Skeleton of the Week, July 22: Vincenzo Piccini in Urbania, Italy


With his painted staff, short black velvet cloak over his shoulders, and shiny silver badge featuring a death’s head, the mummy of Vincenzo Piccini is certainly one of the most authoritatively elegant cadavers one might encounter. He took the office of prior of the confraternity of death in Urbania, Italy, in the late eighteenth century; the prestigious brotherhood had been around for quite some time (in fact, they still exist today), dedicated to providing good Christian burials for people of limited means. Traditionally, they placed these burials in their own cemetery, near their chapel in the center of town. But in the early nineteenth century, a local decree ordered all burials be removed from the area due to hygienic concerns. The brotherhood was forced to excavate their cemetery, and in the process made a startling discovery: the bodies, which they expected to find fully decomposed, were in fact mummified. The mummies were collected and placed in the group’s chapel.

As prior, Piccini took great interest in the mummies. He believed that his predecessors must have known some secret method for mummification which had not been passed down to him. The truth was that the bodies were preserved due to spores in the soil released by local mushrooms, but unaware of the natural phenomenon at work, Piccini set about experimenting with corpses. Eventually he settled on a method involving painter’s gesso, completely covering the bodies with it until they were effectively sealed off. Of course, this was a very different method than the natural one that had been occurring in the local soil over the past few centuries, but at least a body covered in gesso kind of/sort of looked like the mummies that had come out of the ground, and that was all that really mattered. Piccini considered the riddle to have been solved, and he then instructed an assistant in how to coat a dead person in gesso, so that on his own death he could be preserved and placed in the confraternity’s chapel. He is still there, wearing his ceremonial attire. Bonus: the mummy next to him in the photo below is believed to have been a man who was buried alive–the cited evidence is bits of apparently from his coffin under the fingernails, and burst blood vessels from extreme struggle.

The book Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris, a history of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs, will be released Fall 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Images from the book will be featured in a gallery show at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and the book is available for pre-order via

book cover

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