Magazine article The Spectator

In among the Catacombs

Magazine article The Spectator

In among the Catacombs

Article excerpt

The taxi-driver made no attempt to ingratiate himself with his passengers. He kept his eyes on the road and tried conscientiously to get us through the Palermo traffic and out to the airport as fast as possible. It pays to keep your eyes on the road in Palermo. Three days earlier, the taxi-driver who had taken us from the airport to our hotel had taken his off the road for only a split-second, to corroborate with a despairing glance a comment about Palermo's traffic being the most anarchic we'd ever seen, and we hit a pedestrian.

It takes 40 minutes to go from Palermo to Falcone-Borsellino airport. The motorway out of town took us past the lobster-pink obelisk marking the site of the explosion that killed Judge Falcone and made many Sicilians lose their respect for the Honoured Society. We craned our necks and jabbered excitedly, but the taxi-driver kept his shockingly cool sunglasses on the road and his thoughts to himself.

Seeing Falcone's vulgar memorial put me in a morbid frame of mind. I wondered if I, too, had drawn down a curse on myself during our long weekend in Palermo. I'd almost certainly earned one on the Saturday, when we'd visited the Catacombs of the Capuchin, possibly the most bizarre tourist attraction in Europe.

We'd paid an unshaven monk the equivalent of a couple of quid and followed a whitewashed tunnel underground until we came to a vast stone cellar packed to the rafters with the mummified remains of over 6,000 Palmeritans, most of whom had died in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were suited and booted in their Sunday best and suspended by the neck, as if hanged, endless rows of them, heads bowed, their hands loosely folded in prayer. Some had agonised expressions on their faces, as if the transition from life to death had been a painful surprise.

They were remarkably well-preserved, with their skin, hair, teeth, even the expression on their faces, quite intact. There were sections for men, women, children, babies, professional people, monks and priests. One of the priests was a full bishop. He was so well-preserved that the only difference being dead for 200 years had made to his general appearance was that his mitre had gone slightly awry.

I respected the signs urging me to respect the souls of the dead by not taking photographs until I came upon two-year-old Rosalind Lombardo. …

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