The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Via Vittorio Veneto, 27
Rome, Italy 00187
Decorations completed: 1764
Number of skeletons used to decorate the chapels: 4000
Size: 6 small rooms
Open: 9-noon, 3-6 p.m. Closed Thursdays.
Admission: small donation
From the Via Veneto, home of La Dolce Vita, the yellow brick church doesn’t look like much. One might expect that a centuries-old international tourist attraction like the crypt of the Church of the Immaculate Conception would have a multilingual sign. Instead, you must climb a flight of stairs to find a small plaque pointing toward the Coemeterium.
The Capuchin monks separated from other Franciscan monastic orders in 1525 AD. The Capuchins wanted to exist closer to the way St. Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th century. To that end, they wore sandals without socks and a simple brown tunic with a hood to cover their heads when the weather turned bad. The name Capuchin derives from this hood, called a capuce.
Capuchin monks gathered in houses near woods or green spaces, where they could meditate. They planted orchards, in which their work served as prayer. They cared for the poor, especially the sick. They continue those ministrations today.
In 1631, the Capuchins of Rome moved from their friary near where the Trevi Fountain now stands to land donated by Cardinal Barberini near his palace. The monks exhumed and brought with them bones of 4000 of their brethren. These bones were piled under their new church of Santa Maria della Concezione, in six rooms connected by a 60-meter corridor.
Sometime in the 1700s, arrangement of the bones began. Several theories exist about the identities of the decorators. Either they were French Capuchins who fled the Terror, or a notorious criminal who sought refuge with the monks and atoned for his crimes by positioning the bones, or a man of “ardent faith, who is almost joking with death,” as the official brochure suggests. The Marquis de Sade, who visited in 1775, suspected that a German priest arranged the bones.
These days, a painting of Christ leading Lazarus from the tomb still dominates the first room. Grasping his friend’s wrist, Christ tugs the revenant up from the ground. The former corpse is nearly naked: his shroud slips down beneath his buttocks. Turned away from the viewer toward his sisters and Christ, Lazarus’s expression is impossible to gauge. Lettered boldly in yellow at the bottom is the legend: “Lazare veni foras”: Lazarus, come forth.
It’s immediately apparent that the monks tried to use as many bones as possible, in order to fit everyone in. Skulls formed two triangular arches, beneath which lay the dusty mummies of two monks in tattered brown robes.
The next room — the only one on the corridor free of bones — serves as the cemetery’s mass chapel. Its altarpiece depicts Mary seated on a cloud. A toddler Jesus stands on her knee, his nakedness shielded a wisp of white fabric. With the help of three monks in brown robes and an angel in gray, they raise souls out of the flames of purgatory.
Next door, the Crypt of the Skulls is decorated with curved niches formed by arm and thighbones, supporting cornices of skulls. Inside each arch lay another dusty monk.
In the tympanum of the central niche hangs an hourglass made of two tailbones tip to tip. The bottom coccyx looks darker in color, as if the sands of time have all run down. A double row of very straight bones, perhaps somebody’s forearms, draws the hourglass’s case. Outside the case, four shoulder blades symbolize wings. While the message was certainly intended to be serious, the bone art seems lighthearted. Time flies, indeed.
Ornaments made of bones continue overhead. A garden of ribs suggests furrows of earth, where tulips bloom into single vertebrae. A chain formed by jawbones comes to a point, from which descends a lamp made from a sheaf of thighbones.
Next comes the Crypt of the Pelvises, followed by the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thighbones. That room’s centerpiece is two severed arms, lopped off at the shoulders and affixed to the back wall. The arm on top is bare; the other wears a rough brown sleeve. Their skin has dried to the color of paper ash. Instead of curled into fists, bones protrude through their outstretched fingertips. They represent the Franciscan coat of arms: the bare arm of Christ crossed over the robed arm of Francis of Assisi.
The final room, called the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, is the most ornately decorated. Complete skeletons of two children lounge over the altar made of pelvises on the back wall. The children reach up toward an adult skull. One child holds a short spear like a fishing pole. The other balances a winged hourglass atop his ribcage.
A third small skeleton lies flat against the ceiling. He holds a staff formed of shinbones crested with a blade of scapulae. In his other hand swings a scale whose cups are skullcaps, dangling from chains strung of finger bones. He is the least threatening death figure I’ve ever seen. Even his grin looks wistful.
Information on the Church above.
The Lonely Planet site has a map.
Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:
Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome
Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon
Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus
Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian