Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily

Well, Mom is on her way home to the US and the last Palermonday is upon us. A sad day all around, but let’s try to liven things up around here with . . .

cannoli e caffรฉ a Palermo, Sicilia on Flickr

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo!
(cannoli not included)

Capuchin catacombs, Palermo on FlickrI saved the Capuchin Catacombs (Catacombe dei Cappuccini) for last because they were my favorite spot on our quick jaunt through Sicily. Since I’ve always been fascinated by and drawn to cemeteries (so peaceful and comforting), I knew I’d love the catacombs. And I did.

For those who don’t know, catacombs are underground burial crypts and the Capuchins’ version in Palermo is outstanding. The Capuchins, by the way, are an order of Franciscan friars (Order of Friars Minor Capuchin) who wear brown hooded robes. For a little word origin fun, “hood” in Italian is “cappuccio” and the diminutive (“little hood”) is “cappuccino.”

Cappuccini con le stelle on FlickrAnd yes, that is where my favorite drink gets its name; some believe that Marco d’Aviano, a Capuchin friar, invented the drink in the 17th century, but others say the frothy milk and coffee mixture simply resembles the brown, pointed hooded robe.

Whatever the Capuchins’ contribution to beverage history, they sure left behind something spectacular in Piazza Cappuccini between Via Pindemonte and Corso Calatafimi in Palermo.

Even on a Sunday in February when we visited, there was quite a crowd waiting to get in when the catacombs reopened at 3 pm after unch. A sweet, white-bearded monk took our coins, and we followed the crowd down some steps and through a corridor, cooler air hitting our faces with every step.

The virgins in Capuchin catacombs on FlickrThe first glance inside was simply amazing.

There are about 8,000 bodies down there, lining the walls, lying on shelves, hanging upright, some posed in chairs, etc. There are sections for men, women (children included), professionals, priests and even virgins, pictured at left; you just need to follow the arrows to hit every part of the underground maze, although Cherrye and I went through backwards to avoid the flow of (living) people.

How did all these bodies get down here? Well, toward the end of the 16th century, burial space for monks was scarce, so in 1599, the first monk was buried underground and the remains of a few other monks were moved there. The spot started out exclusively for monks, but the Order began receiving special requests from benefactors to be buried there as well.

Permission had to be granted by the High Prelates and the General Superiors of the Order until 1739, and thereafter by the Superiors of the Convent; it certainly must have been quite an honor to be included among such Palermitani.

Capuchin catacombs, Palermo Sicily on FlickrMany of the clothes placed on the corpses are still in fairly good condition and walking through the catacombs can be kind of an eerie historical fashion show–religious robes, military uniforms, housewives’ attire, children’s best from the 17th century through the beginning of the 20th.

There is just so much history in this relatively small space; I only wished there were more information on each individual corpse, much like I wish more tombstones and markers in cemeteries told fuller stories. But how much can you really fit on a marker, I guess?

So many of the bodies were so lifelike; I could just imagine them laughing, talking, joking, arguing, you know, living.

Rosalia Lombardo in Capuchin catacombs on Flickr

The best preserved is little, gorgeous Rosalia Lombardo, at left, who died in 1920 and was one of the last laid to rest in the catacombs.

Dr. Solafia, a doctor from Palermo, embalmed her, but to this day his method remains a secret; whatever he used, the results are spectacular. Rosalia looks like she is sleeping, taking an afternoon nap after a long morning of running around under the Sicilian sun.

Other preservation methods included arsenic, lime or vinegar.

I don’t know that I’d ever want tourists rushing past my dead body trying to sneak photos (for the record, you’re not supposed to take any and I didn’t; the photos in this post are all photos of the brochure), but I am *so* very honored we got to spend some time underground with these old souls.

Nag nag nag in Capuchin catacombs on Flickr

In fact, Cherrye and I definitely spent much more time in there than others who rushed in beside us.

