Exceedingly eerie preserved corpses of the Palermo Catacombs
Extraordinary photos Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, home to the largest collection of spontaneous and artificial mummies in the world. By Ivan Cenzi
Over the years the Bizzarro Bazar blog has delved into wunderkammern, anatomical museums and collections, sideshow and carnival history, antique and weird science, strange history, photography, classic and modern art, music, literature, but also anthropology, thanatology, psychology, sexuality, humor, and so on. Now we are thrilled to announce that the blog is landing in bookstores, and not with a single book but with an entire series: the Bizzarro Bazar Collection has been conceived by the publisher, Logos Edizioni, with the specific object of exploring Italy’s hidden wonders through a series of monographs, both in English and Italian.
“Wonders," “marvels” -- even our occasional followers are aware that we're interested above all in the etymological meaning of the word, mirabilia, namely things that arouse astonishment and curiosity, but which often show some kind of disturbing element. In this sense, Italy is a huge wunderkammer, overflowing with astounding places and collections. Hoping to arouse reflection on Italy’s anthropological and cultural heritage, we are going to explore the unusual side of our peninsula, the least known and celebrated one -- in search for awe and amazement.
A leading role in this journey will be played by Carlo Vannini, an artist who deserves a few words. One of Italy's most renowned art photographers, Carlo has enthusiastically agreed to participate in this project, well aware that beauty does not only lie in classical proportions. His images do not simply embellish the book pages: they are the real focus of the series. Carlo has an unmatched ability to set the details in full light (and he uses light to paint his photographs), those details that our eyes can’t catch. His pictures are offered to the reader as a perfect visual guide.
The first volume of the series, entitled The Eternal Vigil, is dedicated to the world-famous Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. Not a hidden and unknown place, for sure, but a necessary starting point to deal with Italy’s “alternative” wonders. The Capuchin Catacombs host the largest collection of spontaneous and artificial mummies in the world. The book traces the history of this unique place that has always fascinated poets and intellectuals and analyses its anthropological and thanatological relevance. It also explains the techniques and procedures through which the friars were able to perfectly preserve corpses.
In this volume, you will find: the history of the Catacombs, how they became an unequalled site in terms of the number of mummies it hosts; an exact description of the methods (thanatometamorphosis) used by the friars to preserve corpses; many bizarre anecdotes concerning how the people in Palermo related to death; the influence of the Catacombs on literature; a meticulous investigation of the anthropological context within which this place was created, and its ethical, religious and philosophical implications.
In The Eternal Vigil the reader is guided to descend the stairway that leads to the catacombs and, beyond the iron gate, here come the mummies. They are standing upright in white niches, wearing their withered clothes. They resemble a macabre version of the earliest black and white photos, where men with huge moustaches and women with bulky underskirts stand in stiff poses looking like stuffed dummies. The most beautiful one is little Rosalia, snug in her tiny coffin: her expression is serene, her skin smooth and soft, and her long blond locks are gathered by a yellow bow and endow her with an extraordinary feeling of liveliness.
Whereas Rosalia Lombardo was embalmed, as were various other bodies present in the Catacombs, most of the corpses underwent a process of natural mummification – which does not involve the elimination of entrails and brain or the injection of special preserving liquids. An extremely ancient tradition across Europe, mummification was especially popular in Sicily, and the Palermo Catacombs still remain the most extraordinary expression of this tradition, on account of the sheer number of corpses preserved there (1,252 bodies and 60 wooden coffins, some of them empty, according to the 2011 census). Page after page, the book is an historical and artistic guide to the largest collection of spontaneous and artificial mummies in the world.
This book is the result of several months of hard work, and of the enthusiasm of all the professionals involved in its creation. To my knowledge, in all sincerity, Carlo Vannini’s photographs look absolutely unparalleled, and I believe such meaningful pictures of the Catacombs have never been taken throughout the whole history of this extraordinary cemetery.
This article originally appeared in different version at Morbid Anatomy.
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