The Natural Mummies of Ferentillo

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(1)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., 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.(2)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.

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.

Note

Note
1 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.
2 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.

The Mummies of Palermo: A Silent Dialogue

This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.

You never forget your first.
As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.

A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.

The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.

Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.

Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.

That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.

My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.

The Golden Mummy

What’s inside the giant surprise egg above?

How lucky! It’s a mummy!

These photos date back to 2016; they were taken in the temple of Chongfu, located on a hill in the city of Quanzhou in China, during the opening of the vase containing the mummified remains of Fu Hou, a Buddhist monk who had died in 2012 at the age of 94.

The body still sat in the lotus position and looked well-preserved; so it was washed and disinfected, wrapped in gauze, sealed in red lacquer and finally covered with gold leaves. He was dressed and placed inside a glass case, so that he could be revered by worshippers.

Mummification of those monks who are believed to have achieved a higher spiritual perfection is not unheard of: at one time a sort of “self-mummification” was even practised (I wrote about it in this old post, Italian only). And in 2015, some Dutch scholars made a CT scan of a statue belonging to the Drents Museum collection and discovered that it contained the remains of master Liquan, who died around 1100 AD.

It might seem a paradox that in the Buddhist tradition, which has made accepting impermanence (anitya) one of the cornerstones of ritual and contemplative practice, so much attention is placed on the bodies of these “holy” monks, to the extent of turning them into relics.
But veneration for such characters is probably an effect of the syncretism, which took place in China, between Buddhism and Taoism; the Buddhist concept of arhat, which indicates the person who has experienced nirvana (even without reaching the higher status of bodhisattva or true “buddhahood“), has blended with the Taoist figure of zhenren, the “True Man”, able to spontaneously conform his actions to the Tao.

In the excellent preservation of the mummies, many Buddhists see a proof that these great spiritual masters are not really dead, but simply suspended in an advanced, perfect state of meditation.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 4

As I am quite absorbed in the Academy of Enchantment, which we just launched, so you will forgive me if I fall back on a new batch of top-notch oddities.

  • Remember my article on smoked mummies? Ulla Lohmann documented, for the first time ever, the mummification process being carried out on one of the village elders, a man the photographer knew when he was still alive. The story of Lohmann’s respectful stubbornness in getting accepted by the tribe, and the spectacular pictures she took, are now on National Geographic.

  • Collective pyres burning for days in an unbearable stench, teeth pulled out from corpses to make dentures, bones used as fertilizers: welcome to the savage world of those who had to clean up Napoleonic battlefields.
  • Three miles off the Miami coast there is a real underwater cemetery. Not many of your relatives will take scuba lessons just to pay their last respects, but on the other hand, your grave will become part of the beautiful coral reef.

  • This one is for those of you acquainted with the worst Italian TV shows. In one example of anaesthetic television — comforting and dull, offering the mirage of an effortless win, a fortune that comes out of nowhere — the host randomly calls a phone number, and if the call is picked up before the fifth ring then a golden watch is awarded to the receiver. But here’s where the subversive force of memento mori comes in: in one of the latest episodes, an awkward surprise awaited the host. “Is this Mrs. Anna?” “No, Mrs. Anna just died.“, a voice replies.
    For such a mindless show, this is the ultimate ironic defeat: the embarassed host cannot help mumbling, “At this point, our watch seems useless…

  • How can we be sure that a dead body is actually dead? In the Nineteenth Century this was a major concern. That is why some unlucky workers had to pull cadaver tongues, while others tried to stick dead fingers into their own ears; there were those who even administered tobacco enemas to the dead… by blowing through a pipe.
  • What if Monty Python were actually close to the truth, in their Philosphers Song portraying the giants of thought as terminal drunkards? An interesting long read on the relationship between Western philosophy and the use of psychoactive substances.
  • If you haven’t seen it, there is a cruel radiography shattering the self-consolatory I-am-just-big-boned mantra.

  • Man will soon land on Mars, likely. But in addition to bringing life on the Red Planet, we will also bring another novelty: death. What would happen to a dead body in a Martian atmosphere, where there are no insects, no scavengers or bacteria? Should we bury our dead, cremate them or compost them? Sarah Laskow on AtlasObscura.
  • In closing, here is a splendid series of photographs entitled Wilder Mann. All across Europe, French photographer Charles Fréger documented dozens of rural masquerades. Creepy and evocative, these pagan figures stood the test of time, and for centuries now have been annoucing the coming of winter.

The Academy of Enchantment

The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.

Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.

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Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.

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This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.

And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.

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What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.

You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.

I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.

This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.

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In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods.
The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”

Smoked mummies

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The Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea, is home to the Anga people.
Once fearsome warriors, leading terrible raids in nearby peaceful villages, today the Anga have learned how to profit from a peculiar kind of tourism. Anthropologists, adventurers and curious travelers come to the isolated villages of Morobe Highlands just to see their famous smoked mummies.

