PyroManiac devotes Monday space to esoteric and offbeat things, in the hope that these will supply learning experiences for us all.
I'm writing from one of my favorite spots in the world, the ferry landing at Mukilteo, WA. The ferry to Whidbey Island docks adjacent to the Mukilteo lighthouse, one of the best-looking and most easily-accessible lighthouses in the world. You can walk to the top for a close-up view of its really-cool lens. The famous Ivar's Mukilteo Landing Restaurant on the opposite side of the ferry entrance has been there for decades, with a walk-up window to serve clams and fish and chips to people waiting for the ferry.
A cup of cappuccino would make my morning perfect. You can normally get a nice cappuccino within short walking distance of any given point in the Seattle metropolitan area, and this place is no exception. I walk over to Woody's, an establishment across the street from the lighthouse. It looks more like a bait shop than a coffee shop, but the cappuccino is first-class. The foam is at least two inches think, with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top.
You say "Cappuccino";
I say "Capuchini"
Thinking about cappuccino reminds me of another of my favorite places in the world. It's the most macabre and fascinating tourist attraction I have ever seen: the Capuchini Catacombs in Palermo, Italy.
Cappuccino, you may know, is so named because its color matches the trademark hooded garment of a Capuchin monk. The Capuchins are an order of Franciscans founded about the same time the Protestant Reformation began in the early sixteenth century. The Capuchini recognized the need for reform in the church, but instead of doctrinal reform, they favored an approach that called for a return to the strict austerity of the original Franciscans. They were a monkish version of the strictest kind of fundamentalists. They went barefoot, lived in extreme poverty, and adopted a famous hooded habit like the one worn by St. Francis. (The garment, known as a capucize, was so much the emblem of the order that their name was derived from it. Padre Pio, famous mystic and stigmatist, now a saint, was a Capuchin.)
The early sect was much persecuted, even by other Franciscan friars. The pope made a rule confining the Capuchin order to Italy. One of the Capuchini's two founders soon left, and the other was expelled for insubordination. The third Capuchin vicar-general, Bernardino Ochino, was supposedly converted to Protestantism and became a Calvinist. The pope responded to that "setback" by forbidding all Capuchins to preach. (Ochino later flirted with Socinian ideas and was expelled from Zurich.)
Meanwhile, however, as the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation gained influence and the truth about worldliness and corruption in the Roman system was exposed even from within, reform movements like the Capuchini became increasingly popular. Within a decade after the Council of Trent, Italy boasted some 17,000 Capuchin monks.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, leading elements in the Capuchin order seem to have acquired a macabre fascination with deathhuman remains in particular. The Capuchin brothers specialized in various kinds of "burial art"making decorations from human bones, and preserving the dead for display.
My first personal encounter with Capuchini deathcraft was in Rome, about a decade ago. The Capuchini have decorated the crypt of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione on Via Vittorio Veneto street (near Piazza Barberini) with thousands of human bones. The Marquis de Sade visited there and wrote of the place in 1775. It was just his cup of tea.
So a few years later, while teaching at a conference in Sicily, a small group of us were traveling near Palermo (under the guidance and hospitality of our dear friends Joe and Georgia Aleppo). Another good friend and fellow pastor, Carey Hardy, pointed out an ad in one of those local-attraction magazines for tourists. The ad featured a gruesome picture of a rotted corpse, and promised thousands of similar mummified cadavers on display at the Capuchin Crypt in Palermo.
Naturally, Carey and I both wanted to go there without delay.
Our wives were less enthusiastic, of course, but we prevailed. It turned out to be well worth the trip. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of ancient corpses in the crypt, dating back to the early 1600s, all in various states of decay, and most dressed in their finest clothing. They are on display right in the open, not behind any glass or bars.
Apparently, the crypt's collection began in 1599, when the Capuchini preserved one of their own so that they could actually see him while they prayed to him. The properties of dry air and temperature in the crypt turned out to be perfect for drying and preserving corpses, and the friars perfected methods of preservation that produced better and better results all the time. Wealthy citizens of Palermo all wanted to be preserved there, so that relatives could always visit. Thus the crypt holds many wealthy and important figures, including Giovanni Paterniti, American Vice Consul, who died in 1911.
Some of the remains are mere skeletons, but many others, apart from being shrivelled and creepy and looking very much like discarded props from horror movies, are amazingly well preserved, with every pore in the skin still visible and almost every hair still intact. In some cases, the corpse's clothing is more decayed than the carcass itself. The clothing alone is a fascinating study in the evolution of styles.
One famous mummy is the perfectly-preserved body of Rosalia Lombardo, a child who died about 1920 and was one of the last corpses added to the collection before city officials prohibited any more. She is preserved with perfect lifelikeness and color.
Darlene did not enjoy the Capuchin crypt. I was so fascinated by the authentic 400-year-old clothing and the sketchy life stories of the corpses that I could have spent hours there. It remains my top recommendation for the most interesting tourist attraction I have ever seen, and a graphic reminder of the truth of Isaiah 40:6-8: "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field . . . The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever."
Now I'm ready for clams at Ivar's. See you when I get home.