"What we were you are, what we are you will become" Quote from the Capuchin monastery
It was one of those perfect days in Rome—-the kind where the air on your skin just makes you feel alive, the kind where you are ok in your own skin--the kind where you aren't being swallowed alive by hoards of tourists or hit in the head by a selfie stick. If it weren’t for the noisy vespas and zooming cars I could have stayed in the forum for hours. There is a nice garden up on the Palatine where I like to chill. My tour had finished for the day and I had a few hours before it was time to eat dinner and go back to my hotel. I finally had enough time to visit the Capuchin monastery in via Veneto. My clients had asked me about it several times. I always nod my head and say, “oh yes” when they ask me if I’ve heard of something—-even if it is superficially—-then I make sure to investigate it further and see if it is actually worth it. Today was THE day. A short walk from my comfortable spot at the forum to the Colosseo metro stop—a switch at Termini to the other line, a few more stops and I was in Piazza Barberini, named undoubtedly by the infamous Barberini family. The Barberini are known for building the canopy of St. Peter’s tomb inside St. Peter’s Basilica by salvaging massive parts from the ancient Pantheon. The Romans have a saying “What the Barbarians didn’t destroy the Barberini did”—-but I will leave them for another article. Resurrecting from beneath the ground I walked up into Barberini square—a sign of what Rome once was—an abandoned theatre to my left once a sign of Rome’s golden post-war age and a Triton sculpted by Bernini spitting water from a shell, and the Baroque Barberini palace in the corner. I speedily crossed the large square, hoping not make myself history as I dodged vehicles preparing for formula 1—-seriously why were they in such a hurry.
A right here, a left there and I was in front of a completely normal looking church—what was the big deal? The sleeping January trees looked like skeletal limbs supplicating the heavens for their leaves back--that did make it a bit more ominous. Was this the infamous ‘bone church’ of Rome filled with things that would scare the narrator from “Tales from the Crypt”? Two staircases zigzagged up to church's main entrance. An arrow pointed up the stairs with the words biglietteria ‘ticket office’—-you're welcome for the free Italian lessons by the way. Weren’t crypts supposed to be underground? "Oh well” I thought and began marching up the stairs. I knew that if I could get to the top of the stairs without huffing and puffing-- everyone would really think I was in shape. I am not by the way. Isn’t the saying ‘It’s what’s outside that counts”—-nope again.
Trying to mask my heavily heaving chest after sprinting up the stairs, I turned the corner into the biglietteria. It was a neat wooden room with a youngish woman sitting behind a desk. I read the ticket price, €8.50—-dang that’s expensive. Trying to look unimpressed as to not seem like a tourist, I slowly made my way up to the ticket counter. The woman behind the counter looked equally unimpressed. I asked in my absolutely best Italian—which I never use, my Italian friends can testify to this—“ Posso avere un biglietto per favore”— Eyes rolling she passed the ticket over the counter, “eighta fifty please” — I noisily dug into the bowels of my bag for all of my change and obnoxiously counted out the exact change coin by coin---venti, cinque, uno, venti, Eccolo, aspetta ho trovato un altro pezzo da cinquanta (you can google translate it) . She seemed to get more impatient as time went by even though there was no one behind or in front of me. I guess staring at those beautiful wooden walls was much more interesting---more likely her smart phone was conveniently hidden under the counter---that is what I would do. Her face was partially blocked by a huge sign that said no pictures within the crypt. $%/£%& blanking blank! I thought I would try to sneak one. I imagined myself throwing my head back and breaking out in a hysterical evil laugh. I actually do that in real life---just ask my friends and family. Ticket in hand, I nonchalantly I walked through the doorway expecting to be blown away by something completely life changing. In reality in was just your standard religious art gallery that are a dime a dozen in Italy. I really was unimpressed--it's sad how desensitised I have become. I took a bit more interest in the Capuchin garb display, and some of the more intricate older paintings. Everybody was raving about the alleged practice painting by Caravaggio of San Francesco. I had a good stare. Moving on. I asked the security guard "dove sono le scale per andare nella cripta?", "where are the stairs to the crypt?". He looked at me with a confused expression, and responded, "this is the crypt miss" and pointed down the all way " if you are looking for the bones they are that way to the left."
I turned the corner and there they were. I don't think I was quite ready for the sight in front of me. Small skeletons, children...and at the base of their feet was a sign that made my skin crawl.
“What you are we were, that which we are you will become.“
I felt like they were speaking to me with the monotone voice of one of the children from the corn. Their natural grin and playfulness of they pose made it seem as if they were cheeky cherubs ready to play. My eyes scanned the room. Bones----everywhere! Everything was made of human bone. After about ten seconds of stunned shock and worry of my mortal life on earth, I found the plaque about the small skeletons. They were children of the family who commissioned the chapel. Images of my own children flashed through my mind--their smiles, their laughs, their tears. The plaque said they weren't much older than my oldest--about 6 years old. I was filled with immense sadness. Even though the expanse between me and those tiny being was about 300 years I felt sadness for their mother---their father-- for their lives snuffed out at such a young age. I had to change rooms. I walked on.
As I walked down the hallway—-not so much a crypt down below the ground but a wing of a monastery, a limb of the church structure and not hidden —I was amazed at the elegant arrangement of human vertebrae, ribs, collar bones that decorated the walls, floors and ceiling. This artwork was at the center of this monastic establishment. A skull and scapulae made a perfect—a tidbit grim—cherub. Rib bones framed the room with an ivory garland, vertebrae made floral decorations. All was arranged neatly behind a gated off area where visitors could stop and gawk in horror and fascination. It was beautiful but morbid at the same time. I peaked down at both ends of the hallway—guards on either side. The visit was over in a matter of 10 minutes. I walked back and forth 2 or 3 times trying to take in as much of this gruesome site as I could. One room had skulls packed to the ceiling—another two arm bones in an embrace. It was intimate, personal, artistic, macabre, an experience but holy?—I guess it depends on your beliefs. I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to take pictures—at least it gave back the sacredness of the human life that literally created this space.
When you are surrounded by human remains, time seems to stand still. The quote upon entrance rang through my head, manically over and over again. The dead tell the tales that others want to tell. That should be a tongue twister.
On the way out I stopped at the gift shop and browsed through the rosaries, idols, holy water and other relics. My eyes stopped—I searched for a picture of the triplets—no luck. They did however have the cherubs, the clock and a few others. A purchase was made. I hid postcards in the plastic folder within my diary. Something morbid for later to share with my friends and family.
When I got outside I sat on the steps reflecting what I had just seen. I flipped over my postcards and looked at them over and over again. I pulled out my phone, took pictures and posted them to Facebook. At least a small part went to the church.
If are thinking—-Jill you just contradicted yourself—I am telling you the irony isn’t lost on me and I am only human.
There is no explanation as to why the bones were arranged like this. It was common practice all over Europe to position bones of individuals in order to make room for new ones. When the monks arrived from Northern Italy they brought with them the remains of around 300 monks. Afterwards the monastery was renovated in the 1700s upon which bones of poor Romans (people from the city of Rome, not an ancient people in togas) were found underneath the church floor. They were artistically arranged within the new crypt and other wealthier Romans later followed suit.
How can you see the Capuchin monastery?
No reservation is needed. Check the opening times on line and pay your admission. Make sure to wear church appropriate attire as it is a religious structure.
Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, 27
Admission cost: €8.50
Hours: 9:00 am-7:00pm