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.

50 Shades of Green: Sex With Plants

This article originally appeared on
#ILLUSTRATI n.53 – L’uomo che piantava gli alberi

When I was still attending the film school, I wrote a brief script for a short film about a man who bought a flower, a big orchid. He went home, put the orchid on his bed, caressed it, kissed it and, finally, made love with it.
The subject appeared quite comical but my intention was to make a sort of test or, even better, an exercise in style: would I be able to shoot such an absurd sex scene without making it ridiculous? Would I be able to make it even romantic? Was it possible to produce the well-known “suspension of disbelief” in the audience in such an extreme situation?
At that time, I didn’t know that I wasn’t being particularly original.

There is, in fact, a real rare paraphilia, or better a form of fetishism, consisting in deriving sexual arousal from trees and plants. The term defining it is ‘dendrophilia’ and may have been coined by Lawrence Buell when referring to the famous writer Henry David Thoreau’s love of trees – a totally innocent feeling in that case.
Like other paraphilias, dendrophilia is one of those topics that can be the delight of tabloids: when the editorial staff runs out of news, they can simply send a photographer in the courtyard, to take some shots of a lady kissing a tree, and the article is done: “I want to marry a poplar!”.
But does dendrophilia really exist?

© Closer Magazine

A seminal 2007 study from Bologna University estimated that only 5% of all fetishisms refers to inanimate objects that have no relationship with the human body. Within such a low rate, it is no wonder that the more exclusive niche of people with a thing for plants can be almost invisible; this is compounded by the shame of talking about it and by the fact that this sexual preference does not cause any problem; so, you will understand why there is no record of case studies dedicated to dendrophilia in medical literature.

Assuming this sort of paraphilia exists, we can reasonably infer from what we know about the other forms of fetishism, that its manifestations could be much less weird than we expect. Most of the appeal of the fetish relies on the smell, the texture, and the appearance of the object, which becomes important on an evocative level in order to stimulate arousal. In this respect, it is likely that the potential dendrophile simply finds the texture of a bark, the smoothness or the colour of the leaves, the shape of a root extremely pleasant; contact, sometimes associated with a sexually relevant distant memory, becomes effective in stimulating arousal.

Not really different from those people who derive arousal from velvet: we tend to define fetishism on a pathological level only when it becomes a sine qua non in order to get sexual gratification and, actually, many practitioners working in the field tend to make distinctions between optional, preferred and exclusive paraphilias. Only the last ones are considered sexual disorders; this distinction, which can be found in the DSM-5 as well (the most used diagnostic manual in psychiatry), is in fact the distinction between real fetishism and fetishistic behaviour.

Last June, a little scandal broke in Palermo: among the plants of the amazing Botanical Gardens popped up a video installation by the Chinese artist Zheng Bo named Pteridophilia (literally, “love of ferns”). The video shows seven young boys having sex with plants in a Taiwan forest.

Having considered the ruckus raised by this artistic video, maybe it’s a good thing that I never realized my short film. Which, with a little plot twist, ended up playing with the subtle distinction between pathological fetishism and a simple fetishistic act “by proxy”: after making love with the orchid, the main character went to gently put it on the grave of the only woman he had ever loved.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 16

The wonderful photo above shows a group of Irish artists from the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, including Margaret Clarke and Estella Solomons (via BiblioCuriosa).
And let’s start with the usual firing of links and oddities!

  • This is the oldest diving suit in the world. It is on exhibit in the Raahe museum in Finland, and dates back to the eighteenth century. It was used for short walks under water, to repair the keels of ships. Now, instead, “it dives into your nightmares” (as Stefano Castelli put it).
  • Rediscovered masterpieces: the Christian comic books of the seventies in which sinners are redeemed by the evangelizing heroes. “The Cross is mightier than the switchblade!” (Thanks, Gigio!)

  • On the facade of the Cologne Town Hall there is a statue of Bishop Konrad von Hochstaden. The severity of his ecclesiastical figure is barely surprising; it’s what’s under the pedestal that leaves you stunned.

