Historical Travel in Italy, what inspires you?
Do you love to travel? What inspires you? I’ve always adored historical travel and the multi layered fabric of society woven from years of civilization. The journey through countries and cultures is colorful and sometimes confronting, but never dull. With common threads of human emotion we learn so much. Since elementary school, history has remained my friend with infinite stories to tell.
The Hands of David
As travelers many of us are fascinated by the past. It takes us to places where humans have lived, worked, loved and worshipped. Gazing at Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of David in Florence, we can feel the 29-year old artist kneeling right at our feet. We can imagine the final chiseling touches, rendering such stunning realism. Our eyes feel deceived that at any moment David will step down and realize his own nakedness.
You might find yourself wondering who was David? How did Michelangelo feel when it was all finished? Was he sad or glad? Or was he driven by perfection and dissatisfied? We can only guess. It’s like reading a book with an open ending. You wonder, what happened next? The story plays on your mind and the characters keep walking beside you. Experiencing history through travel does this too. It gives us pause to stop, think and imagine. It challenges us, sparking our curiosity and firing up our emotions.
The 45 Friars
There is a monastery in Sicily where your imagination can be left at the door. This place is not marked from the outside. There is no evidence of what lies behind the aged wooden door. As you enter the quiet Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo and you will be greeted by a hooded monk. He tells you in whispering tones, “no photos, rispetti pi favuri”. In Sicilian this means, no photo’s respect please. I soon understand why. This is the final resting place of 8000 mummified bodies. You won’t need a camera as this is a place you will never forget.
The bodies date from 1500 to the late nineteenth century. What started out in 1534 as a simple catacomb for Capuchin friars, soon became overcrowded. The corpses were exhumed in 1597 to be moved to a larger cemetery. With the removal of each body what they found could only be explained (at that time) as an act of God. 45 friars had been naturally mummified and their faces were still recognizable. Instead of reburying the remains they were proudly displayed as relics of Gods handiwork and propped up along the walls of the catacomb. As news of this miracle spread the catacombs were expanded. Wealthy citizens of Palermo wanted to go on eternal display and were happy to pay the church for this service. The dressed mummies were arranged by profession, sex and social status.
Eternalized in Death
When you walk along the odorless corridors it’s unforgettably macabre. It’s not for children or the sensitive. Many people see a ghoulish Halloween display; like the backlot of a horror movie. I saw something different. Apart from the original 45 friars, these people wanted to be eternalized in death. They wanted it so badly they were prepared to pay. A Mother was able to visit her deceased child. A husband could see see his wife and show her the baby she lost her life delivering. This community believed that mummification would give their loved one’s future comfort and status. To see the dusty husks of human life collected over hundreds of years provides a historical record of the Palermo community. Each one with its own untold story. Mummification is the ultimate act of control over death. This place is fascinating, tucked away in a little corner of Palermo in Sicily you would never know it was there.
These surprise discoveries are why I love to travel and it’s why historical travel is so fascinating to me and many others. In Italy historical travel is so multi-layered you literally trip over the past wherever you go. Travel broadens our sense of respect for humanity and it teaches us empathy. By stepping back in time you will be reminded that your life is not so different from those of our forebearers. Our emotions and basic drives are just the same, just cloaked in the robes of a different generation.
Inspired by stories of historical travel in Italy? Come with us on a historical adventure to Italy and Sicily.
We have small group escorted and independent tours that visit Florence where you can see Michelangelo’s magnificent David. See them here:
We work with an incredible Sicilian based company that offers authentic Sicilian experiences on this historically rich island off the Italian coast. Read more here:
The original statue of David can be viewed at the Academia Gallery in Florence. Check their website listed below for opening hours which are normally 8.15am to 6.50pm. They also have two late nights during the week, Tuesday and Thursday until 9.30pm. These are often quieter and less crowded. Opening hours are subject to change so check before you go. The gallery is closed Mondays so plan your visit to Florence accordingly.
60, Via Ricasoli, 58, 50122, Firenze
+39 055 294 883
Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
Palermo is the start and end point of most of our Sicilian tours. None of the tours visit the Capuchin Catacombs as it’s not for everyone. However, if you wish to see this extraordinary historical documentation of Palermo residents, and learn more about the monastery here are the details. When visiting please go with respect in your heart. If you choose to go to the website, use viewing discretion especially when children are present.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini
Piazza Cappucini, 1, 90129 Palermo
+39 091 652 7389