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It’s not clear when the practice first started, but it could be at least 200 years old. It was officially prohibited in 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent; therefore the most recent mummies date back to the years following the Second World War.

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This treatment of honor was usually reserved for the most valiant warriors: as soon as they died, they were bled dry, disemboweled and put over a fire to cure. The smoking could last even more than a month. At last, when the body was completely dry, all corporal cavities were sewn shut and the whole corpse was smeared with mud and red clay to further preserve the flesh from deteriorating, and to form a protective layer against insects and scavengers.
Many sources report that the fat deriving from the smoking process was saved and later used as cooking oil, but this detail might be a fantasy of the first explorers (for instance Charles Higgingon, who was the first to report about the mummies in 1907): whenever Westeners came in contact with remote and “primitive” tribes, they often wanted to see cannibalism even in rituals that did not involve any.

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The smoked bodies were then brought, after a ritual ceremony, on mountain slopes overlooking the village. Here they were secured to the steep rock face using bamboo structures, so they could act as a lookout, protecting the abodes in the underlying valley. This way, they maintained their warrior status even after their death.

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The bodies are still worshipped today, and sometimes brought back to the village to be restored: the dead man’s descendants change the bush rope bandages, and secure the bones to the sticks, before placing the ancestor back to his lookout post.

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Despite the mummies being mainly those of village warriors, as mentioned, among them are sometimes found the remains of some woman who held a particularly important position within the tribe. The one in the following picture is still holding a baby to her breast.

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This method for preserving the bodies, as peculiar as it looks, closely resembles both the Toraja funeral rites of Indonesia (I talked about them in this post) and the much more ancient “fire mummies” which can be found in Kabayan, in northern Philippines. Here the corpse was also placed over a fire to dry, curled in fetal position; tobacco smoke was blown into the dead man’s mouth to further parch internal organs. The prepared bodies were then put in pinewood coffins and layed down in natural caves or in niches especially dug inside the mountains. The ancestor spirit’s integrity was thus guaranteed, so he could keep on protecting the village and assuring its prosperity.

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In The Eternal Vigil I have written about how, until recent times, the Palermo Catacombs allowed a contact with the afterlife, so much so that young boys could learn their family history before the mummies, and ask for their help and benevolence. Death was not really the end of existence, and did not present itself as an irreparable separation, because between the two spheres an ongoing interchange took place.
In much the same way, on the other side of the world, ritual mummification guaranteed communication between the dead and the living, defining a clear but not impenetrable threshold between the two worlds. Death was a change of state, so to speak, but did not erase the personality of the deceased, nor his role within the community, which became if possible even more relevant.

Even today, when asked by a local guide escorting the tourists to see the mummies, an Anga man can point to one of the corpses hanging from the rock, and present him with these words: “That’s my grandpa“.

(Thanks, batisfera!)

Il primo libro di Bizzarro Bazar!

Nel tradizionale post di capodanno, avevamo preannunciato che nel 2014 ci sarebbe stata una grossa novità… eccola infatti: Bizzarro Bazar approda finalmente nelle librerie, e non con un libro, ma con un’intera collana!

Il progetto parte dalla casa editrice Logos, e si propone di esplorare le meraviglie nascoste d’Italia attraverso una serie di volumi monografici.
“Meraviglie”: a chi segua anche saltuariamente questo blog non sarà sfuggito che l’accezione del termine che ci interessa maggiormente è quella etimologica, mirabilia, vale a dire tutte quelle cose strabilianti che destano stupore e curiosità. L’Italia, in questo senso, è un’immensa wunderkammer straripante di luoghi e collezioni incredibili. In linea con l’orientamento editoriale di Bizzarro Bazar, e con la speranza di stimolare la riflessione sul patrimonio antropologico e culturale italiano, esploreremo il lato forse meno celebrato e meno conosciuto della nostra Penisola, alla ricerca dell’incanto.

In questo viaggio saranno centrali le fotografie di Carlo Vannini, artista sul quale è bene spendere qualche parola. Fotografo d’arte fra i più rinomati, Carlo ha aderito con entusiasmo al progetto, conscio che la bellezza non risiede esclusivamente nella proporzione delle forme di stampo classico: più che impreziosirne le pagine, le sue fotografie saranno il vero punto focale dei volumi della collana. Nessuno come lui sa portare alla luce (visto che con essa egli dipinge le sue fotografie) i dettagli che al nostro occhio rimarrebbero inosservati. Così, le sue foto si propongono al lettore come una vera e propria guida alla visione.

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Questo primo volume della collana, intitolato La veglia eterna, è dedicato alle Catacombe dei Cappuccini di Palermo. Certamente non un luogo nascosto e sconosciuto, ma un imprescindibile punto di partenza per parlare delle meraviglie “alternative” d’Italia.