The figure engaged in an obscene autofellatio is to be reconnected to the classic medieval marginalia, which often included grotesque and bizarre situations placed “in the margin” of the main work — which could be a book, a fresco, a painting or, as in this case, a sculptural complex.
Given that such figures appear on a good number of churches, mainly in France, Spain and Germany, there has been much speculation as to what their purpose and meaning might have been: these were not just echoes of pagan fertility symbols, but complex allegories of salvation, as this book explains (and if you read French, there’s another good one exclusively dedicated to Brittany). Beyond all conjectures, it is clear that the distinction between the sacred and the profane in the Middle Ages was not as clear and unambiguous as we would be led to believe.

  • Let’s remain in the Middle Ages. When in 1004 the niece of the Byzantine emperor dared to use a fork for the first time at table, she caused a ruckus and the act was condemned by the clergy as blasphemous. (No doubt the noblewoman had offended the Almighty, since He later made her die of plague.)
  • Also dead, for 3230 years, but with all the necessary papers: here is the Egyptian passport issued in 1974 for the mummy of Ramesses II, so that he could fly to Paris without a hitch at the check-in. [EDIT: this is actually an amusing fake, as Gabriel pointed out in the comments]

  • Man, I hate it when I order a simple cappuccino, but the bartender just has to show off.
  • Alex Eckman-Lawn adds disturbing and concrete “layers” to the human face. (Thanks, Anastasia!)
  • Another artist, Arngrímur Sigurðsson, illustrated several traditional figures of Icelandic folklore in a book called Duldýrasafnið, which translated means more or less “The Museum of Hidden Beings”. The volume is practically unobtainable online, but you can see many evocative paintings on the official website and especially in this great article. (Thanks, Luca!)
  • Forget Formula One! Here’s the ultimate racing competition!

  • If you love videogames and hate Mondays (sorry, I meant capitalism), do not miss this piece by Mariano Tomatis (Italian only).
  • Remember my old post on death masks? Pia Interlandi is an artist who still makes them today.
  • And finally, let’s dive into the weird side of porn for some videos of beautiful girls stuck in super glue — well, ok, they pretend to be. You can find dozens of them, and for a good reason: this is a peculiar immobilization fetishism (as this short article perfectly summarizes) combining classic female foot worship, the lusciousness of glue (huh?), and a little sadistic excitement in seeing the victim’s useless attempts to free herself. The big plus is it doesn’t violate YouTube adult content guidelines.

Bizzarro Bazar a Palermo

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

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!)

“La Veglia Eterna” è qui!

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Vi avevamo anticipato che il primo volume della Collana Bizzarro Bazar sarebbe stato disponibile nelle librerie a partire dal 15 ottobre. E infatti, per il comune e ignaro avventore sarà così. Ma per voi appassionati, che seguite regolarmente il blog, c’è una sorpresa!

In anteprima per tutti i lettori di Bizzarro Bazar, La Veglia Eterna (Logos Edizioni) è infatti già disponibile ordinando direttamente da questo link. Tutte le copie, precedentemente prenotate oppure ordinate a partire da questo momento, verranno spedite immediatamente.

Il libro è un’esplorazione delle Catacombe dei Cappuccini di Palermo che ripercorre la storia, la rilevanza antropologica, le tecniche di conservazione dei corpi e i curiosi aneddoti relativi a questa cripta cimiteriale, che ospita la più grande collezione di mummie naturali e artificiali del mondo. Ad accompagnarci e a guidare il nostro sguardo, mentre scendiamo gli scalini delle Catacombe, saranno le straordinarie fotografie di Carlo Vannini.

In chiusura, segnaliamo che lo splendido blog Salone del Lutto ha pubblicato proprio oggi questa recensione del nostro libro.

Buona lettura a tutti!

La veglia eterna

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 mummia più bella del mondo

All’interno delle suggestive Catacombe dei Cappuccini a Palermo, rinomate in tutto il mondo, sono conservate circa 8.000 salme mummificate. Fin dalla fine del Cinquecento, infatti, il convento cominciò ad imbalsamare ed esporre i cadaveri (principalmente provenienti da ceti abbienti, che potevano permettersi i costi di questa particolare sepoltura).

