“On this day in 1920, Rosalia Lombardo, an infant from Palermo, Sicily, died of pneumonia. Her father, a General, had the child’s body embalmed and it now lies on display in Palermo’s famous Capuchin Catacombs. Lombardo’s body, known as “”Sleeping Beauty,”” is considered one of the world’s best preserved.
Embalming has been practiced for centuries. The ancient Egyptians are the best-known embalmers with their masterful mummification techniques. The Incas and Han Dynasty Chinese were also great enthusiasts and experts of preservation. In modern history, however, the Sicilians connected to the Capuchin Catacombs were somewhat unusual in their approach to immortalisation by openly displaying corpses, such as Lombardo’s, to visitors.
Today, the embalmed corpse of Rosalia Lombardo is on display under glass in the catacombs. Unlike the dry skeletal corpses of the ancient Egyptians, she is remarkably life-like. Her hair curls on her forehead underneath a large yellow bow, and her eyelashes still protrude from her closed eyelids. Visitors are simultaneously struck by the beauty and grief projected by her astonishing corpse.
Recently, researchers were able to discover the formula used by the embalmer to preserve Lombardo so well. The embalmer, Alfredo Salafia, who was well known at the time for his skill, injected the girl’s corpse with a concoction of chemicals including formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid and glycerin.
The formalin was used to kill bacteria; the zinc salts for petrification; the alcohol for drying and mummifying; the salicylic acid to prevent fungi growth; and the glycerin to keep the corpse from over-drying. Along with this extraordinarily effective concoction, the dry conditions of the catacombs, like those found in Egypt, were ideal for preservation. The result, of course, is one of history’s most successful embalmments.
Embalming is still practiced today, especially in North America where corpses are often displayed before burial. However, most organised religions forbid the practice, including Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. In Palermo, Rosalia Lombardo was one of the last burials in the Capuchin Catacombs, which is home to thousands of mummies. She and her companions receive an enormous number of visitors, in the form of tourists, every year.”
Credit: © Imagestate Media Partners Limited – Impact Photos / Alamy
Caption: The embalmed remains of Rosalia Lombardo, known as “Sleeping Beauty.”