I was waiting for someone to pull all this information together into one place! Quigley’s introductory chapter collects all the statistics about the factors (body makeup before death, burial practices, temperature, soil composition) which determine how long bones can survive. While all the facts and figures are scattered throughout a multitude of sources, this is the first time I’ve seen all the information laid out in a coherent, comprehensive fashion. That alone would be worth the price of the book.
But wait…are you curious about museums in the US and throughout the world that amass and analyze bones? Quigley quotes her copious correspondence with curators about their collections and the crises they face. She describes sacred spaces decorated with bones (full disclosure: even quoting my essay on the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora from Morbid Curiosity #3), Hythe Church, the Paris Catacombs, St. Mary’s Monastery in Sinai, the Mütter Museum, the National Museums of Health and Medicine, and the Vietnamese trophy skulls brought back by American servicemen.
A great deal of the book discusses in various ways the impact of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and its effect on collections of indigenous bones both in this country and elsewhere. While Quigley’s horror at the loss of the information contained in these native bones is quite clear, she doesn’t shy from the often horrific (and sometimes murderous) ways in which the native skeletons were collected. With so many collections in flux—or in jeopardy—across the world, Quigley’s book takes on an urgent sense of documenting a reservoir of information on the brink of evaporation.
Drawing on sources formerly reviewed in Morbid Curiosity and a vast array of personal correspondence, Quigley provides an invaluable compilation, ranging over topics from archaeology, defleshment and preparation of skeletons, the sale of human bones, institutions which collect and examine bones, the Bone Room, the Body Farm, historic sites (including the Little Bighorn battlefield and the Dickson Mounds Museum), the Cappuchin catacombs, etc., etc. You must own this book. You can pretty much open it to any page and become absorbed.
Antique postcard of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons
The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Via Vittorio Veneto, 27
Rome, Italy 00187
Telephone: 06/4871185 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.
This beautiful little book is the loveliest collection of graveyard photographs I have ever seen. The reproduction of the prints is flawless. The black and white stills are luminous, transmuting marble and bronze into the textures of light. The photos are displayed to best advantage, each one filling a trade-size page, faced by a blank white page which reflects light and helps to focus your eyes.
Robinson first took note of the statues of grieving women as he photographed Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Life-sized figures of women adorned graves all around him. Some of them were decorous muses, laying wreaths. Others were convulsed in their grief, faces buried in their hands or shoulders hunched against the headstones. As he traveled into Italy, he discovered barely clad beauties, distraught in their bereavement, who seemed to have flung themselves across the graves.
The cover photo is the most dramatic of all these. Her exquisite body is entirely nude, save for a sprig of roses tucked under her right breast and a chaste corner of drapery across one thigh. She appears to have fainted, too overcome by distress to remember where she left her clothing.
In several of the photos that follow, maidens seem to have swooned back onto the vaults. Some of them are carved as if lying beneath a light sheet that only highlights their dishabille beneath — it’s as if they’ve laid down amidst the tombs to sleep. The sculptors have gone to great lengths to indicate that these are lifelike figures, not the dead portrayed. Lusting for them is more like Pygmalion’s yearning than necrophilia.
Other figures, usually in low relief rather than stand-alone statues, are carved as if draped in muslin shrouds. Their faces are hidden, though their bare breasts are revealed. Are these the dead who have passed beyond and await the living?
In his explanatory text, Robinson suggests that all of these women, no matter their dress, serve as escorts in the journey ahead. This lovely sentiment is perhaps naive, but it’s in keeping with the high romanticism of the photos here collected.
I highly recommend searching out this book. Copies can be had from Amazon: Saving Graces
Cimitero di San Michele in Isola
30121 Venice, Italy
Telephone: 041 5224119 Established: 1813 Size: 4 acres Number of interments: Difficult to say, since most Venetians are only granted a 10-year lease on their graves, before their bones are removed to an ossuary. Open: The island is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. during the winter, or until 6 p.m. April-September. The Church San Michele in Isola is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., and again in the afternoons from 3-4 p.m.
Attention: In connection with Obscura Day 2011, Context Travel is offering a private tour of Venice’s cemetery island. More information is here.