Forse queste immagini vi ricorderanno la Cripta dei Cappuccini a Roma, di cui abbiamo già parlato in un nostro articolo. La finalità filosofica di queste macabre esibizioni di cadaveri è in effetti la medesima: ricordare ai visitatori la transitorietà della vita, la decadenza della carne e l’effimero passaggio di ricchezze e onori. In una frase, memento mori – ricorda che morirai.

Le prime, antiche procedure prevedevano la “scolatura” delle salme, che venivano private degli organi interni e appese sopra a speciali vasche per un anno intero, in modo che perdessero ogni liquido e umore, e rinsecchissero. In seguito venivano lavate e cosparse con diversi olii essenziali e aceto, poi impagliate, rivestite ed esposte.

Ma fra le tante mummie contenute nelle Catacombe (così tante che nessuno le ha mai contate con precisione), ce n’è una che non cessa di stupire e commuovere chiunque si rechi in visita nel famoso santuario. Nella Cappella di Santa Rosalia, in fondo al primo corridoio, riposa “la mummia più bella del mondo”, quella di Rosalia Lombardo, una bambina di due anni morta nel 1920.

La piccola, morta per una broncopolmonite, dopo tutti questi anni sembra ancora che dorma, dolcemente adagiata nella sua minuscola bara. Il suo volto è sereno, la pelle appare morbida e distesa, e le sue lunghe ciocche di capelli biondi raccolte in un fiocco giallo le donano un’incredibile sensazione di vita. Com’è possibile che sia ancora così perfettamente conservata?

Il segreto della sua imbalsamazione è rimasto per quasi cento anni irrisolto, fino a quando nel 2009 un paleopatologo messinese, Dario Piombino Mascali, ha concluso una lunga e complessa ricerca per svelare il mistero. La minuziosa preparazione della salma di Rosalia è stata attribuita all’imbalsamatore palermitano Alfredo Salafia, che alla fine dell’Ottocento aveva messo a punto una sua procedura di conservazione dei tessuti mediante iniezione di composti chimici segretissimi. Salafia aveva restaurato la salma di Francesco Crispi (ormai in precarie condizioni), meritandosi il plauso della stampa e delle autorità ecclesiastiche; aveva perfino portato le sue ricerche in America, dove aveva dato dimostrazioni del suo metodo presso l’Eclectic Medical College di New York , riscuotendo un clamoroso successo.

Fino a pochissimi anni fa si pensava che Salafia avesse portato il segreto del suo portentoso processo di imbalsamazione nella tomba. Il suo lavoro sulla mummia di Rosalia Lombardo è tanto più sorprendente se pensiamo che alcune sofisticate radiografie hanno mostrato che anche gli organi interni, in particolare cervello, fegato e polmoni, sono rimasti perfettamente conservati. Piombino, nel suo studio delle carte di Salafia, ha finalmente scoperto la tanto ricercata formula:  si tratta di una sola iniezione intravascolare di formalina, glicerina, sali di zinco, alcool e acido salicilico, a cui Salafia spesso aggiungeva un trattamento di paraffina disciolta in etere per mantenere un aspetto vivo e rotondeggiante del volto. Anche Rosalia, infatti, ha il viso paffuto e l’epidermide apparentemente morbida come se non fosse trascorso un solo giorno dalla sua morte.

Salafia era già celebre quando nel 1920 effettuò l’imbalsamazione della piccola Rosalia e, come favore alla famiglia Lombardo, grazie alla sua influenza riuscì a far seppellire la bambina nelle Catacombe quando non era più permesso. Così ancora oggi possiamo ammirare Rosalia Lombardo, abbandonata al sonno che la culla da quasi un secolo: la “Bella Addormentata”, come è stata chiamata, è sicuramente una delle mummie più importanti e famose del ventesimo secolo.

E l’imbalsamatore? Dopo tanti anni passati a combattere i segni del disfacimento e della morte, senza ottenere mai una laurea in medicina, Alfredo Salafia si spense infine nel 1933. Nel 2000, allo spurgo della tomba, i familiari non vennero avvisati. Così, come ultima beffa, nessuno sa più dove siano finiti gli ultimi resti di quell’uomo straordinario che aveva dedicato la sua vita a preservare i corpi per l’eternità.