What a World

Palermo Has an Underground City Filled With Its Mummified Dead

Beneath the Sicilian streets are rooms filled with monks, lawyers, babies, and virgins. Enter if you dare: Palermo’s catacombs are teeming with centuries of the city’s dead.

05.01.14 9:45 AM ET

Palermo’s most famous citizens are very, very old. Underneath Sicily’s capital city, known for mafioso and stately Baroque churches, preserved corpses fill five subterranean limestone corridors and have been attracting visitors with a morbid curiosity for centuries.

Beneath the Capuchin Convent, a simple structure on the town’s outskirts, monks tend to a 400-year-old crypt filled with 2,000 mummies displayed in rows of upright bodies, supported by hooks in their necks and tilting precariously from wall niches or laid to rest horizontally in tattered clothing.

Visitors are greeted by the oldest mummy, Brother Silvestro of Gubbio, who is clad in a simple brown robe and headdress, clutching an identifying sign. He was the first to be placed in the catacombs when he died in 1599, around a half-century after the Capuchins first settled on the site. Their macabre collection began when friars discovered that the bodies of their late brothers were mummified after being buried in the porous soil, which proved the ideal conditions for natural preservation. Taken as a sign from the heavens, the mummies were moved inside and put on display.

The honor was initially meant for the clergy, but as more monks were mummified and stored in the catacombs, Palermo became a desired destination for the recently deceased. The Capuchins began allowing the bodies of regular folks to be interred there at the behest of prominent families who made generous donations (thought to be around the equivalent of 55,000 euros today). Their loved ones would visit, tending to their decaying relatives, even changing their clothing.

“It’s important to be in contact with the dead,” the father in charge of the crypt once told National Geographic Channel. “Those were people like us, we have to decay like them.”

For centuries, Capuchin monks followed simple embalming practices. Each body would be laid out on slabs to allow the fluids to drain out. After a year, they would be washed with vinegar, dressed, and displayed. Some were injected with chemicals or dosed in lime for better preservation. At times when this didn’t produce perfect results, the bodies were stuffed with straw. This process resulted in a range of preservation: the oldest and most decrepit are just skeletons resting in a pile of clothes, while the most life-like still have eyelids, hair, and skin. Their mouths hang ghoulishly agape and give them the appearance of very convincing horror movie villains. Most of the mummies don their Sunday finest, with religious figures draped in robes and ornate hats and wealthy civilians in suits or lacy dresses.

The monks divide up the thousands of corpses by gender, age, and profession, grouping them in separate chambers. There are doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and even a special section for virgins. Only around 1,000 of the deceased have been identified and wear signs with their birth and death dates.

The catacombs are home to a few celebrity mummies as well. There’s a finely dressed soldier who died in 1848. And Velasquez, the famed Spanish painter, is said to be somewhere in the tomb. But the most famous of all is Rosalia Lombardo, a cherubic, blond 2-year-old who resides in the room of babies, where dozens of small children in frilly, doll-like frocks are displayed in hanging rows on the walls or bundled in cribs and glass coffins. In the middle is Lombardo, once also considered the crypt’s greatest mystery.

In 1920, the Italian government made an exception to its 40-year ban on mummification for the young girl whose death from pneumonia so rattled her aristocratic father, he insisted on her interment. Her hair and eyelashes still intact, Lombardo has stayed so life-like she’s called the “Sleeping Beauty of Palermo,” and is thought to be the best preserved mummy in the world. Hers was the last body to be interred in Palermo, and for nearly a century, the formula that kept her so mysteriously intact baffled anthropologists. In 2009, the secret was finally revealed to be the work of a well-known early-20th-century embalmer, whose use of zinc salts petrified Lombardo’s body.

But Palermo’s dead still hold many mysteries. The Capuchin friars and a team of anthropologists have embarked on a long-term project to DNA-test the mummies to discover their causes of death and find family connections. Meanwhile, a biological survey last year determined that the bodies are deteriorating due to bacteria and air quality, and are in dire need of better preservation. For Palermo, the race to save its subterranean inhabitants—even though they’re already dead—is on.