Down in the catacombs of Sicily, you can visit the incredibly well preserved body of a two-year-old who died in 1920. And that’s not the spooky part. The spooky part is the fact that if you stand there long enough, you’ll see her eyes open and close.
Rosalia Lombardo led a short, strange life. The daughter of a city official from Palermo, Italy, she was only two years old when she died of pneumonia. Her father, Mario Lombardo, took it about as well as you’d expect. In his grief, he contacted the legendary embalmer Alfredo Salafia to preserve his little girl in perpetuity. And if you dispute the existence of legendary embalmers, ask yourself: how many other embalmers do you know of that have their own Wikipedia page?
Whatever accolades he got, he earned. He kept the exact combination of chemicals that he used for the embalming carefully concealed even after he died, but even today, Rosalia looks as though she’s about to flutter her eyes open (more on that in a moment). Her soft blond hair sits in a perfect little curl on her forehead; a little yellow ribbon makes it seem as if she’s only fallen asleep in her Sunday clothes. She is heartbreakingly eerie, and in Sicily, she’s known as “Sleeping Beauty”.
As far as that exact chemical cocktail that kept her so perfectly preserved goes, the mystery has finally been resolved. In 2009, anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali made a discovery in a dusty corner of Alfredo Salafia’s former office — a handwritten memoir containing the combination he used for his masterwork: a mix of formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. That’s one recipe we won’t be trying at home.
A two-year-old girl perfectly preserved for all time is pretty creepy by herself. But what makes the body of Rosalia Lombardo extraordinary is the fact that she opens and closes her eyes as you stand and watch her. Kind of. It’s actually an optical illusion caused by the way sunlight passes through her specially-built glass case over the course of the day.
It’s not that her eyes appear to open, though. It’s that they appear to close. Her eyes have always been open, but as the shadows filter through the glass the lids seem to shut over her blue eyes. We understand that this sounds unbelievable, but you can try it out yourself the next time you find yourself in the catacombs below Sicily’s Capuchin convent.