They call her ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the world’s most beautiful mummy. In death she's become something larger than life. Thousands of visitors each year flock to the Sicilian Catacombs just to catch a glimpse of her tiny body.
put into a glass coffin, and placed inside the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy. Nearly 100 years after her death, Rosalia has changed little. Tuffs of blonde hair still flow down her cheeks, a silk bow still tied firmly around her head. If it were not for the oxidizing amulet of the Virgin Mary resting atop her blanket, you would swear she had died a few days ago.
In 1920, Rosalia Lombardo was only two years old when she died from pneumonia. Little is known about Rosalia's short life, but after her death she was embalmed by Alfredo Salafia, a mortician so skilled that his work not only looks better than much of the embalming performed today, but it wasn't until recently that his actual technique was rediscovered and understood.
Veritably, the truth about Rosalia's life has been lost to time. Some say she was the daughter of a wealthy Sicilian noble, a general in the Italian military named Mario Lombardo. The general, according to legend, wanted to preserve his only daughter for eternity and consequentially contacted Alfredo Salafia to embalm her. There are no known photographs of Rosalia alive nor any official documents confirming definitively who her parents were.
They tell of a young child, born frail and weak, who endured more pain and sickness throughout her short life than most do in their lifetimes. Her premature death at age two left her father grief stricken. Unable to lose his daughter the father sought the help of embalmer Alfredo Salafia, to preserve Rosalia for eternity. The result was nothing short of miraculous.
Embalming as a means of memorializing the dead has ancient roots, dating all the way back to the Egyptians beginning in 3200 BC. During this period, embalmers removed the internal organs before rinsing the empty cavity with palm wine and filling it with natron salts. Over the next 40 days, the body would begin to dry out and mummify. The internal organs—which were washed, coated with resin and wrapped in linen strips upon removal—were either placed back into the body’s cavity at the end of this process, or stored in canopic jars.
This method is very different from the one used today, in which preserving fluids are pumped through the corpse’s vascular system. The end result is very different as well. Instead of a dried-out mummy that bears little resemblance to the living, you get a corpse that looks more or less as if it is sleeping. Vascular embalming became popular in the mid-19th century, and was largely driven by the sentimental desire to return the bodies of dead soldiers to their hometowns for burial during the American Civil War.
Embalming techniques varied greatly in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. For many years, Salafia’s formula remained a mystery. That was until Dario Piombino-Mascali at the Institute of Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano tracked down Salafia’s living relatives who had in their possession a number of the embalmer’s handwritten papers. In his notes, Salafia revealed that he injected little Rosalia with a mixture of formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid and glycerin. It was the latter which prevented the little girl’s body from drying out too much. It was the zinc salts which gave her corpse its rigidity and stopped her cheeks and nasal cavity from caving in.
Because of the near perfect nature of Rosalia's body, some skeptics claimed that the real body was replaced with a realistic wax replica.
In 2009, a National Geographic documentary had an MRI performed on the body, producing the first 3D images of Rosalia both inside and out.
The MRI confirmed all of her organs were perfectly intact. It also showed her arms at her sides. Nobody has ever looked underneath the blanket that covers Rosalia's body since she was sealed inside her coffin 90 years ago.
Moreover, in time-lapse photos, Rosalia’s eyes open and shut, showing her blue irises to be nearly undamaged by decomposition. The eyelid movement is most likely caused by changes in room temperature and humidity down in the catacombs, yet it has fueled many cult beliefs that Rosalia’s spirit returns to the body.
While numerous theories about “Sleeping Beauty” and her mysterious winking performances have flooded the internet nearly all who view her can agree that she truly is one of the most beautiful mummies in the world.