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reportage Dressed for eternity
Partly well lit, partly sombre, the Capuchin catacombs exude an eerie atmosphere. Many of the corpses are close enough to touch. The strangest aspect of all is that the assembled ranks of corporeal personalities give off no smell at all, which is more than can be said for the living world from which they have departed.

The catacombs date back to the 16th century, when the Capuchin monks of Palermo removed some bodies from their graves and discovered to their surprise that these appeared to have undergone natural mummification. Realising the religious potential, local priests mummified the body of a particularly holy monk, Brother Silvestro, for public viewing. Not to be outdone by the Church, enterprising local families decided they wanted the same treatment for their deceased relatives. The catacombs filled up rapidly. It seems to have become something of a status symbol, since some citizens indicated in their wills which clothes they wanted to be buried in, while others asked for their garments to be changed a certain time after their deaths. Vanity knows no boundaries.

Social stratification is fully respected in the catacombs. Separate areas are dedicated to Priests, Monks, Men, Women, Virgins, Children and Professionals.

Monks were buried in their religious garb, complete with the ropes of penance dangling around what is left of their necks. The last monk interred was Brother Riccardo of Palermo, who died in 1871.

One wall is devoted to women's corpses, distinguished by the presence of hoop skirts and parasols. Some men still sport their spectacles, though the eyes which required them in life are long gone.

The Professional section contains the bodies of professors, doctors, lawyers, painters, officers and soldiers of the Bourbon and Italian army. Here, for instance, we find the remains of Colonel Enea Di Giuliano, resplendent in his French Bourbon army uniform. The final mortal canvas of the celebrated painter Velasquez lives on here too, fortunate as he was to die far away from his native Spain where the art of embalming may not have been so advanced.

Inevitably, many of the elegant costumes have decayed over the years. Some of the corpses long ago lost their flesh and are now skeletons; others retain their mummified flesh, their hair and even their eyes. Many of the remaining faces seem to be treating the whole thing as a big joke, while others frown with disapproval at becoming a tourist attraction.

One very popular attraction is the children's section, including two year old Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920 and was one of the last corpses to make it to the catacombs before the local authorities banned the practice. Nicknamed the 'Sleeping Beauty', Rosalia's body is still perfectly intact, down to her greyish-blue eyeballs. Embalmed by a certain Doctor S, she is propped up in aglass case for all to see, looking very much like a surreal doll. Dr S took the secret of his embalming expertise to the grave, which is probably just as well. Who knows what use the Mafia of Sicily would have put it to?
Paolo Ventura was born in Milan in 1968. He is specialized in fashion but he also cares for reportage. He works for Italian Amica, Italian Elle, Vogue Gioiello, Das Magazin, Spoon, English Marie Claire. He lives between Paris and Milan.

Paolo Ventura can be contacted via e-mail at

Links related to the story

Tourist information on the 'Catacombe dei Cappucini' in Palermo in Sicily, Italy, can be found on the website whatsonwhen

Images showing more of the interior and the arrangement of the mummies can be seen at the website Kim's Capuchins' Catacombs Corpses of Palermo
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