The triumph of Death: the mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt

Vertebrae rosettes. A crown of thorns made from finger bones. An arch of skulls.

Three skeletons of children lean huddled in a group as if to comfort one another. Behind them hangs an hourglass made of pelvis bones. Above soars the skeleton of a youth bearing a scythe of clavicles and scales made of kneecaps. Dirt and gravestones cover the floor. Mummified bodies wearing the cowled robes of Capuchin friars lie, sit, or even stand in alcoves. The mummies each have a label bearing, I suppose, the name they used in life. All are illegible.

I am in the Capuchin Crypt, a few minute’s walk from the famous Spanish Steps where hundreds of tourists are laughing and eating McDonalds while enjoying a sweeping view over the sun-soaked city. I am not with them, but rather in a dank vault, crouching to stare into the eye sockets of an anonymous skull. The Sumerians called the eyes the windows of the soul, but now those windows are shattered, the glass ground up and blown away as dust.

I actually waited in line to do this. The Capuchin Crypt runs on limited hours, and when the doors finally open I and a small crowd file in past a stressed-out woman at the front desk who repeats, “No cameras, no cell phones, postcards five euros” in a harassed monotone. Beyond her are five vaults filled with bones and a sixth filled with tablets bearing inscriptions in Italian and Latin. I don’t try to puzzle them out; the message of this place is all too clear.
The bones are arranged in decorative patterns reminiscent of the Baroque interior of some 17th century stately home. Ornate chandeliers made from finger- and jawbones hang so low I almost knock my head on them. The passages are narrow, the vaults small, and the mortal remains of hundreds of Capuchin friars crowd in on me. The crypt was started in the 17th century and has been added to ever since. It now houses an estimated 4,000 friars.

So how does it make me feel? I want to be sick. I want to kiss every living girl in here. I want to tell the woman at the front counter to lock up early and take the rest of the day off. I want to hug my son knowing one day I won’t be able to. I want to know the life history, dreams, loves, and favorite jokes of every one of these poor bastards arranged so meticulously for our edification. I can’t. They are no longer individuals, simply part of the decor. All in all you’re just another skull in the wall.

Four vaults away I can still hear the attendant repeating the rules to newcomers. No photography, but you can buy an overpriced postcard. What arrogance to think they own the dead! Nobody has the least claim over the dead; it’s their one advantage over the living.

The crypt is getting crowded with the living. People linger. Many laugh to cover their discomfort. Everyone speaks in whispers, but why whisper? The dead can’t hear you, and if you’re doing it out of respect, a better way to show respect would be to learn the lesson of this place. The lesson is, of course, to think about death. Like everyone else I have a natural defense mechanism. I know I’ll die but that horrible fact doesn’t intrude on my day-to-day happiness. Well, it does today, and that’s the point. This place is also meant to make us good Catholics, to embrace an unproveable god and its improbable doctrine. That I cannot do, but I sure do think about death.

Odd thoughts come to me. I should send my son a second postcard. I need to get cracking on my next novel. I still haven’t replied to Ed’s email.

Through a row of open windows shines dim sunlight and the sounds of construction next door. The pounding of hammers and the shouts of workmen. An ambulance wails in the distance, getting closer.

A young American woman cries out, “Ewww, this is gross!”

I don’t say anything because I always try to be kind to strangers, but I say to myself, “Oh, you think they’re disgusting and you’re beautiful? Just. You. Wait.”

So don’t forget death, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think, and certainly sooner than you hope.

Life is short, my friends, live it well.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s sinister side.

[Photo courtesy Magnus Manske]

Saints’ relics in Rome

Everywhere you go in Rome, there are body parts on display.

The churches are full of them, and people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see them. They’re the mortal remains of saints and apostles and are venerated as holy relics.

Relics were big business in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Every church wanted some because it meant pilgrims would come visit, and pilgrims meant money. Pilgrims were the original tourists and churches fought to be on the pilgrimage route as much as modern hotels fight to be on the tourist trail. Relics were bought, sold, stolen, and forged so much that it’s almost impossible to say whether a particular bone really came from a particular saint. What’s for certain is that their appeal hasn’t totally died away. People still come to the churches of Rome to see the remnants of their favorite holy person.

Being new to Rome, I recruited the help of two Italy experts, historian Angela K. Nickerson and Gadling’s own relic hunter David Farley. With their help I stumbled into the weird world of saint’s relics, a side of Catholicism that in the present day no longer takes center stage yet is still very much in the minds of modern pilgrims.

The mother of all relic collections can be found in and around St. John Lateran, founded in about the year 314 AD as the first Christian basilica in Rome during the twilight years of paganism. While Constantine seems to have been ambivalent about the new faith, his mother Helena embraced Christianity wholeheartedly. She went to the Holy Land and dug around until she found the True Cross, the Spear of Longinus, various holy corpses, and other relics. Her search proved so fruitful that she later became the patron saint of archaeologists. Helena brought these relics back to Rome, where many can still be seen. Her biggest haul was the Scala Santa, the steps to Pontus Pilate’s palace that Jesus walked up on the way to be condemned to death. These are housed in a building right next to St. John Lateran. The faithful still crawl up it on their knees, deep in prayer. A sign by the bottom of the steps informs visitors in a half dozen languages that it is forbidden to walk up. One must crawl or not go up at all.