I’m not sure there was even anyone left down there when we finally made our way out to pick up some brochures and say good-bye to the elderly monk as he sat behind his small basket of coins saying daily prayers under his breath.

I hope you enjoyed our stay in Sicily! If you missed any in the series, please check out the posts in the Palermondays and Sicily categories.

39 Beans of Wisdom to “Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily”
  1. Rebecca

    Good Lord, that is pretty freaky – looking @ little Rosalia……
    but then who am I to talk as I have spent time looking @ preserved people – ancient ancient ones – in obscure villages in Papua…..strange, this fascination with preservation

    Rebecca’s last blog post..Swimmingly Well – Thank you!

    Ooh I’d love to hear more about those obscure villages….

  2. 07.07.2008

    A little scary but fascinating piece of history! I wish to see it with my own eyes someday! Does it kind of smell down there? (it doesn’t smell according to articles in the net but I’d still like to know)

    Sandier Pastures’s last blog post..shuffled luck

    No smell that I recall Grace; maybe a little musty, but more like a cantina/cellar than anything else I’d say.

  3. Michelle there is a Capuchin catacombs here below a church. Part of me wants to go the other part is too freaked out.

    I have an irrational fear of death so maybe it would be good for me to see it.

    I’ve really enjoyed your Sicilian adventures.

    nyc/caribbean ragazza’s last blog post..Rome off the tourist track…a trip to Tivoli.

    Oh an irrational fear of death can’t be fun; if you think visiting the catacombs would help, I’d definitely go for it!

    Rosanna La Ferla Reply:

    Rosalia non e’ nata nel 1918…..lo so’ bene essendo sua nipote

    michelle Reply:

    Grazie per l’informazioni ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. 07.07.2008

    I’m pleased you worked out how to have a snack and corpses in the same post. It’s an impressive achievement. I looked at the cannoli and said, she’s never going to pull this off… but you did.

    I do not go to catacombs. I think the effort — particularly among Christians — to preserve corpses, make things out of them or use them for interior decoration is weird. I picture Rosalia trapped forever as a cadaver instead of flying off into the ether to become one with the universe. The fashion museum parts of this one would interest me, but I’d rather they used hangers.

    I am not afraid to die and I am no longer freaked about dead people, I just think I personally would prefer to be left alone. In return I plan to leave them alone. And drink my coffee somewhere a bit less necrophiliac.

    Judith in Umbria’s last blog post..Summer Escapes

    I knew it’d be tough to go from cannoli to catacombs, but I was up for the challenge ๐Ÿ˜‰ I can definitely see your views on the whole preservation (and visitation) thing. I suppose I look at it just like any other piece of historical record–I wouldn’t necessarily be in favor of doing this today (in fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t) but since it’s already been done, my natural curiosity says “go see it!”

    I’ll be happy to have that coffee with you elsewhere though ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. 07.07.2008

    Now, that was an incredible tour! Very interesting, educational -ok, maybe a bit strange I suppose -but really fascinating all the same. And here, all these years, I thought the catacombs were just hiding places -caves under Rome or something like that. I had no idea they were cemeteries!
    Hope your Mom had a safe trip back to good old PA too! By the sounds of things you’ve written about during her visit there, you had a really terrific time. Peace!

    Jeni Hill Ertmer’s last blog post..authorblog: Weekend Wandering

    I believe *some* catacombs are simply underground tunnels, etc., without the bodies, so I don’t think you were far off Jeni. Mom’s over the Atlantic as I type this, and yes, we had a magnificent time thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. 07.07.2008

    Oooh! What a way to start the week!! Kind of puts things in perspective. But that picture of Rosalia was pretty freaky.

    milanesemasala’s last blog post..Sweet summer music

    Glad you enjoyed; I hadn’t thought about the fact that it was starting off a week this way…now *how* can I follow this up?!

  7. Joanne at frutto della passione

    Your Palermondays always make me want to go back. Sadly, this summer is out of the question, maybe I can convince my boys in the fall.

