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.

Mirages

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
(E.A. Poe)

∼ Inferior Mirages ∼

Very hot air close to the ground, colder air above. Light rays refracted from distant objects get deviated by the column of scorching air moving upwards. Here is the classical mirage of Sahara Bedouins, fresh oasis among the dunes and water poodles where there is nothing but dusty desert.

A mirage which is bound to also haunt another kind of nomad, the soul who cannot help but travel because he’s a victim of the highway blues, and he knows all too well that the tarmac road might look wet under the torrid sun.

The more we get close to it, the more the illusion vanishes. We hurry towards the much coveted water to find it was mere deceit; and all our hurrying did was worsen our thirst. “If a mirage were water, why is water not seen by those nearby?Nāgārjuna asked – The way this world is seen as real by those afar is not so seen by those nearby for whom it is signless like a mirage“. Maybe we too will be soon close enough to the truth to realize it is an illusion.

∼ Superior Mirages∼

The ocean liner, in the dark night brightened only by the stars, eased out majestically on the water. Aboard, feasting passengers: on the horizon, a strange mist. Reginald Lee was on watch:

A clear, starry night overhead, but at the time of the accident there was a haze right ahead, […] in fact it was extending more or less round the horizon. There was no moon.

A dark mist, a vague tremor just above the horizon, but too far away to seem like a menacing sign. Then, from the nothingness of that fog, without warning, like a giant bursting on the scene from a funeral curtain, came the huge milky silhouette.

It was a dark mass that came through that haze and there was no white appearing until it was just close alongside the ship.

It looks like it might have gone that way: the Titanic probably sank due to a mirage. The mountain of ice remained hidden until the very last moment inside the sidereal light, which had been bended by the cold of the sea.

Ironically, this was the same kind of mirage which gave another ship, albeit fantastic, an eternal and persistant place in sailors’ fantasies. The immortal Flying Dutchman, floating over the ocean waves, perhaps owes his legend to the illusion called “superior mirage”. Superior, because its phantasmagoria appears above the horizon, and sometimes ships sailing beyond the Earth’s curve, which we shouldn’t be able to see, look like they are suspended in mid air.


Like mountaineers, who fear and respect the mountain, the people of the sea knew a secret which escaped the mainland inhabitants. They were aware of the insidious nature of water, they knew all about whirlpools always ready to gape unexpectedly, about the visions, the magical fires up on the mast, the terrible twin monsters waiting for ships to pass in the narrow strip between Sicily and Calabria.

∼ Fata Morgana ∼

It is right on the Straits of Messina that the Castle in the Sky is sometimes spotted, home to the Enchantress, cruel sister of Arthur son of Pendragon. The witch’s magical arts make the winged castle visible both from the coast of the island and from the opposite shore. Many believed they could conquer its trembling stronghold, and drowned.

Thus Morgan le Fay, “Fata Morgana”, gave her name to the rarest among superior mirages, capable of blending together three or more layers of inverted and distorted objects, in a constantly changing visual blur. The ultimate mirage, where nothing is what it seems; impossible apparitions of distant gloomy towers, enchanted cities, ghost forests. The horizon is not a promise anymore, but a mocking imposture.

∼ The Mirage of Everything ∼

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

What Zhuangzi is not considering is the possibility that both him and the butterfly might be a dream: someone else’s dream.
Quantum physicists, who are the modern poets, mystics, artists, suggest ours could potentially be a holographic cosmos. According to some scientists, the whole universe might be a simulacrum, a sophisticated simulation (atoms-pixels), us being the characters who little by little are realizing they’re part of a game. Galileo’s method is now teaming up with the opium eaters’ lucid hallucinations, and math itself seems to tell us that “life is but a dream“.

Among the supporters of the hypothesis of the universe being an elaborate fiction inside an alien algorythm, there is a controversial, visionary innovator who is trying to keep us safe from the dangers of strong AI. His inconceivable plan: to fuse our cerebral cortexes with the Net, forever freeing us from the language virus and, in time, reprogramming  our already obsolete bodies from the inside. Mutate or die!
And this mutation is going  to happen, rest assured, not in two hundred years, but in the next ten or fifteen.

Today we take a look around, and all we see is mirage.
For thousands of years philosophers have been discussing the Great Dream, but never before the veil of Maya has been so thin, so close to be torn at any moment.
What does it mean for us to accept the possible unreality of everything? Does it entail an absolute relativism, does it mean that killing is nothing serious after all, that nothing has value? Weren’t Hassan-i Sabbāh‘s last words “nothing is true, everything is permitted”?
[Old Uncle Bill smiles slyly from his parallel universe, surrounded by seductive centipede-boys.]
Are we instead to understand mirage as a liberation? Because death will finally turn out to be that “passage” every enlightened guru told us about, and this is not the true world? But does a true world really exist? Or is it just another mirage within a mirage?