%Gallery-102761%Other relics have since disappeared or have been moved. The True Cross was broken up and pieces can be found just about everywhere. Two later additions to St. John Lateran are the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, which rest in a pair of gold caskets above the altar. If you want to see the head of John the Baptist, head on over to San Silvestro in Capite.

Some of Helena’s relics ended up in Santa Croce en Gerusalemme, perhaps the most relic-intensive church in Rome. There are bits of the True Cross, the signboard from the Cross that says “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, part of the crown of thorns, and the finger bone of St. Thomas. This is said to be the same finger he used to probe Christ’s wound, proving Christ was really dead and giving rise to the expression “Doubting Thomas”.

For more bones go to San Ignazio, where a side chapel houses a grandiose baroque altar filled with dozens of skulls, femurs, and other bones are incorporated into the decoration. Like the Scala Santa it attracts a steady group of the faithful. When I was there two ancient Italians were praying to these reminders of their immanent fate..

For something a little more romantic, go to Santa Maria en Cosmodin. This church, sitting atop a pagan cemetery, has the skull of Saint Valentine himself. On Valentine’s Day the church officials open up the catacombs beneath the church for tours, the only day they do so. Other churches have something to offer too. Santa Prassede has the column to which Jesus was chained while he was flogged. San Paolo fuori le Mura has St. Paul’s tomb and part of the chain he wore while under arrest. St. Peter’s, of course, has the bones of St. Peter. In fact, it’s hard to find a church that doesn’t have some little memento, human or otherwise, of the early days of Christianity.

And then there are the mummified monks. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up next: The triumph of death: mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt!

The catacombs of Rome

“There were 500,000 people buried here,” my guide whispers.

She leads me down a dimly lit, narrow passage that seems to go on forever. To either side the rough walls are lined with small niches.

“These are where the bodies were kept. There are twenty kilometers of tunnels, and while most of the tombs are now empty, some are still unopened.”

We are in the Catacombs of Domitilla, one of the largest of a half dozen underground burial places dug out by Christians during the second and third centuries AD, when most of the Roman Empire was still pagan. My guide, a knowledgeable young Polish woman, is leading me through a warren of passageways, rooms, even subterranean churches. Incredible facts drop from her mouth every minute.

“This is the oldest of the catacombs with some of the earliest Christian paintings anywhere. There’s even a painting of the Last Supper that’s 1,800 years old.”

The frescoes are tucked away in little vaults built by wealthy families, or on the domes of small mausoleums. They show simple Christian scenes–the Good Shepard, baptism, the saints, painted in a capable but not overly talented hand.

“Since most people were pagan, the early Christians had trouble getting good artists. You can see it with the inscriptions too. They’re not done in orderly lines and clear letters like you see on monuments above ground.”

Somehow that makes me like them more, that these paintings were done by common people, not famous artists. The ones showing prayer are the most evocative because they seem to portray real individuals as they looked in life. They all take the same pose–with arms flexed outwards, palms up.

“This is how everyone prayed back then, both pagans and Christians,” my guide explains.

“Shi’ite Muslims still start their prayers in that pose,” I say.

She gives me a narrow look before leading me down another hallway. We pass a vertical shaft where we can still see small footholds cut into the side for the original builders to climb to the levels above and below us. The walls and ceiling of the tunnels are rough, with traces of the last cuts of the pick clearly visible. The stone is volcanic tufa, a rock so soft that it can be scraped with a fingernail, yet compact enough that it can support an immense amount of weight.

My guide stops in the middle of the hall and points to the wall.

“Look, this one is still buried here.”

One of the niches is sealed up with a rectangular slab. I know I’m not supposed to touch but I do anyway, pressing my hand against the cool, damp stone. Inches beyond my warm flesh lie the cold bones of one of the earliest followers of the world’s biggest religion. What I’d give to talk to him or her for just five minutes. My guide notices what I’m doing and smiles.

“Most of the bones were removed in the Middle Ages to protect them from relic hunters, but a few hundred tombs still remain unopened,” she explains.

%Gallery-102540%Sadly this slab is blank. Some have the person’s name carved on them. In some sections of the tunnel fragments of these tomb facings have been plastered onto the wall by later hands. The earliest inscriptions are in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Later ones, dating to the fourth century when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, are in Latin.

Pagan Romans cremated their dead, but Christians believed in resurrection and practiced burial so the body could rise up on Judgment Day. The Roman Empire was generally tolerant of other religions, incorporating new gods into the existing pantheon, but it looked upon monotheistic Christianity and Judaism with mistrust. While followers of Jupiter or Mithras or Ra acknowledged the existence of other gods, the monotheists dismissed all other gods as impostors or demons. Even worse, they refused to sacrifice to the deified emperors. Several emperors persecuted them, although the extent and violence of these persecutions have been exaggerated by early Christian chroniclers. The image of thousands of Christians being thrown to the lions is myth. People were sometimes killed, but more often their churches would be destroyed and property confiscated. The main victims were church leaders like bishops and early popes, some of whom are buried here; regular Christians were generally left alone. Many of the biggest catacombs were built right under the Appian Way, the main road leading into the city and lined with the tombs of wealthy pagans. While everyone knew where they were, most pagans were content to leave the Christians to their strange rituals as long as they kept out of sight and didn’t cause trouble.