    Joanne at frutto della passione’s last blog post..We have a winner!

    Honestly Joanne, I wouldn’t recommend the summer anyway…temps in the high 30s or so can’t be great for walking around a city in Sicily ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. 07.07.2008

    Cannoli, cappuccino, and catacombs… somehow I feel weirdly well-prepared to meet the week. This has been an amazing tour — thanks, Michelle!

    annoa2’s last blog post..[About] Me and My Editor(s) — v.2

    I’d give the credit to the caffeine and sugar ๐Ÿ˜‰ Glad you enjoyed!

  9. 07.07.2008

    Spooky, especially the little girl.

    At least it had an espresso and some cannoli.

    running42k’s last blog post..A too fast weekend

    Hey as long as you found something you enjoyed ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. 07.07.2008

    I never went there when I was in Palermo…I don’t know if I would like to though as I went to a more boring version in Rome (no preserved people here) but it was so far under ground and so enclosed that that alone freaked me out!
    Now you have finished the Sicily stuff you’ll just have to make another trip there and see the rest of the island!

    Leanne’s last blog post..Strikes in Italy

    See I’ve always been fascinated by the underground…I think growing up in a coal mining area did that to me ๐Ÿ˜‰

    And you’re *so* right about having to plan another trip….

  11. 07.07.2008

    I too enjoy cemetaries, crypts, catacombs. Wonderful entry. We visited an underground crypt when we were in Vienna several years ago. They had some of the royal family entombed there. Fascinating place.

    I am amazed by the little girl. She is very life-like. A little eery.

    We have to definitely visit Palermo when we come to Italy.

    Couldn’t recommend stopping in Palermo more; keep me posted on your travels!

  12. 07.07.2008

    Wow! That’s is strangely incredible. I have never been in a catacomb like that before…I think part of me would be extremely intrigued at the history of it but the other part of me would feel like I’m imposing. I’ve really enjoyed reading about your trip to Palermo. I eventually want to hop over to Sicily one day.

    LuLu’s last blog post..Happy Canada Day!

    Hope you make it to Sicily Lulu; definitely worth a nice, long stop ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Wow, that looks so interesting, albeit a bit creepy! I so need to go to Palermo – but maybe I will just go for the cannoli!

    JennDZ_The LeftoverQueen’s last blog post..Independence Day Celebration

    The cannoli’s definitely worth it Jenn! Go for it ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. 07.07.2008

    Wow… that’s pretty amazing. Here’s one of our first differences… I’m not a big fan of cemeteries and places of rest for the deceased, but I haven’t spent much time in them so perhaps an appreciation could be learned.

    I *would* love to take my time going through Westminster Abbey next time I am back there, specifically to visit the interred, so perhaps it is an appreciation that will grow with time.

    This was fascinating though, and those are very interesting pictures, especially Rosalie.
    Thanks for the wonderful tour, all of your stops, photos and words were excellently relayed.

    Scarlett & Viaggiatore

    Wanderlust Scarlett’s last blog post..One Nation Under…

    Ooh ooh, I want to come to Westminster Abbey! When can we go?!!!!

  15. 07.07.2008

    Wishing your mom safe travels!

    Diane Mandy’s last blog post..Five Habits Meme

    Thanks Diane; she’s about an hour away from landing in Philly as I type ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. 07.07.2008

    The catacombs are so fascinating. I don’t know if I could go down there but how amazing is it that the little girl was preserved so well. Thanks for sharing your trip. It’s always wonderful to stop by for a visit!

    Debbbie Egizio’s last blog post..Six word memoir tag and a Pico Award

    Glad you enjoyed stopping by Debbie; always a pleasure to see you as well ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. 07.07.2008

    Those catacombs are amazing. That’s something I’d like to visit.

    poppy fields’s last blog post..Red Rock

    Come on down ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. 07.07.2008

    Actually the photo of the cannolli brightened my day up.
    That last one fo Mr. & Mrs. Skeleton – yikes!
    Much bloglove from the USA,

    Frances’s last blog post..random photos from my weekendโ€ฆ

    I love cannoli too Frances ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. 07.07.2008

    How completely extraordinary! I know that D would love to go there, too. Well, that first shot had me, too – that type of cannoli is my favorite! You have definitely converted me to a Palermo fan with all these posts.