Le Catacombe dei Cappuccini ospitano la più grande collezione di mummie artificiali e naturali del mondo. Il libro ripercorre la storia di questo luogo unico che da sempre ha affascinato poeti e intellettuali, analizza la sua rilevanza antropologica e tanatologica, oltre a svelare le tecniche e i processi attraverso i quali i Frati riuscivano a preservare perfettamente i corpi.

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Dalla cartella stampa:

Il lettore viene accompagnato a scendere i gradini che conducono alle catacombe e, oltrepassato il cancello, eccole: le mummie. Riposano in piedi nelle nicchie bianche, nei loro antichi abiti, e assomigliano a una versione macabra delle vecchie foto in bianco e nero, in cui uomini con grandi baffi e donne con grandi sottane se ne stavano in posa, impalati come manichini. Tra queste spicca la piccola Rosalia, dolcemente adagiata nella sua minuscola bara: il suo volto è sereno, la pelle appare morbida e distesa, e le lunghe ciocche di capelli biondi raccolte in un fiocco giallo le donano un’incredibile sensazione di vita. Se Rosalia Lombardo è stata imbalsamata, come altri corpi presenti nelle Catacombe, la maggior parte delle salme ha invece subìto un processo di mummificazione naturale – vale a dire senza che fossero eliminati viscere e cervello oppure iniettati particolari liquidi conservanti. La mummificazione è una tradizione antichissima in Europa, che in Sicilia ha preso particolarmente piede, e le Catacombe di Palermo rimangono l’espressione più straordinaria di questa tradizione, in ragione del numero di corpi conservati al loro interno (1252 corpi e 600 bare in legno, alcune delle quali vuote, secondo un censimento del 2011). Pagina dopo pagina, il libro si offre come una guida storica e storico-artistica alla più grande collezione di mummie spontanee e artificiali al mondo.

Quello che troverete nel volume è: la storia delle Catacombe, di come siano arrivate a diventare un sito ineguagliato per il numero di mummie presenti al suo interno; la precisa descrizione dei metodi di conservazione (tanatometamorfosi) utilizzati dai Frati per preservare i corpi; vari e curiosi aneddoti sul rapporto dei Palermitani con la morte; l’influenza esercitata dalle Catacombe sulla letteratura; una disamina scrupolosa del contesto antropologico all’interno del quale è stato possibile creare un simile luogo, nonché delle sue implicazioni etiche, religiose e filosofiche.

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Il libro è frutto di mesi di lavoro intenso, e dell’entusiasmo di tutte le professionalità coinvolte nella sua realizzazione. Senza esagerare, stimiamo in particolare che le fotografie di Carlo Vannini siano assolutamente inedite, e che mai nella storia di questo straordinario cimitero qualcuno abbia realizzato degli scatti altrettanto significativi.

L’uscita del volume è programmata per la metà di ottobre: potete però prenotare la vostra copia, scontata del 15% sul prezzo di copertina, a questo indirizzo.

Ecco un booktrailer che vi saprà introdurre, meglio di mille parole, alla magia del libro.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyca5dF98r8]

Per prenotare il libro: Logos Edizioni.
Il sito di Carlo Vannini.

La Chiesa dei Morti

La Chiesa dei Morti ad Urbania, nelle Marche, ospita 18 corpi mummificati, di cui 15 sono mummie naturali. I loro corpi, cioè, si sono conservati grazie ad alcune particolarità ambientali, e non a causa di procedimenti artificiali di preservazione.

Sembra che la ragione di questa perfetta mummificazione sia da imputare a una particolare muffa (Hipha bombicina pers): i corpi essiccati, grazie anche alle proprietà geologiche del suolo, si sarebbero ricoperti interamente di questa muffa che avrebbe impedito l’accesso dell’aria ai tessuti, e di conseguenza la putrefazione. I cadaveri, oltre alla struttura scheletrica, conservano la pelle, gli organi interni e in alcuni casi anche i capelli e gli organi genitali.

Dalla pagina del sito ufficiale del Comune dedicata alle mummie (che contiene anche informazioni e orari):

“Ciascuno dei 18 personaggi nasconde vicende e storie sorprendenti.
Al centro del gruppo il priore della Confraternita Vincenzo Piccini, la moglie Maddalena e il figlio (che furono mummificati in seguito, con procedimenti chimici e non naturali). Quindi altri corpi, sormontati da cartigli con frasi bibliche che invitano a meditare sulla caducità della vita.
Tra le mummie più antiche quelle del fornaio detto “Lunano” e della donna morta di parto.
Tra i 18 corpi c’è anche quello del giovane accoltellato in una veglia danzante, con lo squarcio della lama; di questo personaggio viene mostrato il cuore essiccato e trafitto dal pugnale; quindi è esposta la mummia dell’impiccato.
Fra tutte, la storia più drammatica, è certamente quella dell’uomo che, si racconta, fu sepolto vivo in stato di morte apparente e si risvegliò nella tomba.”