Two other networks of catacombs along the Appian Way are popular with visitors. The Catacombs of San Callisto are as impressive as those of Domitilla and have several good frescoes. The Catacombs of San Sebastiano, under the church of the same name, are smaller and less well preserved, yet there’s an interesting room used for funeral banquets where early Christians carved their names or the names of their departed loved ones along with prayers. All three catacombs can be seen in a single day.

The catacombs stay at a constant 15°C (59°F), so it’s best to bring a long-sleeved shirt or light sweater. Photography is not allowed. I won’t ask how GerardM at Wikimedia Commons got the above image, or how the photographers who took the pictures of the frescoes in the attached gallery got theirs. I’ll assume they went through the red tape to get permission from Papal Commission of Archaeology. I’ve heard that if I do the same I can get a papal archaeologist to guide me through parts of the catacombs closed to regular visitors. My guide warns me I need a valid reason and lots of patience with bureaucracy. Perhaps next year I’ll be back.

“We’re nearing the end of the tour,” my guide says, “but I have one last thing to show you.”

We come to a large, empty tomb that has been converted into a display case for artifacts found by the archaeologists. Through the metal grille I see oil lamps the Christians used to find their way through the dark, shells that were pressed into the wall near a tomb to help identify the occupant, and bits of cheap glass jewelry.

In one corner are a collection of little ceramic animals, dolls, and rattles, simple toys put in front of the graves of children.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up next: The Death of Paganism!

Military museums in Rome

The Italian army gets a bad rap.

Sure, it made a poor showing in World War Two, but it was Italian Communist partisans who finally bagged Mussolini. Plus the Italians fought in one of the toughest fronts of the First World War, high in the Alps against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. They endured freezing conditions on top of glaciers for months on end. One of the favorite tactics was to cause avalanches to bury the opposing side. A few years ago the mummies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers were found frozen in the ice, and another World War One soldier was found last month at an Italian ski resort.

The Italians are also pulling their weight in Afghanistan with 3,800 troops, and joined in the invasion of Iraq and served there for three years. Sadly they have suffered more than 50 deaths in these wars.

And then there was Operation Alba. Operation Alba? Yeah, that’s been pretty much forgotten. In 1997 the government of Albania collapsed, plunging the country into chaos and leading to fighting that killed some 2,000 people. Italy commanded an international coalition that restored order in a textbook case on how to properly run a peacekeeping operation. The rule of law was established and the troops were gone in five months. Military successes tend to be forgotten in favor of military disasters.

Rome has several military museums dedicated to its fallen heroes. Usually overlooked in favor of the giant archaeology and art museums, they offer an interesting glimpse into forgotten history and weapons you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Take this little tank I’m standing next to, for instance. This is an L3/35 with twin machine guns (now removed). They were introduced in the 1930s and are a stage in development between the lumbering behemoths of WWI and the more practical tanks of WWII. They proved useful during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Despite their thin armor, the Ethiopians didn’t have anything to destroy them, although some brave warriors managed to immobilize them by sticking pieces of railroad track or even sabers into their treads! The L3/35 also saw service in North Africa in WWII where they proved easy prey for the more advanced British tanks.

%Gallery-102423%Here are some of the military museums in Rome:

Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Esercito: The Italian army archives has an interesting collection of tanks and weapons, mostly from the two World Wars. Several display cases show artifacts dug up from the Alpine front of World War One. It’s in a military building, so bring some ID and expect to have your bag searched. Via Etruria 33.

Museo Storico della Fanteria: The Infantry Museum houses the best and largest military collection in the city with artifacts dating from Roman times up to the present day. The garden is decorated with tanks and cannon set beneath an ancient Roman arch, and the three floors inside are filled with racks of guns, full uniforms, paintings, and dioramas. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 9.

Museo Storico dei Granatieri di Sardegna: Two doors down from the Infantry Museum is one dedicated to the grenadiers of Sardinia. It traces their history from 1659 when they were armed with primitive grenades to their present-day duties as part of the Mechanized Infantry. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 7.

Museo Storico dei Bersaglieri: The Bersaglieri are an elite force in the Italian army famous for running everywhere, even when they’re in their barracks. This makes them very fit and they’re considered some of the toughest troops in the army. Founded even before the unification of Italy, they’ve fought with distinction in all its wars. Porta Pia i Via XX Settembre.

Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare: This museum dedicated to military vehicles displays more than 300 tanks, trucks, helicopters, mobile rocket launchers, motorcycles, and more. It’s located in a large military base. Bring ID and expect to be searched. Viale dell’Esercito 170. If you like tanks, you might want to check out our list of other great tank museums.

There are several more military museums worth seeing, so check out the list the Italian army has here. It’s in Italian, but the basic information is easy enough to puzzle out.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up Next: The Catacombs of Rome!

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!