of Rosalia Lombardo
of the last bodies laid to rest in the Catacombs of the Capuchin monks of
Palermo, Italy, was Rosalia Lombardo. Her preserved corpse is the most
famous of the 8,000 bodies once found in the catacombs. Only two
years old when she died on
December 6, 1920, apparently of a bronchial infection, Rosalia has gained fame because of the excellent
preservation of her body. She is often referred to as "The Sleeping
Here is a
YouTube video that advertises a book about Rosalia. I am not promoting
the book, but the video offers some vintage shots of Palermo and the
catacombs and gives a better sense of what a visit is like.
of her embalmer
was Professor Alfredo Salafia, an Italian chemist who discovered a way to
preserve bodies using a special formula. Starting first with
animals then people, Salafia perfected his process. Eventually, he
embalmed his own father.
spread about his special embalming abilities, the relatives of many
famous people began to contact him. These included Francisco Crispi
(Italian premier, whose poorly preserved body was re-constituted by
Salafia in 1905) and Cardinal Michaelangelo Celesia (1904).
1910 he tried to launch The Salafia Permanent Method Embalming Company to assist American funeral
directors. To demonstrate his technique, he came to the United States
and embalmed the unclaimed body
of a recently deceased man at the Eclectic Medical College in New
York. According to Christine Quigley's book,
(which remains the best source of information about Salafia and
the man "had died some ten days earlier and his body exhibited
black and green areas on the face and neck. Fifteen gallons of Salafia's
embalming fluid were injected distally into the right common carotid
artery without draining the blood, treating the cavities, or carrying
out secondary injections." Then the body was stored without
refrigeration, though the exact location is apparently not recorded. It
is safe to assume, however, that it would have been kept in a cool
later, the body was dissected. Salafia's embalming technique
had done the trick: his green and black patches on the skin had pretty
much disappeared. What's more, "The body was well-preserved, with
the skin firm, and moderately hard and dry. No odor of decomposition, or
fecal odor, was present, only the chemical odor of the embalming
September 1910, a second body was embalmed in Syracuse New York. The
deceased, however, had suffered from arteriosclerosis and the
embalmer (Professor Achille Salomone, a nephew of Salafia) was
unable to inject more than six quarts of the fluid. Six months
later, when the body was dissected, attendees concluded that Salafia's
method worked wherever it was able to penetrate the tissue (which wasn't
universally possible). According to embalmers, this is still the case
with injected fluid. In
1911, his company began to sell the embalming liquid to American funeral parlors.
of his life from this point are vague. A year later, his fluid was no longer advertised, and Dr. Salafia was
back in Italy. In 1920 he embalmed the body of Rosalia. Salafia
died in 1933 without releasing the secret of his embalming fluid.
The secret embalming fluid
figured that Salafia's formula was most likely an arsenic-based
treatment, which was popular at the time that Salafia was
perfecting his embalming process. According
to the Handbook
of Death & Dying
by Clifton D. Bryant, Salafia was a student of Dr. Tranchini
from Naples who was a proponent of arsenic-based embalming. Tranchini's formula
used one pound of dry arsenic dissolved in wine to create a two-gallon
solution. It was then injected into the femoral or carotid
artery. Many believed that Salafia's method was a variation of
In fact, arsenic
was not part of the formula.
biological anthropologist, Dario Piombino-Mascali of the Institute for
Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano tracked down the formula by contacting
Salafia's living relatives and asking for permission to search his
papers. Among the papers was a handwritten account in which Salafia
recorded the formula that he used to preserve Rosalia's body:
formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.
Here's how the formula
worked, according to an article on National
Geographic.com: formalin (a mix of formaldehyde and water) was used
to kill bacteria; alcohol dried Rosalia's body; glycerin
stopped the body from drying out too much; and salicylic acid stopped
the growth of fungus.
But, according to Melissa
Johnson Williams, executive director of the American Society of
Embalmers, "it was the zinc salts that were most responsible for
Rosalia's amazing state of preservation. Zinc, which is no longer used
by embalmers in the United States. '[Zinc] gave her rigidity,' Williams
said. 'You could take her out of the casket prop her up, and she would
stand by herself.' "
is so special
Rosalia Lombardo shares her
name with Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo. Saint-to-be
Rosalia spent the better part of her life in a cavern, where she died in
1170. Many subsequent miracles are attributed to Rosalia, the first and most
important of which occurred in July 1624 when a plague was ravaging
Palermo. Her well-preserved body was discovered at that time in the
cave; this discovery coincided with the end of the epidemic. Many small
shrines honoring Saint Rosalia are visible throughout Palermo, but the
Santuario di Santa Rosalia is the ultimate shrine. It is in the cave
where her preserved body was discovered. This
connection makes little Rosalia, the "Sleeping Beauty," an
even more-beloved icon.
Rosalia can be seen at
the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy.
Her glass-covered coffin is located in a small chapel at the end of the
self-guided catacomb tour. During my last visit, her face was not visible through the
glass and visitors are not
permitted to enter the chapel for a closer look. The glass case appears rather grimy, and
it is not possible to see Rosalia's face with any clarity.
to find more information about her
Mummies by Christine Quigley contains a number of pages about
the Capuchin Catacombs and Rosalia Lombardo. It is the best source of
information about Rosalia and Professor Salafia.
Scientific Study of Mummies includes a brief mention of Rosalia.