Rosalia Lombardo is known by many names; The World’s Most Beautiful Mummy, Sleeping Beauty, The Girl In The Glass Coffin and of course: The Best Preserved Mummy In The World. Rosalia meant the world to her family, especially her father who sought to preserve her eternally. But in doing so, she became something larger than life. A symbol of love, death, loss and a reminder of just how short life can be. She now attracts thousands of visitors to the Capuchin Catacombs in Sicily where she lays forever encased in glass.
Who is Rosalia Lombardo?
In short, Rosalia is a 98 year old mummy. The story of Rosalia is speculated, but unknown. Legend has it that she was a sickly child who suffered illnesses and pain until she contracted a pneumonia at the age of 2 and died from her illness. Her father, Mario Lambardo who was a General, was so struck with grief when Rosalia Lombardo died that he couldn’t part with her and wanted her placed in the Capuchin Catacombs. I wrote about the Capuchin Catacombs already, but essentially, the Catacombs were a place where the dead were displayed in order to be visited by the living. So, Mario in his grief sought out the famed embalmer Alfredo Salafia to preserve Rosalia forever. He then approached the monks who ran the Capuchin Catacombs and begged for his daughter to be placed there. The monks agreed and she was one of the last mummies placed in the catacombs.
Unfortunately, though Rosalia is just 98 years old (a fairly young mummy) the truth about her life before death and her family is speculated, but unconfirmed. One piece of evidence pointing to Mario being her father is that he supposedly named his second daughter Rosalia (after the first). But the proof of her heritage doesn’t exist. In fact, the only “proof” Rosalia the mummy has a sister is that there is a Rosalia Lombardo who was in discussion with the Sicilian government about the poor treatment of Rosalia by National Geographic. But, this supposed sister is strangely quiet and difficult to learn about. I spend many hours researching her and you can read more about that here if you want. But, the fact is, that there’s not even a single photo of Rosalia when she was alive to validate any part of her history. Her story to this day is passed on by the monks who still work in the catacombs. So what is legend passed down for the romanticism of love and loss, and what is the truth? That’s hard to say.
One of the properties that makes Rosalia such a beautiful mummy is the embalming process that was used to preserve her. The mummification was so complex that in 2009 National Geographic took X-ray and MRI scans of Rosalia to determine if she was truly mummified, or if she was a wax replica. The results were staggering, showing that she was indeed truly a mummy and that even her organs were still in functional condition.
The problem at the time, was that no one knew how Rosalia had been preserved. Then, later in 2009 Dario Piombino-Mascali, a biological anthropologist sought out Alfredo’s living descendants and asked to go through his things for clues as to the formula. Luckily for the scientific community they consented and Dario found a handwritten memoir reveling the exact formula injected into Rosalia. The formula consisted of formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. Many of these ingredients are commonly used today, but the shining star of this concoction is the zinc salts which essentially petrified her body. While Rosalia was mostly kept intact during embalming, her blood was drained and replaced by the magical formula used by Alfredo.
Rosalia’s Blinking Eyes
To add further to the folklore surrounding the Sleeping Beauty, rumor had it that Rosalia would blink multiple times a day. Some said this was her spirit returning to her body. Others passed this phenomenon off as changes of the light. Further studies however, including time-lapse photos by National Geographic, show that Rosalia does in fact blink several times an hour! While her eyes generally open just slightly more than 1/8th of an inch, they open to reveal perfectly intact baby blue eyes. Scientists have determined that changes in humidity in the catacombs cause changes of pressure in her body and thus her eyes to open. But even so, there are many who prefer to believe that her spirit really does return to her body!
Rosalia has indeed sparked much fascination in the world of science and commoners alike. In fact, some say that Rosalia amplifies human nature in regards to the fascination of the unknown, specifically death and also with the immorality of an immortal body. The story of love, loss, beauty and tragedy have captured thousands of people through multiple generations. It is difficult to untangle the feelings aroused by Rosalia, innocent and young, yet frozen between worlds, un-allowed to decay least her family lose her spirit forever.
If you want to visit Rosalia, you’re not alone. Rosalia captures the hearts of thousands each year. She’s located in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily with over 8,000 other mummies. The catacombs are open nearly everyday and the entry fee is only 3 euros. Within Palermo, the catacombs are a short walk from the city center, but public transportation is also available.