Saturday, August 22, 2015

What Remains: Life and Death in Palermo

By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
                                                                                                                                                                                Genesis 3:19

We had only a morning to spend in Palermo, capital of Sicily. Most of what I know about this place relates to the Mafia or the last world war, and I was eager to look beyond that. We chose a short tour of the city's catacombs and two 18th-century oratories, book-ended by motor-coach rides past the main monuments of the old city.

From the late 16th century through the early 1920s, Capuchin monks and the richest families of Palermo had their dead embalmed, then displayed in lifelike poses in the city's catacombs, which were perhaps intended as a place of solace for bereaved relatives. Friends confer, families pose together, stern friars clasp ropes of penance and stare down through darkened eye sockets--these are the nearly-walking dead. The macabre display of 8,000 corpses is a lesson in anatomy--before the last century few people topped more than 5 feet tall, and oral hygiene has come a long way since.

Warning, there are photos of mouldering corpses beyond this point that readers may find disturbing.

The chief mortician wasn't particularly good at his job and should be shot, if he weren't long dead already and probably a grimacing skull in the collection himself, cavorting with his equally artless ancestors. Most residents of the catacombs are mummies in name only; a few shreds of skin and occasional wisps of hair hang loosely on leering skulls that poke through tattered, Sunday-best clothes long bereft of color. Copious amounts of straw give some form to the once-human scarecrows. A few skull fragments mingle at the feet of their former owners. This is ultimately what money buys you.

There is one exception, the well-embalmed body of little Rosalia Lombardo still appears to be fighting off the sleep-sweats of her deadly pneumonia of over 95 years ago. I could only think of a young life cut so short at 2 years, and the heartache of parents who couldn't bear the thought of their daughter gone to dust.

At the entrance of the catacombs, the current management forbids photography and video as a sign of "respect for the dead in this sacred place," then offers a variety of graphic photo books and souvenirs for sale. I was torn about taking a few furtive photos of my own, and even more about publishing them here. In the end, I decided that most of the deceased had requested to be put on display in life's vanity. However, I chose not to photograph the remains of babies or small children. They (and even the women in that day and age I suspect) did not ask to be museum pieces; this was consistent with my approach to the dead of Pompeii, caught in an intimate moment of agony.

But hopefully it is a place of respect, both for the dead and for their earthly remains, for someday others may look upon my crumbling bones, and I hope there is some pity for my soul.

Emerging from the catacombs we came across a pan-handler with three dogs. He must read the same trade publications as the beggars of Barcelona. The idea has some merit, however; it's rumored to work for romance-minded single men. I may consider myself whether I can attract more readers with images of puppies.

On the streets of the city, there is a lot of yelling, which seems fittingly Sicilian, and many anachronistic horse-drawn carriages carting tourists amongst motor-coaches and flitting Vespas, which also seems Sicilian. Abundant gardens decorate cast-iron balconies above the streets, typical of Southern Europe, but Palermo's open air markets have an exotic closeness that suggests Sicily is part African in more ways than just geologically.

Later we toured the Rococo-style Oratories of Santa Cita and San Domenico, both adorned with brilliant white plaster stuccoes detailing either the Mysteries of the Rosary (Santa Cita) or the seven virtues and scenes from the Book of Revelation (San Domenico). Though they had some religious affiliation, oratories were more the gathering places for exclusive (male) social and service clubs, and are worth exploring if only as an alternative to the many churches in Southern Europe. The plaster statuary of Giacomo Serpotta is as detailed as the best marble sculpture. Santa Cita has a detailed depiction of the decisive 16th-century Battle of Lepanto, between clashing fleets of the Holy League and the Ottomans, which directly contributed to the eminence of the rosary amongst Catholic prayers today.

Oratory of Santa Cita.

Detail of the Battle of Lepanto in center frieze.

Mother of Pearl inlay in bench seats aligning the walls of the oratory.
 Oratory of San Domenico

The brightness of Palermo's Oratories, with adornments so detailed as to seem alive, are a contrast with the stale decay of the catacombs, reminding me that after passing, all that may remain of us on this Earth--at least for a time--is what we have made.