    I’m so sorry your mom had to return to the States. I’m sure it was a wonderful visit.

    jen of a2eatwrite’s last blog post..How We’re Celebrating July 4th

    We had an awesome time, Jen, thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. 07.07.2008

    That makes me pretty upset that I opted not to go see the catacombs!! My friends really enjoyed it though and it gives me a reason to return to sicily. Thanks! Ps. The cannolo looks amazing….so many good cannoli in sicilia!

    Lisa’s last blog post..Ristorante Revista Lunedi (Restaurant Review Monday)

    Definitely a reason to return to Sicilia…as are the cannoli ๐Ÿ˜‰

  21. 07.08.2008

    Wow…. so interesting and amazing. Thanks so much for posting this one.

    I know you must have had a fabulous time with your mom there… but I imagine you must feel a little (or a LOT) lost the moment she left. It’s always so hard to see the ones we love leave after a great visit… But, I’m sure you took lots of fabulous pics, which I hope you might share with us. hint, hint…. so hopefully the sadness will depart quickly, to be filled with wonderful warm memories.

    Dory’s last blog post..Guess who thought Texas loved her?

    Yes it’s definitely been different around here without her around, but we’ve already talked several times on the phone! Sure wish she was here for our afternoon coffee though….

  22. 07.08.2008

    I love the way you went through ‘backwards’ to avoid the crowd. That’s just the sort of thing I’d do. If we’re going to be tourists, let’s do it our way.

    casalba’s last blog post..June Vineyards


  23. 07.08.2008

    I didn’t know there was a Capuchin Catacomb in Palermo, I know very well the one in Rome (where I come from), have you ever seen it? The girl embalmed is simply amazing! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ I really should go there, I like catacombs!

    Pip’s last blog post..Mi sto allevizzando

    Sounds cheesy, I suppose, but if you like catacombs, you’ll love the ones in Palermo ๐Ÿ˜‰

  24. 07.08.2008

    what we really want to know is this, was it smelly?

    tracie b’s last blog post..Il Dubbio

    Surprisingly not, Tracie…just a little musty like a regular old basement. Nice to “see” you by the way ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. 07.08.2008

    What a fascinating post! I well remember the catacombs of Rome, when I visited in the late 80’s. It made the New Testament so real for me. I wish I could just reach in and grab one of those cappuccinos; I sorely miss truly good coffee such as are available in Europe. Thanks for visiting me today, it’s nice to meet you!

    bellezza’s last blog post..A Day At Lake Michigan

    Pleased to meet you as well, and I’m happy to bring back some good memories of Rome and European coffee ๐Ÿ˜‰

  26. 07.08.2008

    Talk about being surrounded by history! Thanks for taking us on the tour. That little girl does look alive. It’s so sad, because that means she died so young. Loved learning about the derivation of the word cappucchino. I just made some iced tea. Now I feel like I should make some iced coffee too! : )

    Anali’s last blog post..The Foodie Blogroll – Updated

    Mmm…I’ll be making iced coffee momentarily ๐Ÿ˜‰

  27. 07.09.2008

    A-S-A-Yesterday sister. That’s when we need to go!

    Cameras at the ready!!

    Scarlett & Viaggiatore

    Wanderlust Scarlett’s last blog post..In Thoughts Of You

    Sรฌ sรฌรฌรฌรฌรฌรฌรฌรฌรฌ!

  28. I’m with you – I adore this kind of stuff. The Capuchin Crypt in Rome and an Ossuary in Sedlec outside Prague are particular holiday highlights of my past. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for sharing! (And good for you, honoring the no photos thing – it really burns me when I see people disobeying those edicts.)