Zhuangzi, the butterfly man, again:

All the while, the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman — how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming!  It is a dream even for me to say that you are dreaming.

(Thanks, Bruno!)

The Stone Pinacotheca

Article by guestblogger Stefano Cappello

I lived in Catania for several years, first as a student at the liberal-arts college, then on the account of my work. Art always fascinated me, and being ale to live and travel throughout Sicily allowed me to discover this place where the highest expressions of human creativity lived together for thousands of years, sometimes blending together with unique results.

Visiting one of Catania’s churches, I happened to notice how the marble on the altar formed curious shapes: through the veinings, one could almost grasp grotesque faces, animal masks, bizarre figures.

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The practice of putting two marble stones near each other in order to obtain a specular image is known as “macchia aperta” (book matched). Used for thousands of years, such a technique combines two consecutive slabs, which are cut and then put side by side, so that the veinings can form the image that up until then had been “sleeping” in the marble.

I started to visit other churches in town, only to find the phenomenon was quite widespread. The cutting of slabs and their arrangement were intentional, and these examples cannot be explained with pareidolia — the subconscious illusion that leads us to interpret artificial or natural visual stimuli as recognizable shapes.
Perhaps we should better think of these marble figures in relation to the concept of Gamahés, implying a sacred aspect of images and forms, which the Anima Mundi impresses within the stone in the shape of faces, animals, symbols or even whole landscapes, as in the case of the Paesina Stone. Through the same occult process, pictures could be ingrained in the marble by that very creative force, the natura naturans generating every aspect of reality, and they could be waiting for a sharp wit who, thanks to his sensitivity, will be able to bring them to light.

All these churches have in common the fact that they’ve been rebuilt from scratch after the devastating earthquake which on January 11, 1693, destroyed Catania. The city suffered huge losses, about 16.000 victims on a 20.000 citizen population.
A huge emergency project was set afoot to bring things back to normal in reasonable time. The reconstruction of the city shows how the catastrophe entailed a search for innovative architectural solutions of the highest quality. These innovations, which were applied in various degrees to all the villages struck by the earthquake in the Noto valley, were elaborated by what could be considered as a “unique experimental workshop of Baroque international models”.

In the particular case of Catania, the unity of this project can be seen on a structural level, as shock-absorbing materials were used in view of a possible new shake, and on a urban level. The city was completely re-planned, with broader streets and escape routes [1].
One of the marbles used in churches, the Libeccio Antico of Sicily, is also called Breccia Pontificia, because it was also used in the Vatican. This rare and precious marble, extracted from the Custonaci caves, is perfect for macchia aperta manufacturing, so that the internal veinings can emerge.

The fact that its figurative use was intentional is quite evident in the S. Agata la Vetere Church where, on the side altar that once contained the remains of the Martyr, these marbles can be found.

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It looks like this red jasper slab was meant to represent the outline of the Saint’s body laying in a sarcophage. If we rotate the image, the composition is even clearer.

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We can see the head, shoulders, the arms bent on her chest, her hips, legs, and her feet emerging from the garment.
Suggestion may go even further. On the silhouette’s chest, for example, one could almost see a Flaming Heart. A spherical shape is at the base of the figure, which is surrounded by a sort of aura.
The whole shape is consistent, in its proportions, with a female body.
The visual stimuli such a contour can suggest, if we consider it as standing on a globe, refer to the iconography of the Virgin Mary. This hypothetical “transfer” would be justified when applied to a female Saint, as in Christian tradition all female figures are in fact manifestations of the Sacred Feminine archetype.

Another example of the intentionality of these marble depictions can be found in the Church of St. Micheal Archangel. Here, like in other churches in town, the representations often appear in couples, at the bottom of the columns near the side altars.

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These marbles show two stylized figures, of which we can make out the head, neck, stretched-out arms, chest and tunic. Behind these silhouettes are shapes that could be interpreted as wings, of which the veinings even seem to trace the plumage. The whole figure could refer to the Byzantine iconography of the Archangel.

In Catania’s churches, marbles take us on a trip through beasts, men, Saints and demons.

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The following mirrored marbles seem to represent several faces, each wearing a hat that resembles a wolf’s head. This depiction could refer to the iconography of  Hades, god of the Underworld, wearing the kunée, the Helm of Darkness.

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If we suppose that marble workers acted freely, without their ecclesial clients knowing, we can imagine that their craftmanship combined with a knowledge of treatises was used to explore this figurative expression, and it could testify the existence of a clandestine ideology. These marbles could offer an example of such underground symbolism.

Here are two grotesque faces, of which we can identify the eyes, nose, mouth, and what looks like a mitre.

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Here’s another curious image emerging from these slabs: a grinning creature, with what could be its hands (the veinings seem to outline the fingers) held before its chest, in a triangular shape.

