Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Mummies of Venzone

The sweet, intoxicating scents of lavender emanates from within the old castle walls of this charming little village of Venzone.  Quaint boutiques and shop houses are all dressed up in lilac and violet hues; flaunting their wares in such striking styles which inevitably pulls you in and only lets you go when you have emptied the contents of your wallet.  The lavender of Venzone is highly prized and is used in the production of cosmetics, aromatic oils, bath salts and culinary products.  The lavender is extremely important for this small community and the harvesting of the shrubs is celebrated each year in a delightful, aromatic festival held here in August.

But beneath this fairy-tale like veneer lays a dark and morbid past practice. For the town folk of Venzone (a small fortified town in the province of Udine, Italy) have an unusual connection with their dead?

In the town you will find the Cathedral of Saint Andrea.  Directly opposite the church is the small Chapel of San Michele where for a small fee of €1.50, you can wander down into the crypt and view the five mummies found in 1647
For hundreds of years, mystery surrounded the mummies because instead of decomposing normally, the bodies buried in the tombs beneath the cathedral were perfectly preserved.

There are two schools of thought on the how and why this mummification occurs. The most popular is the claim that scientists finally traced the source of this wonder to Hypha tombicina, a microscopic, parasitic fungus that rapidly dehydrates the body in one year and makes the skin parchment like before decomposition can even begin. 

The other believes that the phenomenon occurs because Venzone lies atop limestone bedrock. Groundwater in such regions is usually alkaline, an environment hostile to putrefaction. During floods, alkaline waters likely seeped through dirt floors in tombs and drained quickly through the porous limestone, the  water-soaked bodies dried rapidly into mummies due to the aridity of the region.

Regardless of the how the mummies came to be, what's most interesting to me is not the mummification per se, but the way locals treat the mummies. Some of the photos show the mummies displayed in display cabinets, and indeed some of them were taken out of Venzone to the University Laboratory of Padua, Museum of Vienna and to the Church of the Invalides in Paris. But the respect and connection afforded to the mummies by the villagers runs deeper than just money making tourism gimmick. 

The fact that the bodies were and still so “perfectly” preserved and recognizable decades later, led the townspeople to periodically retrieve and commune with their dead loved ones for some quality time. That’s right….” Hey it’s Great Great Great Great aunt Maria’s birthday let’s roll here out for cake and some family happy snaps” type of outing. 

And that’s what i think makes this such an awesome story, not that there are mummies, but  because the documented photos of the villager’s poses with their dead ancestors are just so damned creepy.

No comments:

Post a Comment