Italy is the country that, in all likelihood, boasts the largest number of mummies in the world. Apart from Egypt, in fact, no other culture has made mummification of the dead such a pervasive and long-lived practice as it has happened in our peninsula: in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo alone, there are more than 1200 mummies, and the ancient “scolatoi” (drainers), used to dehydrate the remains of the deceased, are found almost everywhere, from Lombardy to Puglia.
In addition to artificial mummification, in Italy there are some cases of spontaneous mummification, in which the corpses escaped the normal processes of putrefaction due to the particular microclimate of the burial ground.
One of the most remarkable examples of natural preservation is found in the heart of Italy, on the southern border of Umbria.
Located in the Valnerina valley, the Umbrian municipality of Ferentillo remains perched at the foot of the ruins of its ancient fortress. The inhabited area, divided by the Nera river (and today by the provincial road) into two villages called Precetto and Matterella, was originally founded by the Lombards; it was later assigned by Pope Innocent VIII to his natural son Franceschetto Cybo.
Franceschetto, who over the years accumulated excellent fiefdoms and appointments, in reality always lived on income due to the fact that he was the legitimate son of the Pope and, it is said, was a somewhat dissolute character, utterly devoted to pleasures: it is no coincidence that he died in 1519 for indigestion during an official banquet. This did not prevent him, however, from making the small town of Ferentillo, which had been his first county, flourish architecturally; under his reign, and later that of his son Lorenzo, the village became an important cultural center.
In the half of the town called Precetto, the Cybo family had a church dedicated to Santo Stefano built on the foundations of a previous temple.
Thus, under the new church, the spaces which originally constituted the medieval place of worship were filled with resulting materials and used as a burial ground: the deceased of Precetto were entombed here until the second half of the 19th century.
About a decade before the cemetery was definitively abandoned, the remains were exhumed and 25 bodies were found to have spontaneously mummified.
In 1861, the doctor and politician Carlo Maggiorani examined some of these mummies, with the help of chemist Vincenzo Latini.
In his report to the Accademia dei Lincei<fn>C. Maggiorani, Sulle Mummie di Ferentillo: notizie raccolte dal prof. C. Maggiorani: accompagnate dall’analisi chimica della terra di quel Cimitero istituita dal Chimico Farmacista signor Vincenzo Latini, in Atti dell’Accademia Pontificia de’ Nuovi Lincei, Vol XV 1861-62, Roma 1862.</fn>, published the following year, Maggiorani noted how the mummification had maintained the somatic features of the deceased in an exceptional way: “There is a centenary mummy in which the descendants are able to recognize at a glance the features of their family, and if it were necessary to declare it before the Forum it could be easily determined whether it was Mr So-and-so, or not. […] The color of these mummies, which tends to yellowish, does not differ much from the natural color of corpses, and therefore does not inspire the disgust usually excited by dead bodies preserved by means of art. The hair, beard, eyelashes, eyebrows, armpit and pubic hair, nails remain to decorate the regions where they are distributed.“
Over time, the mummies of Ferentillo have most likely lost much of the “freshness” that Maggiorani had found and praised so much, but hair and nails remain effectively visible and well preserved even today.
The scholar also reported, in rather colorful terms, the extreme lightness of the mummies, which in fact weigh only 6 or 7 kilos: “Once all the tissues are completely dried, the joints stiffen in such a way that by gripping the legs you can treat the corpse as if it were a pole. An operation that is all the easier to perform due to the singular lightness of these bodies […].”
Among the more curious passages, there’s one in which Maggiorani expresses a veiled hope that these mummies could be studied in order to replicate the technique for funerary purposes — a concern that in those years, given the very recent unification of Italy, was shared by many. I also mention this in my book on the petrifier Paolo Gorini: at the time, there were several experiments in alternative treatments of the remains, essentially aimed at taking away from the Church the dominion over the management of the corpses and, ultimately, over the world of the dead.
In fact, Maggiorani wrote: “Would it be utopian to wish that the conservative conditions of the corpses in Ferentillo were studied with scrupulous diligence to the point of reproducing them completely, for the purpose of preserving the dead from decay? When we read in Plutarch that the Egyptians, in their most solemn banquets, placed the embalmed corpses of the Ancestors around the table, our soft mind shuns the gloomy image of those sepulchral banquets, and we are induced to dismiss this as a barbaric custom. But that the remains of many relatives, instead of being condemned to become a pasture for worms, were, without danger to the living, so effectively preserved as to restore their effigy after a long time, and to spread over them some tears of tender remembrance in days of affliction — it is thought for which no one should be laughed at.“
The scientific conclusion reached by Maggiorani’s study was that spontaneous mummification had occurred due to the particular chemical composition of the soil, and to the good ventilation of the crypt guaranteed by the four grated windows, near which — not surprisingly — the 25 mummies had been found.
In reality, however, there is still no definitive and completely exhaustive explanation, because a concomitance of factors often comes into play.
A 1991 study stated: “there are basic conditions that favor dehydration processes (good ventilation of the room, such as in the catacombs; sandy soil; etc.) but these are not sufficient to explain the complex chemical modifications that take place in soft parts of the body. Natural mummification begins with autolytic processes similar to those of normal putrefaction but for reasons not yet fully understood at a certain point the protein substances resist further decomposition. The action of other environmental factors cannot be excluded, such as plant roots invading the body and modifying its chemical conditions, microorganisms, fungi and microelements present in the soil or in the coffin. Natural mummification is probably the result of a combination of all these factors.“<fn>E. Fulcheri, P. Baracchini, C. Crestani, A. Drusini, Studio preliminare delle mummie naturali di Ferentillo. Esame istologico e immunoistochimico della cute, in Riv. It. Med. Leg. XIII, 1991.</fn>
Today the Museum of Mummies has been set up in the spaces of the medieval crypt, of which a faded remnant can be seen in some surviving frescoes. Inside glass cases (unfortunately, very poorly lit in order not to alter the delicate condition of the mummies) 24 dried bodies can still be admired: the oldest dates back to the 18th century, the most recent is from the 19th century.
Among the most particular mummies there is a Chinese woman, who died of the plague in the 18th century and whose feet show the characteristic deformation from binding called the “Golden Lotus”, which I talked about in this episode of the web series. But paleopathologists also found some cases of traumatic injuries, a macrocephalus infant, a face tumor and a suspected case of leprosy.
At the bottom of the crypt the skeletonized remains of most of the people who were buried here (about 270 skulls) are arranged in large display cases. However, some of these skulls also show signs of partial mummification. Also exhibited are an ancient, still sealed coffin, and an eagle which was mummified at the end of the 19th century during experiments on the chemical properties of the burial ground.
As anyone who follows my work knows, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which humanity has tried to preserve the likeness of their loved ones; and while I was looking with wonder at these dried bodies, the thought that went through me was exactly the same that opens the report by Maggiorani, which I quote here in closing:
The respect every cultured nation has shown for the deceased, the vanity of the Powerful wishing to free the bodies of their ancestors from the disgusting consequences of death, and the communal desire to keep the dear remains of the relatives uncorrupted, have always suggested artifices suitable to subtract this organic part of us from the empire of chemical laws that condemn it to decay. But while man by one means or another tries to achieve this goal, Nature, either alone or with a few aids from human craft, sometimes reaches it completely.
Here is the official website of the Museum of the Mummies of Ferentillo. The mummies are currently being studied by Dr. Dario Piombino-Mascali (University of Vilnius), who also wrote the preface of my volume on the mummies of the Catacombs of Palermo.