When I first visited Italy in 2001, I’d read a bit about the Capuchin Crypt in Rome and knew I had to see it. The Crypt is a tiny space underneath the Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione church in which the bones of more than 4,000 Cappuchin monks have been artfully arranged to decorate the walls of several tiny chapels. It’s not as if people died here in order to become three-dimensional wallpaper, however – it’s just that so many people wanted to be buried here (because the soil had originally been brought from Jerusalem, making it very desirable as a final resting place for those who couldn’t make it all the way to the Holy City) that they eventually ran out of space. So what better way to make room than to exhume clean skeletons and use them for decorations, right?
I never would have described myself as a fan of the morbid. I hate horror movies and I cringe during even movie scenes of surgery. But the Cappuchin Crypt fascinated me. The chapels are all along one side of a small hallway, and it’s a dead-end (no pun intended) so you walk all the way to the end and then walk back. Some of the bones are stacked along the walls, some have been propped upright as complete skeletons and dressed with their monks’ robes; but most have been used to create designs on the walls and arched ceilings. According to the official website, each chapel has a name – one is the Crypt of the Skulls (it’s the one with all the skulls, of course) and another is called the Crypt of the Pelvises. I’m no biology whiz, so I’m not sure I would have known they were pelvic bones had the name not given it away. In one of the chapels there is even a little grim reaper overhead (seriously, it feels like the monks had a pretty good sense of humor, doesn’t it?). In the very last chapel is a sign which reads, “As you are, we once were. As we are, you will someday be.” It gives you the chills (in a good way).
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The Cappuchin Crypt (sometimes also spelled Cappuccin Crypt) can be a little hard to find – it’s beneath the Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione on Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini. It’s open Friday through Wednesday from 9:00am until 12:00 noon and again from 3:00pm until 6:00pm, and it’s closed on Thursdays. There’s no entry fee, but a donation is requested. The postcards are excellent, and a must since you’re not allowed to take pictures. The official website is here.
More Morbidity: Roman Catacombs
Incidentally, since that visit in 2001, I’ve seen a second ossuary (as I’ve learned they’re called) in Sedlec, Czech Republic, and I’ve decided I just think they’re exceptionally interesting. I’d love to make a world tour of them. I didn’t visit the catacombs in Rome on that trip, but I imagine it would be similarly interesting. Via Italofile, there’s an organization in Massachusetts that seems as intrigued by the catacombs as I am by the ossuaries – full of good information if you want to visit the Roman catacombs.
Check out my recommendations for more weird things in Rome you can visit!