Italian Mummies

Mummies in the Monks' Corridor of the Catacombe dei Cappuccini.

The varied geography and climatology of Italy has led to many cases of spontaneous mummification. Italian mummies display the same diversity, with a conglomeration of natural and intentional mummification spread across many centuries and cultures.

The oldest natural mummy in Europe was discovered in 1991 in the Otztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border. Nicknamed Otzi, the mummy is a 5,300 year-old male believed to be a member of the Tamins-Carasso-Isera cultural group of South Tyrol. Despite his age, a recent DNA study conducted by Walther Parson of Innsbruck Medical University revealed Otzi has 19 living genetic relatives.

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo were built in the 16th century by the monks of Palermo’s Capuchin monastery. Originally intended to hold the deliberately mummified remains of dead friars, internment in the catacombs became a status symbol for the local population in the following centuries. Burials continued until the 1920s, with one of the most famous final burials being that of Rosalia Lombardo. In all, the catacombs host nearly 8000 mummies.

The most recent discovery of mummies in Italy came in 2010, when sixty mummified human remains were found in the crypt of the Conversion of St Paul church in Roccapelago di Pievepelago, Italy. Built in the 15th Century as a cannon hold and later converted in the 16th Century, the crypt had been sealed once it had reached capacity, leaving the bodies to be protected and preserved. The crypt was reopened during restoration work on the church, revealing the diverse array of mummies inside. The bodies were quickly moved to a museum for further study.

Rosalia Lombardo

Rosalia Lombardo was an Italian child born in 1918 in Palermo, Sicily. She died on December 6 1920. It is thought that she died from a bronchial infection. Rosalia's father was sorely grieved upon her death that he approached Dr. Alfredo Salafia, a noted embalmer, to preserve her. She was one of the last corpses to be admitted to the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo in Sicily.

Thanks to Dr. Salafia's embalming techniques, the body has been well-preserved and appeared so lifelike that until recently, locals believed she must be a doll. X-rays of the body show that the organs are remarkably intact. The child appears as if she were only sleeping, hence receiving the name "Sleeping Beauty" . Rosalia Lombardo's body is kept in a small chapel at the end of the catacomb's tour and is encased in a glass covered coffin, placed on a marble pedestal. Aside from a flat and somewhat unnatural skin tone, Rosalia's body is remarkably well preserved. Many say she appears to be sleeping, and this may have been the case for some time after her death; however, it is quite obvious today she is deceased due to the discoloration that has become more pronounced since her death.

The mummification techniques used by Dr. Alfredo Salafia, which allegedly involved a chemical injection process are still a mystery as Dr. Salafia never revealed this particular technique in his lifetime. It is difficult for many to believe that Dr. Salafia developed such a complex procedure or a Chemical compound entirely independent of other experts in the field of preservation.

Methods for embalming are generally developed over time by experimentation guided by new understandings of anatomy and chemistry. If Dr. Salafia was not in communication with other preservation experts, and had in fact developed the method entirely independently he would likely have required multiple "subjects" to experiment on before achieving the quality seen with Rosalia Lombardo.

It is more likely that he used methods which he learnt privately from other embalmers, and modified these methods with his own medical knowledge. There is also no evidence that he did not educate others before his death since chemically preserved corpses are not particularly rare. Recently, the formula was found from a handwritten memoir of Salafia's. The formula apparently consisted of formalin to kill bacteria, alcohol to dry the body, glycerin to keep her from overdrying, salicylic acid to kill fungi, and the most important ingredient, zinc salts to give the body rigidity. Read More...

Lost "Sleeping Beauty" Mummy Formula Found   National Geographic - January 26, 2009
She's one of the world's best-preserved bodies: Rosalia Lombardo, a two-year-old Sicilian girl who died of pneumonia in 1920. "Sleeping Beauty," as she's known, appears to be merely dozing beneath the glass front of her coffin in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Italy. Now an Italian biological anthropologist, Dario Piombino-Mascali of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, has discovered the secret formula that preserved Rosalia's body so well. Piombino-Mascali tracked down living relatives of Alfredo Salafia, a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer who died in 1933. A search of Salafia's papers revealed a handwritten memoir in which he recorded the chemicals he injected into Rosalia's body: formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.

Formalin, now widely used by embalmers, is a mixture of formaldehyde and water that kills bacteria. Salafia was one of the first to use this for embalming bodies. Alcohol, along with the arid conditions in the catacombs, would have dried Rosalia's body and allowed it to mummify. Glycerin would have kept her body from drying out too much, and salicylic acid would have prevented the growth of fungi. But it was the zinc salts, according to Melissa Johnson Williams, executive director of the American Society of Embalmers, that were most responsible for Rosalia's amazing state of preservation. Zinc, which is no longer used by embalmers in the United States, petrified Rosalia's body. Zinc gave her rigidit. You could take her out of the casket prop her up, and she would stand by herself. Piombino-Mascali calls the self-taught Salafia an artist: "He elevated embalming to its highest level."