even in present day, looks as if she’s just sleeping.  Anthropologists struggled to learn of Salafia’s embalming secret and it was not until 2009 when Anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali was able to find Salafia’s living relatives, who actually had some of Salafia’s hand-written notes. The notes revealed the secret formula: “one part glycerin, one part formalin saturated with both zinc sulfate and chloride, and one part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid”. (Lorenzi)  This was all injected into Rosalia’s body through one single tiny hole.(Science Alert)picture5
The formalin aids in killing bacteria and salicylic acid prevents growth of fungi. Glycerin helps the body to not dry out. However, it is the zinc salts that gave the body its rigidity. If one were to stand up Rosalia on her feet, she could stand on her own. The zinc salts also helped her cheeks and nasal cavity from caving in. (Lange) A 2009 MRI showed that Rosalia’s internal organs are still in prime condition and due to changes in room temperature or humidity, Rosalia’s eyes open and close to reveal her gorgeous blue irises, which are practically untouched by decomposition. Rosalia was the last resident to join the Palermo Catacombs. (Fitzharris)


The Palermo Catacombs are a fascinating study in mummification and embalming. Spanning centuries and with over 8,000 bodies, the catacombs provide amazing insight into history. Many may say the Palermo Catacombs are haunted but one cannot deny that it is a work of art and beauty.

For a video on the Palermo Catacombs, please click here.

To see my presentation, please click here to access the document.


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