Saturday, March 2, 2013

Carcere Penitenziati Museum, Palermo: Italy Trip Guest Post by Evan Michelson, TV's "Oddities" and Morbid Anatomy Library

Below you will find the first of a series of guest posts by Evan Michelson--star of TV's "Oddities" and Morbid Anatomy Library scholar in residence--which will haphazardly document our three-week trip through Italy collecting images and information for our book-in-progress exploring the history of the preservation and display of the human body in Italy.

In this post, Evan shares her thoughts on a macabre relic of Palermo's history under Spanish rule: the Carcere Penitenziati Museum, a former Inquisition prison and torture site turned museum. The visual highlight of this museum was the charming, Catholic-imagery-heavy, Darger-esqye graffiti covering the walls of many of the prisoners' cells (see above) which was, our guide suggested, perhaps less a reflection of ardent faith than a means to impress the guards and increase the odds that they would be judged innocent of heresy.

Following is Evan's thoughts on our visit:
These delicate and fascinating images are scratched onto the walls of individual cells in the Carcere Penitenziati prison here in Palermo - a place of imprisonment used by the Inquisition. Many of these images were created in the 17th century by unlucky souls confined here for being heretics, Jews, reformers and various other non-believers; these inmates decorated the walls while awaiting violent "conversion" by torture (if death did not take them first).

Apparently the prison guards allowed (or even encouraged) the inmates to create these pictures, which were produced by using wet bricks as a kind of chalk. The prisoners were thus able to express their hopes and fears while awaiting the unspeakable tortures that took place in a small room just a few feet down the corridor (close enough, perhaps, for the future "penitents" to hear the screams).

Our thoughtful guide helped us unravel the meaning of some of these images: first we see the Inquisition personified as a crescent-shaped monster (a theme repeated elsewhere; top image), swallowing up traditional Biblical characters (this piece is quite large and flows from one wall to another). Next there is Christ's passion, but the figures surrounding him are of Spanish (rather than Roman; second image down) origin, perhaps illustrating the fact that this particular "penitent" came from Spain; he is paying witness to his own personal journey to Golgotha. The third image down depicts the host and the chalice - a scene of transubstantiation. Although these are by turns crude and surprisingly accomplished, many of them have a whimsical quality that belies the horrifying conditions under which they were created.

There is beautiful writing all over these walls (some in English); many of the texts are prayers, but there are also heart wrenching autobiographical passages. This place of great suffering and death is serene and beautifully preserved in a new museum that has only been open for two years. Until somewhat recently these rooms were government offices, and a few of the cells had been bureaucratically whitewashed ("criminal!" chimed our guide). Our informed (and passionate) docent later lamented the lack of ordinary hours and access to many of Italy's lesser-known cultural treasures, but this quiet, low-key and out-of-the-way little museum is a thoughtful addition to the grander, shinier cultural attractions.
You can find out more about the Carcere Penitenziati Museum by clicking here. You can read future posts by Evan both on this blog and on her Facebook page, which you will find by clicking here. Top three images are Evan's; the rest are my own.

Stay tuned for more posts from our trip as we head from Palermo to Florence.

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