There is something creepy underneath Rome, and by underneath I literally mean under all the old- and new-style buildings you stare at and photograph when you plan a vacation to the Eternal City. Rome catacombs, bones, crypts and everything that lies beneath the surface will capture your imagination and make for an unforgettable trip.
Sure you will love the food, it’s Italy after all, you will be amazed at the beauty of Bernini‘s and Borromini‘s masterpieces in Piazza Navona and Michelangelo’s La Pietà in Saint Peter’s Basilica, before gaping at his biblical frescoes gracing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and you will certainly enjoy capturing the typical postcard-like pictures from the Bel paese, where people are yet to understand dirty laundry is not only to be washed but also hung in private.
However, the real deal if you want to get spooky is right underneath these gems, where the local administration keeps finding Roman ruins, guilty for the repeated halts of the never-ending digging for the third line of the subway. Well, this one of the reasons, or at least the most romantic, in case you were wondering why such a big city still has only two metro lines.
If you plan something alternative, not the usual man-made wonders you can see under the sun, but instead those you can see beneath the ones under the sun, do book a tour underground Rome to see some historical wonders, from the crypt under the Capuchins’ Friary at Chiesa dell’Immacolata, 27, Via Veneto, to Rome catacombs.
Starting my weekend at the crypt of Capuchin Friars in Rome
Despite the first two unwelcome surprises of not being allowed to take photos and that there was a mandatory donation of 1€ (it’s not for the euro itself, just say it’s an entrance fee instead of a voluntary donation), the crypt delivered what its reputation promised: an eerie cemetery where only a handful of its alleged 3,700 corpses are buried according to the proper Christian ritual, while the rest couple of thousands are pieced together and displayed for posterity. The sacred place has been hosting the remains of the Capuchin friars from the above monastery until 1870. Periodically, corpses had to be exhumed to make space for other bodies and their bones were kept in a charnel house, until they decided to expose them in a creative way.
As soon as I entered, I sneaked across a narrow corridor flanking a series of crypts and chapels. I soon found the Resurrection Crypt, where human bones are set as a very artistic frame to the painting representing the Christ resurrecting Lazarus. Still in slight disbelief from seeing so many bones all at once, I resumed my unusual journey and arrived at the crypt of the skulls, with a winged hourglass symbolizing the time flying on display, the crypt of the pelvises, the one of the tibias and femurs and the one of the three skeletons, with a small skeleton, belonging to a princess of the Barberini family, hanging from the ceiling, with a scythe, symbol of Death, on her right hand, and balance scales, symbol of divine justice, on her left hand. And if this wasn’t creepy enough, on the floor of one of the first chapels/crypts there is a stone slab that reads something like “What we were, you are now. What we are, you will be”. Now, everybody knows that, but being reminded just when you are staring at thousands of bones of former people, isn’t exactly the message of hope you expect from peaceful friars.
A day around Rome catacombs to round off my offbeat weekend
Since I was bent on devoting the whole time to the afterlife, if Saturday was crypt day, Sunday saw me descending to the dark universe of Rome catacombs, the very first, primordial churches where Christians used to hide from those Roman emperors who felt threatened by the other, newly discovered, divine entity. Despite the very funny priest-guide, visiting the Catacombs of Callixtus felt like motioning towards a dripping humid underworld. Lying beneath the storied Ancient Appian Way, the oldest, longest and strategically most important roads that connected the heart of the bygone Roman Empire to its southern provinces of Apulia (today’s Puglia), Callixtus’ Rome Catacombs are a damp, dark, underground cemetery where martyrs, new Christians and sixteen popes were buried.
Fifteen hectares of walled niches dug to house dead bodies is what unfolds before visitors’ eyes. Seldom, rudimentary chapels decorated with primeval frescoes interrupt the clean-cut graveyard. At the beginning of the tour, a quick introduction doesn’t quite prepare to the dew beneath, that in many translucent pearls clothes the gloomy interior. The bones were removed to stop tourists’ grotesque souvenir-taking, except from the last chamber of our visit, where three corpses are laid on their coffins, bones and hair still visible. One of the chapels is devoted to Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians. The girl, belonging to a noble Roman family, was made a martyr in the third century and buried where now is her statue. Here she has been worshiped for at least five centuries, until 821 AD, when her relics were moved to the basilica devoted to her in Trastevere.
There are sixty catacombs in Rome, but only five are open to the public, and Callixtus’ are the biggest ones. Apart from being the cemetery of early Christianity, they were also the place were worshipers used to hide to celebrate their functions, at least until 313, when Emperor Constantine issued the famous Edict of Milan, proclaiming freedom and tolerance for all religions. Even after the Edict, however, many people kept burying their loved ones there, as they wanted to stay connected to where members of their families had been resting in times of persecution.
Apart from the modern tarmac, the Ancient Appian Way retains much of its old charm, and today is still one of the best preserved examples of imperial infrastructure, of paramount importance for connections with southern trade ports and Greece, to the extent that Romans used to call it Regina Viarum, the queen of all roads. D.H. Lawrence might not have appreciated “the all-conquering” Romans’ personality, as he liked to define them in his Etruscan Places, but sometimes, when I wait for delayed buses and trains, or I get stuck in traffic, or I argue with seemingly deaf office clerks, I find myself thinking that Rome might have been better organized back then than it is now.