In 1597, the Capuchin friars of Palermo, Sicily, had a problem: The crypts they'd been using to bury their deceased brethren were overflowing. To have more space, the brothers excavated a huge underground cemetery, making use of ancient caves. When the time came to move the corpses to their new resting place, the friars discovered something remarkable. Forty five of the bodies were naturally mummified, with still-recognizable faces. The monks believed it was a miracle and proclaimed the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo a holy site. It is now filled with the elegantly dressed corpses of 8,000 Sicilians—some of them friars, but many of them wealthy civilians—who died between the 16th and early 20th century.
Over the centuries, poets and artists like Lord Byron, Otto Dix, Francis Bacon, Peter Hujar, and Richard Avedon have visited the catacombs, creating works of art inspired by these exquisite corpses. In recent years, American photographer and director Matthew Rolston—best known for shooting glamorous portraits and music videos for (living) celebrities like Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and TLC—turned his lens on the long-deceased residents of the Capuchin catacombs for a new series called Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits.
VICE caught up with Rolston to find out what it was like photographing corpses inside the catacombs in the dead of night and what Italian mummies could possibly have to do with artificial intelligence and evolution.
VICE: How did you get interested in Japanese robotics professor Masachiro Mori’s 1970 theory of the uncanny valley, and what does that have to do with this work?
Matthew Rolston: I stumbled into the uncanny valley, so to speak. I’m interested in depictions of human simulacra. Of course that’s because portraiture has always been my subject; I’m coming at it from a different angle.
My first personal project, Talking Heads, was a series of portraits of a rare collection of ventriloquist dummies and an exploration of the ways we project our life force into simulacra. It’s something we all do without even being aware of it. If we look at a statue of Christ or a figure of the Buddha [or a photograph of a movie star] we instinctively imbue human life into the experience. I photographed those dummies like living beings. I was searching for the exact same moment of connection I would with a living subject.
With the Vanitas project, I wanted to take things a step further. Vanitas is a series of portraits of Christian mummies housed in the famous catacomb of the Capuchin Church in Palermo, Sicily. Building on what I learned from Talking Heads, I added the awareness of our own mortality—Ernest Becker called it “death anxiety”—and how that has flavored, often in tragic ways, the human experience itself.
Philosophies, mythologies, and religions have appeared since the beginning of human existence to explain the mysteries of life and death. We build walls between ourselves, and many of us are willing to kill each other in order to defend belief systems that protect us against our fear of death. It’s a form of denial—nobody really knows where we came from or where we’re going.
Being aware of our mortality is both a human affliction as well as a defining and beautiful element of life on Earth. I wanted to address this particular condition because it now appears that human evolution may lead us to discard the body as we know it. You could say Vanitas is an elegy to the end of human life, at least in its current form.
Talking Heads is about the animate and the inanimate. Vanitas is about life and death, the grotesque and the gorgeous, eternity and dust.
How do the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo offer a window into our anxieties about death?
About 500 years ago, the first of the Brothers of the Capuchin Order in Palermo were placed in the cellar below the Church when they died. There was no way of preserving the body at that time, so the practice was to remove the internal organs and leave the body to drain on a stone slab for a year, then return to stuff the body with straw and intern it in a tomb. After a year had passed, the Brothers went down and saw that the first of their dead had not visibly decomposed, and to them it was a miracle.
They believed they were closer to salvation by being laid to rest in that place. The reason the bodies were put upright in alcoves rather than lying down was so they were already raised up for the day of Resurrection. You were first in line to get into heaven, in their minds. This, to me, was tragic and beautiful—the vanity that you could cheat death, whether it’s through Hollywood filmmaking and photography or by being preserved in a magical, mystical crypt. When I got there, I started crying because I realized those people were just as afraid of death as we are today.
Could you describe some of the logistical challenges in creating these photographs?
It was a very long process. We were shooting at night from six in the evening till three in the morning. It was positively vampiric. I slept all day in a shuttered room, got up at dusk, and went to the crypt [Laughs]. I had to get permission to be there for a week and brought a team of six people and a truckload of photographic equipment from Milan to Palermo, traveling down the autostrada to Genoa, and then on a ferry to cross the sea. What a production!
Because we were also filming a short documentary to contextualize the project, we set up the shoot to correspond with the various days of the dead, so that the very last night of our shoot was the Eve of All Saints' Day, October 31. In Italy, it is a thoughtful time to commune with one’s dead and maybe think about the infinite.
I wanted to photograph 100 figures. Given the logistical difficulties, I was only able to shoot about 70 and of those, 50 made it into my final edit. We moved from figure to figure—some are stacked two or three high, which means I had to have enormous scaffolding for the lighting and camera. It was a lengthy, laborious process. It was a little like an explorer setting up an expedition to conquer a mountain.
Can you talk about the inspiration for the lighting in this series?
If you went there as a visitor, you’d see a dim, grayish, fluorescent lit chamber, which looks nothing like it does in my images. My photos use theatrical lighting in gold and blue tones. There are touches of turquoise, blue, green, gold, blood red—the colors of a bruise. The touchstones for this approach were Weimar Republic artists like Otto Dix (who, in 1924, painted some of the mummies I photographed), Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Egon Schiele.
The particular shade of blue I used was inspired by a visit to a very special chapel in a cave in the hills on Monte Pellegrino above Palermo. In that cave, behind a statue of the Virgin Mary, there is blue neon lighting that was likely put there in the 1950s. I researched that shade of blue and discovered it was associated with figures like Mary and Jesus in Catholic iconography.
The other inspiration was, while scouting the crypt, I noticed there was a subtle crossover between natural and artificial light. The catacombs are just below street level and in certain corners there are short transom windows at the top of the chamber that are actually at the base of the sidewalk outside. The natural skylight coming in was blue, and the light inside was warmer. This crossover influenced my lighting plan, as well.
Can you speak about the practical realities of robotics and AI, and transhumanism as a natural evolution of humanity?
The desire to cheat death, or at least uncover its mysteries, has existed as long as we’ve recorded our history. It is both a spiritual motivator and the scourge of humanity, and it continues today with technology.
I believe that if we don’t self-immolate, in time we will evolve beyond our current form into something else. Many people call that idea transhumanism, and it feels like everything in our culture is pointing that way, as we become more and more disembodied and meld into a kind of hive mind through social media interactions. Of course, many of our mythologies and films have been predicting this for years. Maybe it’s our destiny.
Our form is relatively recent. The human species is not that old. Homo sapiens only go back about 300,000 years. And if you believe the theories of evolution, how different is our form today from protozoa? Why shouldn’t our form be radically different in the future? I especially wanted to explore that in this work. It asks: Is the human body even necessary? Or can we discard it?