Ever since Napoleon closed the city’s churchyards, Venetians have buried their dead on an island near Murano. No one seems to offer recurring tours of San Michele in Isola, but you can catch a vaporetto on the Fondamente Nuove, at the northern edge of the city, and wander the island for yourself. The Cadogan guidebook Italy: Three Cities suggests you get a rough map from the caretaker, but he wasn’t around the day I visited. I still had a wonderful time.
Originally there were two islands: San Michele in Isola and San Cristoforo della Pace. The Venetian churchyards were first emptied onto Cristoforo, but when that didn’t provide enough space, engineers joined the two islands by filling the canal between them. To this day, San Michele in Isola remains the main civil cemetery for Venice.
The cemetery island takes its name from the Church of Saint Michael, which has existed on the island since the 10th century. In 1212, it became a hermitage of Camaldolesian friars. Mauro Codussi built the “new” church, the first Renaissance chapel in Venice, in 1496. Dedicated to the archangel Michael, who will hold the scales on Judgment Day, it was restored in 1562 and several times since.
Grave monuments lining the wall of the cloister begin to hint at the impressive skills of Italian sculptors showcased in the cemetery. The most breathtaking relief depicted a seated nude holding a book across his hips; the pages read “Sacred to the Honor of” in English. Death, wimpled like a nun, grasped his shoulder and leaned close to whisper in his ear.
In a garden dedicated to servicemen, a brilliant Murano glass mosaic sparkled on a monument to the ambulance drivers of World War II. On a field of gold, four white-coated men leaned above a bleeding soldier. It was one of the most graphic tombstones I’d ever seen.
Inside the Reparto Greco, the section for the Orthodox faith, composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera lie in graves along the back wall. When I visited, a pair of white roses with long stems crossed adorned the slab over Stravinsky’s grave. A red silk poinsettia, anchored in a pile of stones, burned like crimson flame on the lower left corner. Above that, a curving stalk of lavender reminded me of a treble clef.
Not far from Stravinsky stands the monument to Sergei Diaghilev. Atop Diaghilev’s grave rested a pair of weathered pointe shoes, wrapped in their own faded pink satin ribbons. What a beautiful tribute to the impresario of the Ballet Russe, who brought Russian dancers to the West and changed the history of ballet.
Tucked away in a tattered garden called the Reparto Evangelico lay Protestant foreigners who died while visiting Venice. It struck me as poignant to see graves in Italy that read “Hier ruht” and “Here lies” instead of “Requiescat en pace.” A rusted iron cross, tilted against the weathered brick wall, bore the simple legend “Auf wiedersehen.”
A stele on one grave showed a praying mother, shrouded from head to ankles, begging as a Pre-Raphaelite angel led her child away. Even though the girl stretched a hand back toward her mother, her feet had already left the surface of the earth. A gang of cherubim sang above, but their false cheer seemed mocking to me, cruel.
A grave that caught our attention was bounded by a low curb and blanketed with ivy. It belonged to the Russian poet Josef Brodsky, whose life had been turned upside by reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Venice seemed a long way away from Leningrad, where Brodsky was born, and Brooklyn, where he died.
Also buried in the Reparto Evangelico is the poet Ezra Pound. Despite an hour’s searching, I couldn’t find his monument when I visited. The caretaker’s map might have come in handy.
I found this wonderful little book on eBay, so I have no idea how easy it might be to come by. All I know is that this morning, as I write this, neither Amazon or Goodreads has a listing for it.
The book contains several black-and-white reproductions of paintings of the Cestius pyramid at the edge of the graveyard. I enjoyed comparing my memories of it to the empty pastoral landscapes in the paintings.
The book also includes crisp photographs of the more recent gravestones. I especially like the photo of Keats’s grave, taken when the trees were bare to counteract the shadows that fall over the Parte Antica. There aren’t as many photos as I’d like, of course, and the black-and-white doesn’t do justice to the lush green grass or the huge chrysanthemums lying on Shelley’s stone, but it’s still a lovely book anyway.
The text summarizes the cemetery’s history and highlights some of its noteworthy denizens. Brief essays discuss Keats’ burial and Shelley’s funeral. Toward the back of the book, a fold-out map is keyed to an alphabetical list of permanent residents.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.