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(Grazie, Giuseppe!)

I pietrificatori

Fra tutte le varie forme di conservazione di resti anatomici, quella che ancora oggi suscita stupore e incredulità è la cosiddetta “pietrificazione”. Alcuni grandi scienziati hanno portato questa tecnica ad impensabili livelli, e si tratta principalmente di una tradizione tutta italiana.

Il primo e il più importante nome di questa famiglia di pietrificatori è senza dubbio Girolamo Segato (1792-1836). Nativo del bellunese, fin da ragazzo iniziò a costruire una sua personale collezione di oggetti naturalistici: semplici vestigia di animali raccolte durante le sue camminate sulle Dolomiti, che però risvegliarono nel giovane Segato la passione per la natura e le sue forme. Imbarcatosi più tardi per l’Egitto, si trovò ad esaminare e studiare numerose mummie, arrivando ad elaborare alcune personali teorie sul processo di mummificazione a cui erano state sottoposte. Così, una volta tornato in Italia, cominciò a sperimentare diverse tecniche per fissare nel tempo le forme corporee.

Mediante la sua “mineralizzazione” Segato riusciva a conservare in modo pressoché perfetto i suoi preparati, preservando in alcuni casi anche il colore naturale e l’elasticità dei tessuti. Gran parte delle sue pietrificazioni sono giunte intatte fino ai giorni nostri, e sono conservate all’interno dell’Università di Firenze (ne avevamo già parlato all’interno della nostra serie di articoli sui musei anatomici italiani).

Purtroppo Girolamo Segato portò nella tomba il segreto del suo metodo straordinario. Al di fuori della comunità scientifica, infatti, pochi si resero conto dell’importanza del suo lavoro: accusato di stregoneria, si vide negata ogni richiesta di finanziamento per la sua ricerca. Segato costruì un incredibile tavolo “di carne”, che conteneva alcune decine di preparati pietrificati e incastonati nel legno, e lo offrì al Granduca di Toscana per impressionarlo. Quando anche quest’ultimo rifiutò di sostenerlo economicamente, l’anatomista bruciò tutti i suoi appunti e le sue carte.

Fu sepolto nella Basilica di Santa Croce a Firenze. Sulla sua lapide sono incise queste tristi parole: “Qui giace disfatto Girolamo Segato, che vedrebbesi intero pietrificato, se l’arte sua non periva con lui. Fu gloria insolita dell’umana sapienza, esempio d’infelicità non insolito”.

Di poco più giovane di Segato, Giovan Battista Rini (1795-1856), originario di Salò, utilizzò una miscela di mercurio ed altri minerali (potassio, ferro, bario e arsenico) per preservare il sistema sanguigno e i tessuti dei cadaveri: queste mummie sono oggi oggetto di studi da parte di un team italo-tedesco capitanato dall’antropologo forense Dario Piombino-Mascali, ricercatore dell’Accademia Europea di Bolzano (EURAC).

Sottoponendo le mummie a TAC e altre analisi, gli scienziati stanno cominciando a penetrare i segreti di quest’arte un tempo importantissima: i preparati anatomici avevano una funzione didattica e di studio essenziale in un’epoca in cui non esistevano celle frigorifere e in cui i cadaveri si decomponevano velocemente.

Del pietrificatore, anatomista e scienziato Paolo Gorini (1813-1881), invece, conosciamo per fortuna alcuni dei procedimenti, scoperti nell’archivio delle sue carte: per i suoi preparati utilizzava tecniche diverse, ma la formula di base consisteva in un’iniezione di bicloruro di mercurio e muriato di calce direttamente nell’arteria e vena femorale; dato il numero delle successive iniezioni e delle “disinfezioni”, il processo era lungo, costoso ed estremamente tossico per chi lo praticava.

Efisio Marini (1835-1900) riusciva a pietrificare addirittura il sangue: è curioso l’aneddoto che racconta come, venuto in possesso del sangue di Giuseppe Garibaldi raccolto sull’Aspromonte, lo solidificò e lo plasmò facendone un medaglione che poi regalò a Garibaldi stesso, il quale lo ringraziò con lettera ufficiale. Pur essendo divenuto celebre grazie alle sue pietrificazioni (ci resta in particolare una mano di giovane fanciulla perfettamente conservata all’Università di Sassari), Marini era ossessionato dal mantenere segrete le sue formule, e finì la sua vita in povertà, circondato dalla sua collezione anatomica, evitato da tutti per via della sua sinistra paranoia.