Italian Mummies: Cryptic Histories and Ancient Preservation Techniques

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Mysteries of the Italian Mummies: Mummification Traditions and Cultures

Italy is one of the countries with the highest number of natural mummies in the world, boasting over 3,000 specimens. Natural mummies are bodies preserved through natural processes without the human intervention typical of artificial mummification techniques. This phenomenon can occur in various environments such as cold and icy areas, desert climates, or places where atmospheric and chemical conditions allow for significant preservation of bodily tissues.

The conditions that facilitate natural mummification include low humidity, which prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi that normally degrade organic tissues; cold temperatures, which can slow down decomposition processes; anaerobic environments, which limit the activity of microorganisms that decompose bodies; and chemical substances, where some soils and waters may contain preservative elements like mineral salts.

The-mummies-of-Venzone
The Venzone mummies

The Venzone mummies

The Venzone mummies are a group of naturally preserved bodies discovered in the 16th century during construction at the Venzone cathedral in Italy. The preservation is believed to be the result of a combination of environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, high levels of calcium sulfate in the soil, and the presence of the moisture-retaining fungus, Hypha bombycina. Originally interred during the Black Death when burial space was scarce, these mummies were rediscovered in 1647. They gained notoriety and were examined in prestigious institutions across Europe, including by Napoleon. Local folklore revered these mummies as village protectors until the 1950s when their existence gained international attention through photographs published by Jack Birns in Life magazine.

The Mummies of Ferentillo

Ferentillo-mummies
The Mummies of Ferentillo

The Museum of Mummies in Ferentillo, Province of Terni, displays mummified bodies discovered at the end of the 19th century in the crypt of the town’s old church. These mummies were naturally preserved through a combination of microorganisms and unique ventilation that prevented decay. Over time, humidity began to damage the mummies and their garments, prompting the creation of a new museum in 1992 to better conserve these remains with improved display cases. The museum’s collection includes 24 human mummies, 10 preserved heads, over 270 skulls, and two mummified birds. Among the notable mummies are a Napoleonic soldier, a murderer with his victim, and two Chinese lovers who died in 1750.

The Catacombs of Palermo and Rosalia Lombardo

cappuccini-catacombs-001

The Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo, Italy, are renowned for their historical and cultural significance, housing around 8,000 mummies, including the well-preserved infant Rosalia Lombardo. Initially, a conventional cemetery, the Capuchin monastery turned to underground crypts in the 16th century due to limited space. Mummification techniques varied, from dehydration to embalming, with some bodies placed in sealed glass cabinets. What distinguishes these catacombs are the personal touches, like monks buried in their habits. Originally, the catacombs were exclusively for friars but later attracted Palermo’s elite, becoming a status symbol for burial. Sections categorize mummies, showcasing various preservation levels, with some posed, like two children in a rocking chair.

rosalia-lombardo
Rosalia Lombardo

Families had access to coffins, allowing for intimate connections during visits. Among the notable mummies is Rosalia Lombardo, a young girl preserved in 1918. Alfredo Salafia‘s expert embalming techniques have kept her remarkably intact, with her body displayed in a chapel atop a wooden pedestal.

The Mummies of Roccapelago

The Mummies of Roccapelago
The Mummies of Roccapelago, source

The Mummies of Roccapelago (16th-18th centuries) offer a unique glimpse into the life and death of a small community in the Apennine region of Modena. Discovered between December 2010 and March 2011 during restoration work in the Church of the Conversion of Saint Paul in Roccapelago, Pievepelago, archaeologists uncovered a mass grave containing 281 individuals, including adults, elderly, infants, and stillborns, with about 60 of them being perfectly mummified. This find represents not just a cemetery predating the current churchyard established in the 18th century, but also an accidental natural preservation of an entire community due to the crypt’s unique microclimate facilitated by low humidity and good aeration from two windows.

The crypt served as a burial site for over two centuries, displaying an internal arrangement where space near the current entrance was dedicated to child burials. Remarkably, the special conditions within the crypt not only preserved the bodies but also clothing, some soft tissues, and hair, providing an invaluable resource for studying nearly three centuries of peasant life, beliefs, traditions, and daily practices of this ancient mountain community.

Mummy of St. Zita

Body of Saint Zita in the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca
Body of Saint Zita in the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca

Santa Zita was born in 1218 in Monsagrati, Lucca, and dedicated her life to service as a domestic servant for the Fatinelli family in Lucca from the age of 12 until her death in 1278. Known for her charity work among the poor, she gained the respect and admiration of her employers, who ensured her comfort in her final years. Zita was canonized in 1695, centuries after her death. Her naturally preserved mummified body is currently displayed in the Fatinelli Chapel of the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca. The mummy measures approximately 1.43 meters and is in good condition despite some natural decay and evidence of binding at the wrists, waist, and ankles.

