Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mummies, Monreale & Mafia

Palermo, Sicily

    The catacombs of Palermo lie underneath the Capuchin monastery in the city. When I first entered this forbidding place together with a group of passengers from our ship, the M/S Costa Romantica,  I thought I had wandered into an old  theater's costume department.
     Ah, so many  mannequins in period dresses  hanging from hooks on the walls!
     It did not take me long to realize that those mannequins were actually dried-out cadavers in various states of disintegration. I revised my first impression and decided I had wandered into a scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
     Only the bigwigs of Palermo past, namely, nobles, traders, politicians and clergy, were considered fit to be mummified. It was a privilege, and expensive,  to be dried and put out on display, either dangling from hooks, lying on open shelves or enclosed in glass caskets. The last person to be preserved by the monks, back  in 1922, was a little girl named Rosalia, who still lies there in the children’s chamber,  seemingly peacefully asleep in the company of grisly, contorted and  horridly grinning corpses.
     The place was decidedly spooky. Were it not for the company of other tourists who  were shuddering like me, I would have turned tail and fled the place faster than you can say “Marco Polo”! Effectively lessening the fear factor were the bright fluorescent lights that illuminated the dungeons.  And no, the place did not smell of anything other than dampness. I could not help wonder what the place looked like in the 18th century when feeble lamps or torches were all that the monks had to light up the place.
     The practice of mummification of course is thousands of years old and occurred in many cultures, notably Egyptian, Inca, Chinese, even  Filipino. It was rooted in the belief that the human body was sacred and would rise up whole and reconstructed at the end of times. You’ll see a mummy here and there in a museums all over the world. However, chances are you won’t see as many mummies as here in this warren of tombs under the Capuchin monastery. The good people of Palermo used to visit regularly to spruce up and replace the worn wardrobes of their loved ones. That was the best they could do, since obviously they couldn’t replace rotting flesh. It seemed to me that they lavished such care on the couture of their loved ones so that when the angel sounded the wake-up trumpet during the last judgment, they’d all rise up, ready and perfectly dressed for the occasion. Could they have foreseen that these dressed-up corpses would become a tourist attraction, fodder for the horrified gawkers from Minnesota and Malibu? I wonder what some tourist would remark if I, by chance,was in that dehydrated position.
    “ Oh look, mom, says here that guy used to be a musician on some cruise ship. He doesn’t look too musical now, does he?”
    From the catacombs, our tour group went up on to Monreale, a town barely half an hour outside Palermo. We drove up the mountain overlooking the valley the Sicilians call Conca d'Oro, or Golden Basin. A hot-looking haze smothered the countryside below.
     The cathedral of Monreale was of Norman construction (ca.1100 AD), built to rival the equally splendid cathedral in Palermo. Magnificent mosaics depicting events in the life of Christ adorned its walls. Dominating the church from the apse, was a very Byzantine and mesmerizing mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (in plain English, Christ Almighty!). Among the tableaus on the wall, my favorite was that of Christ healing the blind. He's fixing the man’s vision with rays emanating from his own eyes. To me this looked like a prescient and graphic portrayal of lasik treatment. Perhaps the artist saw more of the future than he let on? 
    Having admired the awesome and neck-contorting mosaics of the cathedral, I went into the  treasury, which required a separate ticket of admission (price: 2500 lire). This was a side-chapel built to contain precious church objects that any self-respecting thief would surely want to get his hands on.  Among the items displayed here were an intricately hewn cupboard, a pair of finely carved wooden doors depicting scenes from the bible, marble statues, and various silverware. The chapel’s altar was inlaid with multi-colored marble, a work of art, by itself worth the price of admission.
     Attached to the cathedral was the cloister of the Benedictines, about which I had read so much. This, again, required its own ticket (price of admission:2000 lire).
     The cloister didn't disappoint. Four rows of Romanesque columns, each one bearing a different, quirky design, enclosed a peaceful garden.  A fountain gurgled in one corner. A faded fresco of virgin and child peered from a corner wall. The atmosphere was tranquil, soothing, and so far removed from the hot, busy streets of Palermo.  I thought of all those Benedictine monks who used to pray and meditate within this garden. I thought of the Benedictine nuns who used to teach and drill into me and my hapless classmates the fear of the Lord, back at St. Peter’s Academy in my hometown of Ormoc City, Philippines. I remembered the Benedictine priest (who shall remain nameless) in music conservatory who used to yell at me when I played a Mozart sonata with jazz accents. Ah, pesky memories, safely buried in the past, but slightly invoked here within the peaceful precincts of the cloister.
     Monreale is a tranquil town up in the mountains above Palermo, where there is no traffic, and the blue Sicilian sky forms the perfect backdrop to the terra-cotta dome of its Norman Cathedral. If this was its only reality, then Monreale would be that postcard-perfect Italian town in which every tourist cliché is realized.
    The less-picturesque reality however is that Monreale has had its share of Mafia-related killings and assassinations.  Also, ugly high rises were steadily encroaching on the old town, so that if you didn't already know it, you wouldn’t realise how much  architectural and artistic wealth lay behind those charmless modern towers. Couple that with the sight of garbage and graffiti on the approach to the town and you would have gone past Monreale in a hurry.
    Despite all that, a visit to Monreale is more than worthwhile, indeed, required of any visitor to Palermo. It is, after St. Mark’s in Venice, quite possibly the most magnificent Norman-Byzantine church in Italy.
_____________________________________________________________________Note: I visited Monreale in pre-Euro days, a time when, as a Roman piano tuner sardonically told me,  "We Italians used to be rich. "

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