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The Corpse of Cardinal Mezzofanti

When I visited the Archiginnasio in Bologna, Italy, to see the archives of the hyperpolyglot Cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, I also discovered a legal document from 1885 detailing a gruesome task: the disinterment of the good cardinal’s corpse from the convent of San Onofrio al Giancolo in Rome, where it had been buried in 1849.

On the morning of March 17, 1885, a team of Roman dignitaries — three priests and a notary — and two masons visited the church at the convent of San Onofrio al Giancolo in Rome, where Mezzofanti’s tomb was located.

Two of the men had worked together already: Tommaso Monti, the notary, often accompanied Francesco Santovetti, a member of the Vatican bureaucracy who often oversaw the removal of mortal remains. Making sure that bodies were moved undisturbed and placed in new, safe tombs was a sacred task; a defiled body was a horror no one could contemplate. It was also an official function, given that certifying the state of a corpse was a necessary first step in the beatification and canonization of Catholic saints. Was that the real reason for the gruesome job of prying open the coffin? Monti doesn’t let on in his dry legal document.

Monti does describe how, led by Santovetti, the team entered the church and went to the third chapel on the left side of the church. The tomb was easy to find, marked by a marble stone in the wall, engraved with Mezzofanti’s name. There the masons pulled off the stone to find a ledge where a lead box, Mezzofanti’s final resting place, sat amid scraps of rotten wood. On Santovetti’s orders, the masons dragged out the box onto the church floor.

They must have all stood there observing the box, whose soft lead was imprinted with designs. The right side had an image of a warrior with a helmet and the spear, and on the top was the coat of arms of Gregory XVI. The coat of arms depicts two doves perched on a golden chalice under a golden comet, next to a broad-brimmed, black priest’s hat and three golden stars. Santovetti notes that the coffin is wrapped in a silk ribbon that forms a cross on the lid’s center, which is fixed with four red wax seals. It seems obvious that nothing has been opened, but the job isn’t done: they have to open the lead box. But there’s no room to do it there, so Santovetti orders the masons to carry it out of the church, into a room near the entrance of the convent. The room has been fitted with locks; before the team leaves for the day, they seal the room.

Three days later, Satovetti, Monti, Patergnani, and Mignani returned, along with by a metal worker and two of his helpers, two witnesses, a clinical psychologist from the University of Rome named Alessandro Solivetti, a surgical pathologist named Gaetano Tancioni, a scribe named Camillo Serpetti, a professor named Gaetano Camerani, and a painter, Constantino Gregori. Once they entered the convent room, Biciocchi, the metal worker, and his two helpers softened the welds on the lead box with a torch and pulled off the lid. Inside was another box made of fir, whose lid was secured with nails and fixed with six silk ribbons, discolored with age, also sealed with wax seals. Someone pulled out a parchment envelope lying in the box and tried to read it, but it molded over too thickly. Then the workers removed the ribbon and the seals, pulled out the nails from the wooden lid, and lifted it off.

In the airtight lead box, Mezzofanti’s corpse has become a mummy. Tommaso Monti notes the white hair, and stresses that the body is totally intact. The white silk mitre with red fringe (which Gregori’s painting doesn’t depict) had rotted, and the cardinal’s ring on the hand had corroded.