“I am Vincenzo Camuso,” with these words, the soul belonging to Bonito’s resident mummy has revealed his identity to the living in dreams.
For more than 200 years, “Zì Vicienzo” (Uncle Vincenzo) has been on display for the faithful who live in and around Bonito to venerate as if he was a canonized saint. Camuso’s mummified body was originally found and housed in Bonito’s Chiesa dell’Annunziata (also known as the Chiesa dell’Oratorio), which was torn down after an earthquake in 1962. Now the mummy greets visitors at Cappella (Chapel) Vincenzo Camuso on the town’s Via Belvedere (“Muraglione” in local dialect).
How Camuso’s body was found and how he ended up the subject of popular veneration is just as mysterious as who he really was. A look through Bonito’s town records shows many men who were named “Vincenzo Camuso” who were born around the same time as Zì Vicienzo. The Camuso name itself was popular throughout Bonito, so it is unclear to which branch of the family Zì Vicienzo actually belonged. It isn’t even clear if the mummy’s actual name is “Vincenzo Camuso” because local lore states that he appeared to people in dreams declaring this as his name, but his body had no identification with it when found.
Zì Vicienzo’s body was found in 1804 after Napoleon’s Edict of Saint-Cloud forbade burials in churches and in towns, causing municipalities to create cemeteries as far from the town center as possible. As a result of the Edict of Saint-Cloud, many cemeteries that already existed inside of churches and town centers needed to be relocated.
A frequent burial practice at the Chiesa dell’Annunziata was the “scolatura,” (draining) which had the deceased person seated on a chair made of stone, placed in a crypt, and left to decompose naturally. There was even a vessel that collected bodily fluids that drained from the body as it decomposed. When this crypt was opened in 1804 to move what was left, three intact bodies were found, one of which was that of Zì Vicienzo. The other two dissolved when they came into contact with outside air. When Zì Vicienzo’s body did not decompose, the townspeople declared it a miracle, and popular veneration began.
A further source of Zì Vicienzo’s legend can also be attributed to the fact that he was buried in the Chiesa dell’Annunziata in the first place. That church was originally run by the Confraternita della Buona Morte (Brotherhood of Good Death), and only members of the Confraternita could be born there. The Confraternita’s goal was to help sick people, including those afflicted with contagious diseases. Because of his membership in the Confraternita, it is believed that Zì Vicienzo was some sort of medical professional. As in life, Zì Vicienzo particularly intercedes for those with incurable diseases, difficult pregnancies, or children who are ill. The ex voto offerings left at Cappella Vincenzo Camuso often demonstrate thanksgiving for miracles received through his intercession, particularly for children.
According to Michael P. Carroll, author of Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy, Zì Vicienzo is venerated as a holy soul in Purgatory that grants favors to the living in exchange for the very thing saints and Madonnas want: veneration. Carroll recounts several stories of Zì Vicienzo’s miracles, such as when he visited a hospital in the guise of a doctor and performed a surgical operation that healed a patient, or where he appears to patients and heals them without making use of the very operation for which they were admitted to the hospital.
Carroll writes that Zì Vicienzo was particularly concerned with veneration, especially in terms of obtaining oil for the lamps that burn in his chapel. He added that several people who have found themselves in front of the chapel at night have reported hearing his voice asking for oil. Carroll also recounts a first-hand experience of a Zì Vicienzo devotee whose son was cured of pleurisy by him in 1955, stressing that Zì Vicienzo is not a saint, but a soul in Purgatory, and still a powerful miracle worker.
The story of Zì Vicienzo doesn’t just begin and end in Bonito, reports of his miracles have been recorded in the United States and in Australia. In fact, the niche where he is seated in his chapel reads, “Per grazia ricevuta dona questa nicchia Palma Festa in Serechelli, U.S.A.,” which loosely translates to “In thanksgiving for graces received, this niche was given by Palma Festa Serechelli, U.S.A.” Palma had emigrated to the United States, yet her daughter remained in Italy with leukemia, in a hospital in Pomigliano d’Arco, just outside of Naples. It is said that Zì Vicienzo came to her in dreams many times, guaranteeing her that her daughter would be healed if she placed this niche in the chapel for him. Palma did as she was instructed and brought her daughter to Bonito, where she was healed on the spot.
Visitors to Capella Vincenzo Camuso can see a book where the faithful have come to give thanks to Zì Vicienzo for what he has done for them or their families, or to implore him to be like a kind uncle to help them once again in their time of need. While he may never be officially declared a saint by the Catholic Church, to the people of Bonito, he is just that, as well as a beloved member of the town to be celebrated for all eternity.