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The Mysterious Tale of the Italian Petrifier

History is full of mad scientists who have managed to evade explanation and take their discoveries into the mists of time to be forever beyond our grasp. Such people populate the annals of discovery and our push forth into the great unknown, their secrets forever buried and beyond us. Back in the 18th century there existed one such fellow, known as an adventurer and naturalist who journeyed to Egypt and found a way to instantly petrify corpses that still eludes us to this day.

Back in his era, the Italian naturalist, cartographer, Egyptologist, and anatomist Girolamo Segato was a bit of a real-life Indiana Jones. Born in a monetary in Vedana, Northern Italy in 1792, he would go on to learn the sciences, including botany, chemistry, anatomy, and mineralogy, and in 1818 became very involved in expeditions to North Africa as a cartographer, where he found himself drawn to Egypt. He became fascinated with ancient and mysterious Egyptian mummification processes, as well as Egyptian music, exploring dark tombs and getting in adventures along the way. He took extensive notes on ancient mummification techniques, researching it thoroughly and becoming a bit of an expert in the field, but when he returned to Italy in 1823, it seems as if he also brought back some long-lost ancient knowledge with him. And so we head down the road of a strange historical oddity involving a mad scientist and his secret method for petrifying corpses, through ancient magic, secret science, or who knows what else.

Girolamo Segato

Upon settling in Florence, Segato began to get to work on new methods for preserving the dead to keep them with us for all time. There were several different avenues he pursued, such as replacing a corpse’s bodily fluids with an unknown chemical substance, drying the cadavers similarly to Egyptian mummies, and last but not least, a mysterious process that seems to actually have turned corpses into a state something like stone. This process in particular was rather bizarre, in that Segato would take dead bodies and somehow replace soft tissues with minerals through an unknown technique, all while keeping the original color, shape, texture, and even the cellular structure of the original material. The end result was something akin to a statue, somehow petrified like a fossil and stuck in time, only rather taking eons to achieve it, Segato had somehow found a way to vastly speed up the process to virtually overnight. This was not ever done with whole bodies, but typically rather organs, body parts such as heads or hands, or animals, no one really knows why, but what we do know was that no one had ever seen anything like it before and no one could figure out how he did it. These creations of his would hold both spectators and scientists alike in awe, and one Florentine chemist would say of his creations in an 1855 article in Harper’s Magazine:

In this hospital [Santa Maria Nuova, Florence] is to be seen the museum of the late Prof. Segato, who discovered the process of petrifying animal substances, so that, while they retained their natural colors and shapes, they became as hard as stone. It comprises every portion of the human body transformed to stone, destined to endure as long as the world itself, if not ground to pieces by violence. There are two tables, one finished and polished, the other incomplete, made of mosaics, formed by sections of human bones, brain, lungs, blood vessels, intestines and muscles, as firm as marble, showing the internal structure of each, all resembling colored stones. Without an explanation every visitor would presume them to have come from some stone mosaic manufactory for they are symmetrically arranged in squares, with the great variety of colors nicely graduated. Different portions of the human body, showing the internal anatomy, are so perfectly petrified as to form perfect objects of study of the medical student. Even morbid anatomy was subjected with entire success to this process. Animals of all kinds, reptiles, chickens, in and out of the egg. In short, nothing that had warm blood was capable of resisting his petrifying touch.

Segato often put his creations on display, and in the meantime, others were trying to figure out how he did it, developing their own formulas and failing. There were even attempts to break into Segato’s laboratory in order to steal his secrets, but these were equally unsuccessful. Besides dead animals and parts of cadavers, Segato branched out further into the macabre to even fashion furniture made of body parts using his secret technology. The most famous is a table, originally meant as a gift to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, of which an article in the New York Sun would say:

In the Pitti Palace at Florence is a table which for originality in the matter of construction and ghastliness in conception is probably without a rival. It was made by Giuseppe Segatti, who passed several years of his life in its manufacture. To the casual observer it gives the impression of a curious mosaic of marbles of different shades and colors, for it looks like polished stone. In reality it is composed of human muscles and viscera. No less than a hundred bodies were requisitioned for the material. The table is round, and about a yard in diameter, with a pedestal and four claw feet, the whole being formed of petrified human remains. The ornaments of the pedestal are made from the intestines, the claws with hearts, livers, and lungs, the natural color of which is preserved. The table top is constructed of muscles artistically arranged, and it is bordered with upwards of a hundred eyes, the effect of which is said to be highly artistic, since they retain all their lustre, and seem to follow the observer. He obtained his bodies from the hospitals, and indurated them by impregnation with mineral salts.

Some of Segato’s creations

During his heyday, Segato, who was being known as “il Pietrificatore,” or “the petrifier,” became very well-known around Italy and beyond for his strange creations, but he always denied all requests to divulge his weird secrets, not even giving away any samples save for some small petrified fish and drops of blood he once donated. It was partly this continuous air of secrecy that started rumors that Segato was not using any technique of the natural world, but rather ancient Egyptian black magic that he had learned during his faraway exotic travels. This led to opposition from the Church, which ostracized him for carrying out “Egyptian magic rituals,” as well as complaints from scientists for keeping his work so secret. Segato eventually became so infuriated with the lack of appreciation for his work that he had all of his notes destroyed, and would end up taking his secret to the grave with him in 1836, once promising to divulge the technique to a close friend but dying before he could do so. He would be buried at Santa Croce Church, Florence, under the epitaph “Here lies Girolamo Segato—who would be intact, petrified, if the secret of his art had not died with him.”

In modern times, several of Segato’s pieces are still on display at various museums and institutions around Italy and beyond, including Civic Museums of Belluno, the Royal Palace of Caserta, the Museum of the Department of Anatomy of the University of Florence, and the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine in Paris. To this day there have been attempts to study these petrified remains, but even with the most advanced mass spectrometry analyses, radiography, CT scans, 3-D reconstruction and virtual endoscopy, no one has been able to figure out exactly how he did it. We probably will never know, and whether it was through ancient knowledge, magic, or just plain resourcefulness, the case of Girolamo Segato and his strange petrified creations remain an inscrutable historical oddity and mystery.