Bones: A Visit to the Capuchin Crypt
visit to the dark side of Rome.
(CC-BY-SA 3.0 courtesy Dnalor_01)
Rome is a city of marvelous history, art and architecture:
The Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and Saint Peters Basilica to name
a few. However, nothing in the city rivals one site for its macabre
display: The Capuchin Crypt, where thousands of human bones have
been arranged in a morbid tableau.
The church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei
Cappuccini sits on the street Via Venetto just steps away
from Piazza Barberini and a few hundred feet from the Fontana
di Trevi station on Rome's "A" line metro. The exterior of the
church seems rather plain, especially when compared to other magnificent
buildings of worship in the eternal city. Yet, in the basement
of this small chapel lies something unique to the city and to
many of its visitors, very disturbing.
Capuchin Coat of Arms, with, well, real arms..(CC-BY-SA
3.0 courtesy Dnalor_01)
The church is owned by the Ordo Fratrum Minorum
Capuccinorum (Order of Friars Minor Capuchin). This group
was established around 1520 by the Franciscan friar, Matteo Bassi.
Bassi felt that the Franciscans had drifted away from their original
goals of humble piety and wished to re-establish those objectives
with the new order. Though he would eventually return to the Franciscans,
his new group thrived and was well established by 1630 when the
order built the church on Via Venetto with donations from wealthy
families in the city.
When the monks moved into their new digs, they had
a problem: what to do with 300 cartloads of bones of deceased
friars. It wasn't uncommon in ancient times to bury a body without
a coffin for a few decades after death, then after the body had
decomposed, retrieve the bones so the spot in the ground could
be reused for the more recently departed. In this case, when the
Capuchins moved from their old monastery, they brought the bones
of their dead brethren from the last century with them.
The bones were placed in the church's basement in
five crypts with arch-shaped roofs. By this time the bones were
largely unconnected with each other (nobody was quite sure which
skull went with which leg or pelvis), so they were organized by
type: the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, the
Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, etc. This particular practice
of placing bones in a storage chamber under the church was not
at all unusual at the time. What was unusual was how they were
posed in the crypts.
Crypt of the Skulls. (CC-BY-SA 3.0 courtesy
Nobody is quite sure how this happened, but many
of the bones were arranged artfully around the rooms. In some
cases they were turned into chandelers. In other cases, they are
arranged in the shape of hour glasses with wings, to remind the
visitor of the passage of time. In a few cases the bones have
been left together to form skeletons. These figures' empty eye
sockets peer out from their hooded monk robes at visitors.
Who did this? Nobody knows for sure. However, one
legend has it that some monks under persecution in France fled
to the Rome facility and hid in the crypts. Bored with their time
in the tombs, they started rearranging the bones.
In truth, though we don't know exactly when this
happened, or for how long it went on. We do know that by 1775
the display was famous enough it was attracting tourists such
as the notorious French hedonist, the Marquis de Sade who proclaimed
the journey to the crypt was "worth the effort."
Another tourist, from the 19th century, was less
inpressed. "'This must be a revolting sight', said I to my friend;
'and what appears to me yet more disgusting is that these remains
of the dead are only exposed in this manner for the sake of levying
a tax on the imbecility of the living,'" wrote the author Jean
Baptiste de Chatelain, in his book Rambles through Rome.
Today, you can visit the crypt for the modest sum
of 8.5 Euros (about $10). The front of the church has a set of
steep steps which first takes you into a visitor center where
you pay your fare, then walk back through a section of the church
that is now a museum chronicling the history of the order and
its current works. Finally, a set of stairs takes you down to
the crypt level to view the macabre display. Later, as you exit
the church's basement area there is, of course, a gift shop that
sells postcards and other creepy memorabilia.
19th century visitor apparently pre-dated the selfie rules...
The crypt consists of six small rooms with arched
ceilings in a row, but only five of them feature the remains of
the monks as the sixth acts as a chapel used to celebrate Mass.
A sign in one of the crypts tells us "What you are now we used
to be; what we are now you will be..." reminding the visitor that
what they are seeing is not just art for entertainment's sake,
but a warning that all people are mortal and must someday meet
their maker and account for what they have done with their lives.
While we don't know exactly when and why the display
was started, we do have a pretty good idea of when it was completely
finished. In the early 19th century the government of Rome outlawed
interning bodies within the city limits, so since then the bizarre
exhibit has been frozen in time with the mortal remains of about
3,700 monks inside its walls.
Today you can visit the crypt and see pretty much
the same display that the Marquis de Sade saw in 1755. You just
have one rule he didn't have. No photographs. The Capuchin order
doesn't take kindly to people who want to take selfies with their
dearly departed brothers.
Lee Krystek 2018. All Rights Reserved.