Rosalie Lombardo–The Sleeping Beauty of the Capuchin Tombs

640px-Palermo_Rosalia_LombardoThe Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Italy is home to a catacomb, famous for its well preserved mummies. Monks began to enshrine their hallowed dead in the cool, dry caves in the year 1599. They dried the bodies to preserve them, then clothed the mummies and stood them upright along the walls. Since the 16th century, the tombs have become home to people of all walks of life. Nearly 8000 mummies are housed in rooms divided according to the status and gender of the decedents. There are rooms dedicated to brother monks, adult men, women, children, government workers, and doctors, among other professions. Some lay in state in coffins, while others line the walls as described earlier. Families of the deceased come periodically to visit the dead and change their clothing.

Tourists also visit the tomb, many of them drawn by the catacomb’s most famous resident. In 1920, Rosalie Lombardo died of pneumonia at the tender age of two. Her father, grieved at the loss of his beautiful little girl, turned to Alfredo Salafia, a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer, to preserve her body for all time. The embalmer used his secret concoction on her little body, and the results remain stunning to this day: Rosalie looks as if she is asleep, rather than dead. The only sign of decay is a slight yellowing of the skin.

 

The Blinking Mummy

Her uncanny appearance has led to the rumor that, if one watches closely enough, they could see her opening her eyes. Recently, a time lapse video circulated that seemed to clearly show this phenomena at work. Spooky as the visual evidence is, as is often the case in supposed paranormal phenomena the explanation is mundane. Rosalie’s eyes were never completely closed in the first place. The effect is more due to the angles of light as it filters through a side window. In addition, her body currently lay in a different position than it used to, because she was put in a new glass case designed to preserve her remains longer. The new position makes her eyelids more visible. The phenomena does reveal how well Salafia’s work has held up: her eyes remain a striking blue, even after 90 years.

While nothing paranormal can be associated with Rosalie’s remains, the real mystery around the mummy has recently been solved. Salafia never revealed the formula used to preserve the girl’s body, and when he died in 1933 he took the secret with him.

 

A long standing mystery, solved

However, in 2009 Dario Piombino-Mascali, a biological anthropologist of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, managed to discover the formula. He tracked down living relatives of Salafia, and found among the deceased embalmer’s papers a memoir where he recorded the chemicals used to preserve little Rosalie. They included formalin (a mix of formaldehyde and water), zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.

The unique components of the mixture worked together to achieve Rosalie Lombardo’s uncanny state of preservation. Formalin would have killed any bacteria, while alcohol conspired with the catacomb air to dry out her body. Glycerin would have kept the drying from going too far and making her skin brittle. The salicylic acid prevented the growth of fungi. Zinc petrified her body, making her body rigid.

This concoction amazed modern embalmers for its sophistication, especially the use of zinc, which is largely responsible for her remarkable appearance. Salafia was a genius, and his work has stood the test of time. Rosalie Lombardo will be with us for decades to come thanks to his secret method, continuing to draw crowds of the living to the crypts of the dead.

 

 

Sources:

 

Lange, Karen. “Lost ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Formula Found.” News.NationalGeographic.com. January 26, 2009. National Geographic. October 22, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/01/090126-sicily-mummy.html

 

 

Lorenzi, Rossela. “Optical Illusion: Child Mummy Opens and Closes Eyes.” News.Discovery.com. June 20, 2014. Discovery.com. October 22, 2014. http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/optical-illusion-child-mummy-opens-and-closes-her-eyes-140620.htm

 

 

Quigley, Christine. Modern Mummies: the Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century. McFarland. April 1998. pg 52-54

 

Lange, Karen. “Lost ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Formula Found.” News.NationalGeographic.com. January 26, 2009. National Geographic. October 22, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/01/090126-sicily-mummy.html

Lorenzi, Rossela. “Optical Illusion: Child Mummy Opens and Closes Eyes.” News.Discovery.com. June 20, 2014. Discovery.com. October 22, 2014. http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/optical-illusion-child-mummy-opens-and-closes-her-eyes-140620.htm

Quigley, Christine. Modern Mummies: the Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century. McFarland. April 1998. pg 52-54