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The peculiarity of this grotesque face is that it can be found behind an altar, hidden from direct view. Is this an example of the typical Baroque need to fill out every empty space, of the horror vacui?

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In the church of S. Francesco all’Immacolata we can find the following marbles, showing what looks like a donkey-headed seated figure. We can see its long ears, its snout, its nostrils. The hands, coherent in proportions, are in its lap and the symmetrical neinings on the slab’s sides give the perspective idea of a throne. What is interesting is that this figure has been created with an inlay work, using both the natural veinings and an artificial technique in order to obtain a specific figurative suggestion. This practice was already documented by Pliny, who in his Naturalis historia reported how, in his time, marble-cutters managed not only to cover with marble the walls of temples and public buildings, but even to carve them and insert small stones in shape of animals and other things. They actually began “painting with stone” (“coepimus et lapide pingere”, Nat. hist., Liber xxxv, 3).

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The composition of these marble slabs seem to copy the structure of a railing from Samothracia, an important place for Mystery (Orphic) Cults in the Greek world. Here we have veinings that take the form of two bucrania on each side, and in the middle — where in the Samothracian version there was an eight-petal flower — a greek cross with four additional rays, as if to remain faithful to the original symbology.

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We can imagine that such compositions sometimes referred to pre-existing models, and thus marble-makers were researching those exact shapes in the stone, while in other cases the veinings themselves suggested an image. These simulacra manifested themselves both with the firmness of symbols, archetypes, and the ever-changing uncertainty of the colored surface, the evanescent shape given by an immanent Nature.

The interesting aspect of this unsung chapter of Sicilian Baroque is that the Monstrous, the Grotesque, the Uneven which had not been adopted in religious or civil buildings, actually penetrated them in disguise. From three-dimensional sculpture to two-dimensional slabs, subtly flattened on the walls, decorating the altars right near those very paintings which were used to maintain the Church’s power in the form of Biblia pauperum, these marbles were a kind of parallel stone pinachoteca.

We do not know the ultimate goal of this figurative expression.

We can be sure it was intentional, and it was a thousand-year old decorative system which found its use in representing the bizarre and the grotesque, typical of Baroque culture and especially of the Sicilian Baroque. Probably known in the ecclesial environment at the time, at least in its highest levels, this art form was kept secret and not divulged to the masses.
The inherent ambiguity of these visual stimuli is similar to the lack of objectivity in the Rorschach inkblots, a projective test for which there are no correct answers but rather a subjective meaning.

One could ponder if clients and marble-workers considered the eventuality of the believers noticing these hidden compositions, only apparently chaotic. But even if someone became aware of it, he would had probably never mentioned it without risking the Inquisition, which was active on the island and only abolished in 1782.
Why then selecting rare and precious marbles to compose figures depicting grotesque masks? Was it a simple aesthetic pleasure for a selected few, or rather a specific apotropaic function, the monstrous image used as a spell to ward off the danger of a catastrophe similar to the one that destroyed the city?
The motivation behind such representations is still open to analysis. Several hypothesis could be put forward, just like many analogies can be found with the esoteric tradition — but we should not forget that “there is nothing an enchanted glare cannot recognize in shapes, spots, profiles within the stone” (Roger Caillois, La Scrittura delle Pietre).

To complete our visit to the Stone Pinachoteca, the slab which best represents the beginning and the end of this Voyage is one we can call “The Jester”.

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Its vibrant eyes, sardonic smile, cap and bells. It reminds us of The Fool, the tarot card whose value is 0, the great multiplier. It is the archetype of everything beyond comprehension, the pilgrim on its Way, emerging from the stone to shout his warning: “Open your eyes!

 


[1] Giuseppe Lanza Duke Camastra, who was nominated general vicar, and architect Giovan Battista Vaccarini were the two personalities mainly remembered for the reconstruction of Catania, while the documents from the Historic Archive and other sources do not report specific information about the workers, who remained anonymous.
Of the few names mentioned in the first years of re-building after the earthquake, a notable one is architect Salvatore De Amico, who is sometimes called Caput Magister, and was born in Aci S. Antonio, a feud belonging to the bishop of Catania. De Amico for five years acted as a bridge between the bishop’s curia and the construction sites: he himself managed funds, hired, coordinated and directed workers, evaluated and bought the materials and the necessary plots of land (Le maestranze acesi nella fase iniziale di ricostruzione di Catania, S. Condorelli).
The architect also designed the new map, and directed works, for the epicopal Palace and five other churches in the city.
The Episcopal curia was the direct client for these works and it is very likely that some religious personalities, among which the bishop Andrea Riggio (son of luigi Riggio Branciforte prince of Campofiorito, renowned aristocrat and diplomat), visited the building sites during construction, and were therefore aware of the decor that would adorn the interiors.