The mummies of Venzone are a collection of mummies discovered in Venzone, Italy, in the sixteenth century. Although similar mummies may be found elsewhere, the reason for the Venzone mummies’ preservation is still unknown. They were mummified by natural processes.
The most likely hypothesis is that the rapid mummification of the bodies was due to a perfect accidental combination of several natural elements, including suitable temperature and humidity, the high presence of calcium sulfate in the soil, and the presence of a fungus with great water-holding capacity, Hypha bombycina.
Around 20 mummified remains were discovered in 1647 as construction was being done on the Venzone cathedral’s extension, including that of the infamous “Hunchback of Venzone.” These mummies were already highly well-liked in earlier ages, to the point where some of them were investigated at the Padua University Cabinet, the Vienna Museum, and The St. Louis Cathedral in Paris. In 1807, Napoleon himself desired to go there.
The Black Death ravaged Venzone in the fourteenth century. There weren’t enough cemeteries to bury everyone’s remains after they died. By doing this, the locals were able to place the 42 remains that couldn’t be interred in the cemetery into coffins and keep them in the San Michael chapel’s basement. The coffins in the basement had to be relocated since the ancient chapel of San Michael was going to be rebuilt in 1647, 300 years later. The 42 corpses were mummified when they opened the coffin, though.
The residents thought that God had sent their forefathers to guard the village while still living (since they were unaware of the term “mummy” at the time). Then the locals wished the mummies luck and begged for assistance with any difficulties. As the village’s elders, the mummies were accorded excellent treatment. And this custom persisted up until 1950. The townspeople had to value the mummies as their forefathers.
In the 1950s, Jack Birns, an American photographer, was lost in the mountains of the Alps and needed a place to rest the night. When Jack entered Venzone village, he came across this peculiar sight: an elderly man sipping tea alongside a mummy. He published photographs of the villagers’ daily lives with the mummies in the Time magazine supplement Life. The images of the mummies from Venzone hamlet spread like wildfire over the globe.
The Venzone mummies date from a time between 1348 and 1881. The mummies were relocated to the Upper Chapel in 1845 from the cathedral crypt. Only 15 of the 21 intact mummies were retrieved from the wreckage during the 1976 earthquake in Friuli. A heritage of immeasurable anthropological relevance for understanding the way of life of the people of Friuli in earlier centuries is represented by five of them, which are currently on exhibit in the crypt of St. Michael’s baptistery. Parts of an essay by F. Savorgnan de Brazza, which had previously appeared in the French journal Cosmos, were translated and published in the American newspaper The Literary Digest in 1906. The article described the history and traits of these corpses maintained by natural causes. The first body found weighed barely 15 kilos, while the other bodies ranged in weight from 10 to 20 kilograms.
The most logical explanation, in De Brazza’s opinion, was to attribute mummification to a type of fungus called Hypha bombycina, whose spores were known to be prevalent in both tombs and wooden coffins. At the time, a variety of ideas were put out to explain the causes of mummification. This hypothesis was still just plausible conjecture, though. After the publication of De Brazza’s article and its translation, doubts remained about the mummification process, since the same could not be replicated and explained scientifically, since “the conditions that ensure [the fungus’s] life and reproduction” were still unknown. At the time of De Brazza, the number of mummies in Venzone was 42. Following the catastrophic earthquake in Friuli in 1976, the number of preserved mummies has dropped to only 15.
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