Up until a few days ago, I had not seen a lot of dead bodies. In one way that is strange, because I work with them all the time. My job as a novelist in history is to resurrect people from the grave. Rodrigo Borgia and his beloved children have been feeding the worms for five centuries now, but with the exception of wondering if Cesare’s disinterred bones would show the impact of syphilis (that is another blog altogether) I have spend the last three years bringing them back to life in all their flawed glory.
So it was a remarkable moment last week, when in Sicily – where I was taking a long awaited break and girding my loins for publication – I visited the catacombs of the Capuchin monastery in the south west of Palermo. I cannot show you any pictures because one is not allowed to take them (I offer instead the stunning interior of the normal Cathedral of Monreale – one of the other high points and at least as mind blowing in another way), but I can try to paint you the scene in words.
Down a staircase to the side of the church, you enter a huge underground chamber, marked by long stone corridors and a few small rooms. And all along the walls two deep on either side from floor to ceiling, are rows of hooks from which hang literally hundreds and hundreds of desiccating corpses, both men and women, dating back from the 17th to the late 19 th centuries. Each one is fully dressed, though the state of their costumes depends on the state of their decay. Army captains from the war of reunification sport tarnished gold buttons and metal buckles on eaten away uniforms. Women’s skulls carry the halos of designating lace caps. Monks have their rope cassocks’ belts around their neck, and children – because of course there are a lot of children – are in their best now semi-shredded party clothes. In some cases the body is almost all skeleton, a tattered overcoat and oversized trousers hanging off it. But in others, you can still appreciate the weave of an expensive piece of cloth or you see enough skin taut over the skull to imagine the face that would once had been there. And in one case, (a boy in placed in a glass case) you can still make out a child’s handsome face amid a mass of chestnut curls.
Once you get over the Hollywood horror of it – how bizarre that humans seem to enjoy being terrified by armies of death – there is both a solemnity and a strange beauty to the experience: like an epic version of Miss Havisham’s receiving room; its shredded curtains and mouldering wedding cake offering you a window into a particular past. Every one of these now semi-grotesque figures had their own story, with it own colour schemes of grief, love or triumph. You can still feel a certain pomposity to the bodies of the professionals (a whole section labelled with the names of lawyers and doctors), contrasting with what feels like more gentile lives of the “angels of the hearth”, wives and mothers whose corpses lie horizontally rather than from hooks (is this to preserve some sense of modesty?), amid yards and yards of disintegrating rich cloth, sinking like heavy sighs onto bone limbs.
Though the only visitors these days are tourists, relatives used to come here to pay their respects to their dead, even sometimes redressing the corpses. A profoundly catholic country, Italy (though there are times when Sicily feels like a country of its very own) would have been used to bodily relics of saints, which may have given believers a tougher stomach when it came to the dead. Or maybe it was just that they saw so much more of it.
Certainly the cheapness of life is one of the things that working in the Italian renaissance has brought home to me. That and the levels of everyday violence. I had a very powerful realisation of this when researching a particular moment in Blood and Beauty. A relative of the Pope goes missing, presumed killed and after days of searching, the papal guards find a man who lives by the river Tiber in his boat (to guard his woodpile) who tells them a story of how two nights before he saw a man on a white horse guarded by servants, come to the bank of the river and throw a body into it.
When the papal guard demand to know why he didn’t come forward before with the information, he tells them baldly that if he reported every body he’d seen dumped there, he would never get any work done. Next time you find yourself close to a big river in one of Europe’s capital cities try and imagine how it would be with the occasional cargo of another murdered body flooding by.
Meanwhile, on a more cheerful note, back in London, there has been an hour or so of sun. It is nothing to compare with the vast blue skies over Sicily, though for the last two days the weather was marked by the drama of spiralling black clouds from the craters of Mt Etna, a cantankerous live volcano which grumbles and spits fire regularly. It reminded me of the exhibition that has recently opened in London on Pompeii and Herculaneum. If you live anywhere within easy distance, book a ticket. There are bodies there too, though in rather different states of preservation.