Posts Tagged ‘palermo’

Palermo III: The Dead City

Monday, July 19th, 2010

There is Graffiti on Everything

There is no real bus stop, but the driver recognizes that we’re tourists and drops us off in the right place. 
 
Walking up the hill toward it, we question why we’re doing this in the first place. If it’s going to be creepy. If it’s going to gross us out.
 
“Well,” I say. “We can’t go to Palermo and not see the place with the dead people.”
 
Somehow, this works as an explanation.
 
The outside of the Capuchin catacombs looks like a grimy post office—a low, peaked building with pock-marked pillars set alongside a parking lot. A souvenir stand bakes in the sun beside it, offering gondolier hats and models of Sicilian donkey carts. All these years, I had imagined a grand church or at least a pretty chapel.
 
After paying the 3-Euro entry and descending the stairs, it starts right away. They’re hanging on the walls, each body nestled into a neat plaster relief, wearing a horror-movie-ready, gravity-dragged grimace, and fully, and in many cases artfully clothed. Some appear to have been stuffed with straw from the neck down so that the clothes don’t sag in unsightly ways or fall off the bodies entirely.
 
Most are cue ball skeletons, even the women, but some bear traces of flesh—a fully-formed ear peeled away from a skull, a tuft of dark hair thrown over a shoulder, the prickly remnants of a beard. Many of the women, instead of hanging on the wall, lie in glass-sided coffins wearing their finest—pretty green linens and silk wedding dresses, all of which are more intact than their bodies.
 
I cough in the dry air.
 
“You’re breathing in dead people,” says my sister.
 
She’s right. The crypt is spotless, but dry with the dust of crumbling fabric and paper and bones, everything that goes straight back into the earth.
 
A wall set aside for children—their bodies so tiny in lace and cotton baby clothes—is more sad and sobering than terrifying, each one a memorial to unfathomable individual loss. In another inset off to the side, a stiff skeletal hand reaches forward from a woman’s body, and seems to beckon visitors as though she were a plastic skeleton you could buy at Walmart, the guardian of a haunted house. She is so small in death, so lumpy and hollow.
 
Toward the end, in her own decorated alcove, is the famous little girl in her cradle. She was two when she died in the early 1800s, and her father knew an embalming technique that kept her body preserved and made her the object of veneration. She looks not-quite real, like a wax doll.
 
At the end of the tour, you can buy a postcard with her face on it, and others with photos of the bodies.
 
“Can you imagine sending one of those?” asks my sister. “What do you write on it? ‘Wish you were here?’”

Go there: Palermo’s Capuchin crypt is located at Via Cappuccini, 1. To get there, take the bus from the Piazza Indipendenza and ask the driver to let you off at the crypt. Because he won’t otherwise.

Palermo II: The City Below

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

The Goddess Looks Away

In a city with almost no working street lights, where filthy dogs lie in the sun on their bloated, wormy sides, we go in search of something—a park to eat our lunches. We never find it.

How this happens in a city planned out on four deliberate quadrants, the main streets dividing them as though they’d been hacked apart with a knife, we have no idea. But we manage it anyway, even with a map and a compass. The map only names half the streets. The compass somehow gets scrambled. We realize these things all at once, and it feels as though Palermo is conspiring to bamboozle us, using the smells of rotting fish and car exhaust as aides.

We walk South with assurance, only to realize half an hour later that we’ve actually been walking West, and well beyond the boundaries of the old city. We adjust our itinerary and try to go North, abandoning the idea of the park, hoping to at least get to a place that exists on our map. We do, but we head East without knowing it and end up in the place we started, a square bookended by two enormous dry fountains, the mouths of the stone heads spouting nothing but air, the basins below filled with bags of garbage.

Starving and having given up on the park, we sit on the steps in front of another dry fountain that’s surrounded by a 6-foot iron fence. The statues—the whole pantheon of gods—watch as we unwrap our sandwiches and green olives. I lean back against a hooded stone lion, his tail curved neatly around his flank. Someone has spray painted something across his hip.

The scooters and cars rush by, the drivers swinging their heads around as though we are the attraction, the only thing around worth seeing.

Go there: The piazza where we stopped to eat, with its dry baroque fountain, is the Piazza Pretoria. It’s right near the Quattro Canti, Palermo’s geographical center.