The tombs of Rome–where art meets death

If you’re going to your eternal rest in the Eternal City, you should go in style.

Sure, you can’t take it with you, but you can show off what you had, and with all the competition in this place you have to do something special to make an impression. Rome is filled with grandiose monuments to the dead. First there are the giant tombs and temples of the Roman emperors. They were worshiped as gods, so they always got a nice sendoff. The most famous is the mausoleum of Hadrian, a giant circular building by the River Tiber. It was so splendid that the Popes preserved it and expanded it with additional stories and fortifications before renaming it the Castel Sant’Angelo. Just a cannon shot away from Vatican City, it proved a convenient bolthole for the pontiff back in the days when he ran the Papal States, an independent nation in central Italy, and warred with his neighbors. It saved Pope Clement VII when Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. Neither Rome nor the Vatican had great defenses, but the Castel Sant’Angelo proved too much for the invaders. It’s not often a mausoleum saves lives! While it’s not one of the ten toughest castles in the world, it is an impressive tomb/fortification all the same.

Then you have the early Christians with their miles of catacombs, and the churches filled with saint’s relics. More on those in two later installments in this series. There are so many tombs and monuments both pagan and Christian that sometimes it seems Rome is dedicated to death. The city even has a Purgatory Museum.

The Renaissance was a golden age of church building. Italy, while still divided into several different nations, was a rich place. Seagoing merchants dominated the lucrative trade in the Mediterranean, and the Pope’s coffers were full from tithes and donations. Much of this money went to sponsor the great architects and artists of the age. These talented men built lavish churches and adorned them with giant paintings. The rich and powerful vied for one another to be buried in the most prestigious churches, and they commissioned tombs to match the glory of the buildings.

Every Renaissance church in Rome is filled with these masterpieces of funerary art. Marble bishops lie in state flanked by angels. The walls are adorned with paintings of noblemen surrounded by reminders of life’s brevity–skulls on wings, hourglasses, and the grim Reaper with his scythe. Even the floors are covered in tombs. Most are smooth flagstones, but on some floor tombs bishops and cardinals had their likenesses carved in bas-relief. While these are not the most impressive of the graves, they’re perhaps the most poignant. Centuries of visitors have walked over them until their features have blurred beyond recognition, and their epitaphs have been lost. These powerful clergymen, respected and feared in their time, have all but melted away.

This is the second in a series about my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. Tune in tomorrow as we visit Italy’s fallen heroes in the Military Museums of Rome!