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Horrors: Rome

Remains of the Day

October 18, 1998|ELEANOR EMERSON | Emerson lives in the Boston area

ROME — When one visits the Eternal City, it is essential to see the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Vatican, at the very least. But like most cities, Rome has sites of narrower appeal, places worth recommending to people of quirky sensibilities. I wouldn't put myself in that category, but having visited the Capuchin Cemetery in Rome, I'd say it definitely is worth a detour for anyone with a feel for the dark side of life. Very dark.

The Capuchins are friars within the Catholic Franciscan order. Their convent has been at the church of Santa Maria della Concezione on the Via Vittoria Veneto, Rome's main thoroughfare, since the 1630s. In the late 1700s, they began arranging the bones of their dead in their cemetery chapel. The result is one of the most bizarre and elaborately macabre settings I've encountered.

It was recommended to me by a fellow American I had met on the overnight train from Venice. It was pouring rain when we left the station, and I wasn't meeting up with friends until the afternoon. The Capuchin Cemetery, my companion suggested, was "just the right thing for a day like today." Unsure what that meant or what to expect, I took down the directions, said goodbye and set out into the wet streets of Rome.

I am fairly familiar with Rome and have always been fascinated by the catacombs, the labyrinth of underground vaults that served as burial grounds for the early Christians. The catacombs have a somber and reverential air, with random piles of anonymous bones left here and there for the visitor to contemplate. The Capuchin Cemetery was nothing like that. Its elaborate arrangements of bones--pelvises here, skulls there--inspired the Marquis de Sade, on a visit in 1775, to call it "an example of funerary art worthy of an English mind." I don't think he meant that as a compliment. (One of the few guidebooks that mention the Capuchin Cemetery attributes the idea for the decor to a French monk.)


I found the cemetery next to the church. When I pushed open the large, heavy door, I was met by a Capuchin monk dressed in a long robe with a droopy hood, reminding me of one of the phantoms on the Scooby-Doo cartoon. This ominous and silent figure, together with the dark, rainy day outside, set the stage for an eerie experience.

Once inside, it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. The light was dim, provided only by a few wall sconces and chandeliers covered with cobwebs and dust. As my eyes focused, I noticed that the chandeliers were constructed of bones. The floors were bare earth and the walls cold stone. The air felt damp and heavy with age but was offset by the comforting sounds of classical music being piped in from somewhere. I was the only visitor.

The space was relatively small, consisting of a corridor and six arched compartments, each fronted by a low iron gate to prevent entry. The floors of the crypts were earthen, some with crosses marking more recent traditional burials.

Having given the monk the mandatory "donation" (it's now a set price of about $5), I proceeded slowly down the corridor, unsure of what I would encounter.

I approached the first compartment, the Crypt of the Resurrection, cautiously, as if the dead might come alive. On the side walls were two arches formed by skulls and leg bones, within which two skeletons reclined peacefully in their Capuchin robes. Three large rosettes of bones enclosed within vertebrae frames decorated the edges of the vault. Flowers made from ribs and vertebrae marked the base of the arches, and hanging above in the corridor was a lamp in the shape of an eight-pointed star surrounded by four other flowers made of sacral bones.

The focal point of the Mass Chapel, the second crypt, appeared to be the altar--the only spot that was free of bones. In the center was a painting that depicted the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child ordering St. Felix of Cantalice, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua and an angel to free the souls in torment in purgatory. On the left-hand wall a marble plaque engraved in Latin marked the location of the heart of Maria Felice Peretti, grandniece of Pope Sixtus V, a person evidently very devoted to the Capuchins. And I do mean her physical heart. The lead casket that held it was sitting on a shelved notch in the marble. To the right a member of the noble Orsini family is interred; unable to become a Capuchin during his lifetime, he was brought into the brotherhood--robes and all--in death. In the middle of the floor a number of papal soldiers are said to be buried.

I was getting comfortable enough to have questions, but the silent monk had made it clear he did not understand English or my stumbling Italian. Each time I turned toward him, his face was deep inside the shadows of his hood. I couldn't tell if he was watching me or asleep.

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