Capuchin Catacombs

It was originally intended that Capuchin monks be interred in the Capuchin Catacombs (also Catacombe dei Cappuccini or Catacombs of the Capuchins) that are located in the Calatafimi District a bit to the west of Arab-Norman San Giovanni Degli Eremiti Church (now a museum) and the Norman Palace that contains the beautiful Cappella Paletina (Paletine Chapel).

The Capuchin crypt in Palermo was begun in 1599 by the Capuchin monks who began to excavate crypts when they outgrew the above ground cemetery. Not long after the first monk was entombed, getting entombed in the Palermo catacombs became a status symbol for the wealthier local people, who often detailed these last wishes in their wills. Some asked that they be buried in certain clothes and some asked for regular maintenance, such as having their clothes changed periodically. This was all paid for by the estate or relatives of the dead. Family members could visit, and even hold hands in prayer with their departed loved ones. So long as maintenance fees were paid, bodies remained in place. If the money stopped, the bodies were stored on a shelf. Resuming payment would get them back on display and accessible. Some 8,000 mummies line the walls and halls, rivaling the Catacombs of San Callisto in Rome.

The Capuchin Catacombs present one of the more macabre Palermo attractions, although the nearly 300 years of history displayed here is fascinating. Here you can view separate halls full of wealthy men and women dressed in the finery of the day, Capuchin monks and priests wearing their vestments, babies in christening gowns, and uniformed soldiers. There is even a hall reserved specifically for virgins, who are so identified with plaques and nameplates. Perhaps most poignant mummies are those of the children—two children, for instance, are touchingly posed together in a rocking chair. Mummification was outlawed in 1881, but a later exception was made for one of the Palermo Catacombs most famous residents. Two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo died and was entombed here in 1920. She is remarkably preserved—so much so that she has been given the nickname of “Sleeping Beauty.”

The order of Capuchin monks separated from the Franciscans in 1525 because of their desire to return a more fundamental method of assisting the poor as St. Francis directed. Their simple attire consisted of sandals and brown robe with a hood (or capuce). Cappuccino coffee derives its name from the color of their robes. As here in Sicily, you will find Capuchin monasteries all over Europe and the rest of the world. They are especially numerous in southern Italy, but can be found in places as varied as Amalfi, Naples, Ancona, and Rome.

The grounds where the Palermo Catacombs are located contain a monastery today. The church was built over the remains of a medieval church in 1623, and contains some works by Ignazio Marabiti, a noted Italian sculptor. But it is the Capuchin Catacombs that draw most visitors. After exploring the maze of halls under the above-ground cemetery, you can visit other nearby Palermo attractions, like the Cuba. The Cuba is a palace built in 1180 by William II of Sicily who used it as a recreational place. As its name implies, it is a square structure with strong Arab and Fatimid influences.

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