Mummies of the Aragonese Sovereigns in Naples

Mummies of the Aragonese Sovereigns in Naples
Giovanni d’Aragona (1566-1571), son of Antonio, IV Duke of Montalto (top), Pietro d’Aragona, III Duke of Montalto (1540-1552) (bottom)

In Naples, the Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore holds the mummies of Aragonese sovereigns, which include kings and nobles from the Aragon dynasty. These mummies are significant both historically and scientifically, as they provide insights into the burial practices and lifeways of Italian nobility in the medieval period. The mummification occurred under unique conditions that have preserved the bodies for several centuries.

Ötzi the Iceman

Helmut Simon photographed Ötzi the Iceman, frozen in the glacier, when he discovered the body in September 1991.
Helmut Simon photographed Ötzi the Iceman, frozen in the glacier, when he discovered the body in September 1991, source

Ötzi, also known as the Iceman or the Man from Similaun, naturally mummified in a glacier and is considered a wet mummy, meaning his body dehydrated while preserving most tissues. The phenomenon contrasted with traditional mummification practices that involved treating bodies with preservatives and removing organs. Found in the Ötztal Alps, Ötzi was named by journalist Karl Wendl and is now displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, in a cell mimicking the glacier’s conditions. Despite being over 5,300 years old, his body, organs, and bones are well-preserved, providing insights into the health, diet, and lifestyle of people from his time. At the time of his death, he was around 45 years old, approximately 1.60 meters tall, and his remains weigh about 13 kg today. His preserved condition has allowed scientists to conduct detailed studies, including his potential causes of death and the presence of various diseases or health conditions.

Mummies of the Brotherhood of the Good Death in Urbania
Mummies of the Brotherhood of the Good Death in Urbania

Mummies of the Brotherhood of the Good Death in Urbania

The mummies housed in the Church of San Giovanni Decollato in Urbania, Italy, represent a rare instance of natural preservation. The church itself dates back to the late 14th century, originally constructed in the Romanesque style and subsequently modified with Gothic elements, such as the distinctive ogival portal. By the mid-16th century, it became the base for the Brotherhood of San Giovanni Decollato. Inside, eighteen coffins are arranged semicircularly within a chapel, containing mummies from between the 17th and 19th centuries—six females and twelve males. These bodies were preserved naturally without any prior mummification processes, a phenomenon attributed to the antibacterial and bactericidal properties of the fungus Hypha bombycina. This fungus is believed to have prevented decomposition, allowing the bodies to slowly dehydrate and desiccate over time.

Medieval Mummy of Blessed Antonio Patrizi

Beato Antonio Patrizi da Monticiano mummy, © Leon George Higley source

The Blessed Antonio Patrizi, whose mummified remains are kept in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Monticiano, Siena, central Italy, presents a notable example of medieval mummification. The remains have been preserved naturally, without the artificial processes often associated with mummification. Bioanthropological studies have determined that the mummy is that of an adult male. The examination revealed some pathological changes including dental calculus and suspected hallux valgus. Additionally, the preservation of the skin and internal lung tissue showed signs of anthracosis, suggesting the individual was likely exposed to smoke during his lifetime. The overall condition of the mummy indicates some deterioration, primarily due to post-mortem insect activity, which has prompted considerations for future conservation efforts to maintain the integrity of the remains.

The Mummy of Benedict the Moor

San Benedetto il Moro, revered as the co-patron of Palermo, was a Franciscan friar known for his piety and miracles. His mummified remains were long preserved and displayed in the church of the convent of Santa Maria di Gesù, in Palermo, Sicily. On July 26, 2023, a catastrophic fire on Monte Grifone ravaged the church, severely damaging the site where San Benedetto’s remains were kept. Despite the extensive damage, a few bone fragments of San Benedetto were salvaged by a group of volunteers and friars, who transferred what remained to the church of Terrasanta for safekeeping.

Antonio Franco

Antonio Franco

Antonio Franco, an Italian priest beatified by the Catholic Church, was born in Naples in 1585 and served as a royal chaplain in Spain before governing the prelature of Santa Lucia del Mela in Sicily. His remains were venerated in a crystal urn within the co-cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Notable for his documented miracles and posthumous honors, his body was meticulously examined and reassembled by anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali in 2013, ensuring its preservation under the Altar of the Crucifix in the cathedral’s left nave.

Eustochia Smeralda Calafato

In Messina’s historic Montevergine Monastery, the preserved bodies of Eustochia Smeralda Calafato, a nun from a noble family born in 1434, and of Suor Jacopa Pollicino are displayed. Eustochia Smeralda Calafato devoted her life to the strict observance of Saint Clare’s original monastic rule, overcoming significant familial opposition to establish a monastery adhering to these stringent practices. Her remains, preserved for centuries, are venerated in the monastery’s church.

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