Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Death and the Maiden

The slight rain and cooler weather made us think twice about venturing off to tour the vineyards, so we thought it would be fun to drive into Palermo and see the sights, a tourist day as it were. We would venture to the Cattedrale maybe the Museo and perhaps the Capuchin Catacombs to see the 8000 corpses. Oh yes and lunch. My kind of fun!

Having carefully planned my daily wardrobe months in advance, the rain and cooler weather threw me off a bit. It was said that it may get much warmer during the day. Hmmmm... what to wear ?.... the first few combinations were disastrous, a Victorian mourning coat, hip waders and a thong with my hair done in large blond macaroons seemed disjointed and then the outfit of a full length sable coat, Chinese slippers and a smart apron made from banana leaves didn't seem quite masculine enough for my usual butch visage. (Who am I kidding, I try to exude "coeur de bois", but it always translates more as "Blanche du Bois"... whatever.. ) I eventually chose something a bit more appropriate, khakis, a twin set and daytime jewelry.

The first stop was the amazing Cattedrale, a mix of every architectural style known for the last thousand years, as that was how long it had been worked on. The interior was an amazing mixture of Gothic and Baroque, with larger than life statues of saints lining the aisles.

One in particular caught me off guard, it was a statue of St. Agatha- According to variations of her legend, having rejected the amorous advances of a Roman prefect, she was persecuted by him for her Christian faith. Among the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts. She is therefore often depicted iconographically carrying her excised breasts on a platter.
The shape of her amputated breasts, especially as depicted in artistic renderings, gave rise to her attribution as the patron saint of bell-founders and as the patron saint of bakers.

Her scorned admirer eventually sentenced her to death by being burnt at the stake. However, she was saved from this fate by a mysterious earthquake. She later died in prison.

The statue in the Church portrays St. Agatha holding, pulling actually, her own breast with a large pair of pincers, her expression is one that strangely queried, "I am standing here for a thousand years holding my tit , and you couldn't show up wearing a nicer shirt ?"

I am big fan of the Saints, New Orleans and pantheon of, I was asked in kindergarten what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, "a Martyred Saint or a chronic invalid." - I always wanted to know what the Saints (not New Orleans) knew and experienced that we mere sinners don't ever seem to discover ... without chemical help that is.

The Ecstasy! The Pain! What was the contentment they found through suffering or sacrifice?

Perfect contentment can rarely be realized or recognized - It's the hardy province of the simple, the mad and the artistic. The ability to become lost in the wonder of Christ on the Cross or the bells on the jester's hat, the color of the sea or the small of a lover's back.

They examine what passes through their vision one thing at a time, spellbound.

The artist takes the extra step of recording the sights, sounds and tastes as though it will be his sole purpose to pass the information to people in other realms, other eras, other universes.

After the Cattedrale, we three ventured down to the Catacombs, Rose' walked in with us but then yawned and dismissed the lot as a "bunch of stiffs" and ascended back to the world of the living to peruse the postcard rack and flirt with the monks.

Palermo's Capuchin monastery began to outgrow its original burial grounds in the XVIeme siecle, at which point the monks began to excavate crypts below it. Nice work if ya can get it. In the 1599 they mummified one of their own, the recently-dead brother Silvestro de' Gubbio, and placed him into the catacombs, but always being the life of any party, soon he needed company.
The bodies were dried out on racks made of some ceramic pipes in the catacombs and frequently washed with vinegar...this all pre-going behind the Red Door of La Liz Arden. Some of the bodies were embalmed and others enclosed in sealed glass cabinets (think Snow White or Annie's on 17th Street in DC for Sunday brunch). Monks were preserved with their everyday clothing and sometimes with ropes they had worn as a penance. Penance indeed, I think rather it was a fashion statement.
At the very first, the catacombs were intended only for the dead friars. How exclusif, oui ? A gated community a l'Orange County of the departed religious. However, in the following times it became quite the status symbol to be entombed into the capuchin catacombs...thus, in their wills, the local glitterati would stomp their little feet and demand on being preserved in certain clothes, or even to have their get-ups changed according to the season- and I presume the everchanging mode of Sicilian high fashion. Priests wore their clerical vestments, others were clothed according to the contemporary style. Relatives would visit to pray for the deceased, have a nice chat, unload some guilt, but also to maintain the body in presentable condition. This is presentable for a corpse of course, of course... (sung to the tune of "Mr. Ed"). It's not as if anyone was down there all the time to tell the dead they had lipstick on their snags. The catacombs were maintained through the donations of the relatives of the deceased. Each new body was laid up in a temporary niche and later placed into a more permanent spot. As long as the contributions continued, the body remained in its proper place but when the cash dried up, the departed's body was put aside on a shelf, in naughty dead person's time out until the relatives started ponying up again. Sounds vaguely like a condo fee de morte, hmmmm ?
The last friar interred into the catacombs was Brother Riccardo in 1871 but other members of Palermo society were still interred. The catacombs were officially closed for use by 1880 but tourists continued to visit them. However, the last burials are from the 1920s. One of the very last to be interred was Rosalia Lombardo, then two years old, whose body is still creepily intact, preserved with a procedure now lost: the embalmer, a certain Professor Alfredo Salafia took his method with him to his very own grave. Strangely beautiful, right down to the bow in her curly blond hair, little Rosalia could conceivably be the perfect child : seen, but alas, heart breakingly never heard.
The catacombs contain about 8000 mummies that line the walls. The halls are divided into categories: Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Some bodies are better preserved than others. Some are set in poses: for example, two children are sitting together in a rocking chair, no doubt planning some prank on Mummy (forgive me, I need an easy one every now and then.) This place is totally cool. It really makes you think ... and maybe pray.

I found the catacombs to be very life affirming though some people are absolutely revolted by this display of the dead, I have this to say about that :
Being born is a strange affair. From the moment of birth its like we are kidnapped and then forced into a lifetime of servitude. Too soon we are able to perceive the world as a complicated mess- fathom it's consequences and reveal it's bleak implications. Then when are bodies and our faith is tested to their limits, it's over. We are the dead... some of us get stuffed full of chemicals and sawdust and are tucked away in a tomb, or burned to a crisp and our bones then hammered to small enough chunks to fit into a container that wouldn't be big enough for a pair of size 5 Jimmy Choo's. I suppose it is a personal choice, but it really doesn't matter what you have done with your body, at the end we all become the remains of the day.

Here's to absent friends!

The Dead Bastard



1 oz brandy

1 oz bourbon whiskey

1 oz gin

1 oz rum

1/2 oz lime juice

1 dash bitters

1 oz ginger ale
Another dash of bitters, this time NOT from an Angostura bottle

Pour ingredients into a tall glass over ice, stir, and drink in the middle of a dirt road, crying like Sophia Loren (not Sicilian, I know) in This Bitter Earth.
Deeeee-lish !

No comments:

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
zeitgeist, particular friend, perky libertine, animated trickster, iconoclast, rabble-rouser, object of worship, provocateur, capricious damp enchantress, idiosyncratic beloved reptile, whimsical saucy booze hound, bellwether, luminary, stoic, pensive illicit paramour, aloof, engaged, intuitive, curious, perplexing deranged mastermind, passionate, lasciviously adored offspring, amorous, sultry flamboyant charioteer, scholar, scribe, exalted thespian, voracious, considerable chieftain, impaired, cynical colleague, dreamer, procrastinator, loathsome glutton, artist, oppressed peasant, dainty heathen, narcissist, self-loathing...renaissance man