Why you should care
Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi was a less-than-trustworthy personal physician.
It all started with a loud pop. Overpowered by the gases that had built up after a botched embalming — and further stewed by the Mediterranean heat — the corpse burst open inside the coffin like a firecracker as it rolled in a procession toward the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. It was a less-than-dignified exit from the mortal realm, especially considering the unfortunate subject: Eugenio Pacelli, otherwise known as Pope Pius XII.
Serving throughout World War II and well into Europe’s period of recovery after the devastating conflict, Pius left behind a complex legacy when he died at age 82 in 1958. Critics have accused him of failing to confront Nazi tyranny and defend Europe’s Jews from the murderous regime. Others aren’t so sure. Either way, we’ll soon learn more about his place in history: Pope Francis recently announced that the Vatican will open up its archives on the Italian-born priest next March.
Perhaps equally mysterious is why Vatican officials allowed Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, reportedly notorious for his incompetence, to oversee the embalming of the man who led the Catholic Church through the darkest days of the 20th century. Perhaps it was because of Galeazzi-Lisi’s personal connection to the pope. In 1939, when Pius ascended to the papacy, he made the Italian eye doctor his personal physician. Whatever the case, the Vatican swiftly paid for its mistake.
Even before the embalming went horribly wrong, Galeazzi-Lisi, born in 1891, had produced clear evidence that he wasn’t exactly a straight shooter. In October 1958, as the pontiff lay dying from a long illness in Castel Gandolofo, just south of Rome, the doctor had struck a deal with French newsweekly Paris Match to provide exclusive photos of his holy patient on his deathbed. That wasn’t the only deal he made. Galeazzi-Lisi also agreed to give an Italian news agency a scoop when his boss finally did die — except it didn’t quite work.
After the corpse exploded during the procession, Galeazzi-Lisi and Nuzzi were forced to re-embalm Pius overnight.
According to John-Peter Pham’s Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession, Galeazzi-Lisi and the news agency devised a plot by which the doctor would swing open a particular window in Castel Gandolofo as a signal that Pius was dead. But such was the October heat that an unwitting Vatican aide present in the pontiff’s bedroom cracked the window to let in some air, leading three newspapers to print news of his death a day before he actually perished.
Then there was the infamous embalming. An apparent proponent of experimentation — records of his procedures on Pius showed “an extensive history of medical incompetence and outright quackery that would be a malpractice attorney’s dream,” Pham writes — Galeazzi-Lisi decided to preserve the pope using a process developed by himself and surgeon Oreste Nuzzi to resemble an ancient embalming. It was, as The New York Times reported at the time, a process of “aromatic osmosis” used on early Christians, including Charlemagne. “The two physicians said one of the advantages of their method was that the body being embalmed did not have to be denuded,” the Times wrote on Oct. 14.
Requiring no injections or incisions, the procedure called for the application of various oils and resins to deoxidize the body, and for a cellophane sheet to be wrapped around the cadaver for almost 24 hours. As it turned out, that was a mistake. “If you keep the organs in there and they’re not treated properly,” explains Ken Jeremiah, author of Christian Mummification, “there’s a buildup of bodily chemicals and if there’s no place for those chemicals to go, explosions can happen.”
After the corpse exploded during the procession, Galeazzi-Lisi and Nuzzi were forced to re-embalm Pius overnight. But it was too late: Decomposition had already started, and when the body was finally displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica the following day, the “emerald green” body, as some sources described it, was so putrefied that members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard who were on duty reportedly fainted.
That marked the end of the road for Galeazzi-Lisi. He was reprimanded by Pius’ successor, John XXIII, who banished him from Vatican City — thus far the only person to ever merit that penalty. Although the Italian Medical Council expelled him from the organization, a court later reinstated Galeazzi-Lisi’s ability to practice medicine. But he wasn’t heard from much again. Galeazzi-Lisi died in 1968 at 77.
As for the lessons learned? That took a while. Pope Paul VI was only lightly embalmed after his death, in 1978, and his body embarked on a similar process of decomposition inside St. Peter’s, where fans were said to have been installed to waft away the stench. Pope John Paul II, the most recent pontiff to have died in office, forwent the procedure altogether. He was, however, preserved for viewing with a formaldehyde-based fluid in a process shrouded in secrecy — perhaps, considering recent history, for the better.