    Jessica, Italy Logue’s last blog post..Siena

    Jessica, I saw a few flashes go off while we were down there. *So* disrespectful ๐Ÿ™

  29. Stephanie

    I have been there a couple of times and found it really interesting too. I got a little freaked out when I started thinking about ‘what if the lights went out’ etc…..but very worth the visit. When we returned home to Michigan though, I was at Krogers in the checkout and noticed “The Enquirer”, and guess who was on the front page? Yep, Little Rosalia Lombardi!!!!! The people in line thought I was completely nuts! I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s little Rosalia”.

    What a coincidence! Yeah, I’m not sure I’d enjoy the little tour with the lights out….

  30. Hey! I recognize those cappuccini!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Cherrye at My Bella Vita’s last blog post..Guest Blogger Linda: Green Eggs and Ham

    *All* the cappuccini, I’m sure! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  31. Connie Costa

    What excellent pictures and yes, I agree with everyone else that the picture of Rosalia is pretty freaky! And I agree with you about how delicious cappuccino is!

    Mmm I can taste the cappuccino now Connie….

  32. vastedda

    Good job on the Cappucini Catacombs.BTW, “Rosalia” was named after Santa Rosalia,the patron saint of Palermo-whose shrine is located on Monte Pellegrino.If you really want to see a festa,the festa di’Santa Rusalia in Palermo in mid-July is it! Sicilian street food you have heard of and never have heard of. Warning-Hot and Crowded. BTW, it’s “Rusalia” in Sicilian. Rosalia Lombardo is hereabouts A.K.A.”a bedda ‘durmentata”-Sicilian for the beautiful dormant one or “Sleeping Beauty”,also “a bedda’angeluzza ‘ri Palermu’ “-Sicilian for the beautiful little angel of Palermo. E comu’no!On the farther side of the Cappucini monastery there is a NORMAL cemetary where Giuseppe Tommasi,Principe di Lampedusa (Prince of Lampedusa) is buried.The Good Prince is the author of “The Leopard” -“Il Gattopardo” upon which the 60’s movie with Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale is based.The film is regarded as the Sicilian “Gone with the wind”-dealing with Garibaldi’s 1860 invasion of Sicily which overthrew the Bourbons and added Sicily to the unified Italian nation. Thanks for the Cappucini article.

    Thanks so much for sharing all this info! I *loved* Palermo ๐Ÿ™‚

  33. cindy bentley

    I would have loved to have seen this in person with you and then we would have went to Rome and enjoyed the one there even more. I found the one in Rome like you found this place to be very calming and enjoyed it thouroghly. I really didn’t want to leave it.

    Who woulda thought, Cindy? I hope to visit more around Italy ๐Ÿ™‚

  34. 02.01.2011

    I can’t seem to find any information on how these people died – especially as there were quite a few kids among the dead. This doesn’t seem to be your regular cemetery, as I’m sure that there was more than enough land in the whole of Sicily to have laid them to rest. Can anyone point me to some history explaining what circumstances surrounded their deaths?

    There isn’t anything special about the way these people died; this was simply a way to “store” dead bodies at the time — the people come from all walks of life, although it was a bit of an honor to be placed in the catacombs. They are separated inside by professions, sex, age, etc. Also, it should be noted that cemeteries in Italy generally aren’t underground; they are crypts above ground.

  35. kathy lynn

    I had the chance to go to the catacombs in the late 80s. I loved it. It is kind of weird walking around with all the dead bodies hanging on the wall. I saw a National Geographic channel last night and they covered this and it brought back many memories. I enjoyed looking at your pictures.

    Thanks for coming by, Kathy!

  1. [...] Ooh, I just love catacombs and crypts and cemeteries… Dunno why. But here’s yet another that...
  2. [...] Rome where bones are stacked along the walls. In Palermo, it’s something quite different. The Capu...
Michelle KaminskyMichelle Kaminsky is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer who lived in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy for 15 years. This blog is now archived. 

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