Capuchin Crypt of Rome, Italy.
The irony is, I don’t have any pictures of it. Photography isn’t allowed inside the crypt, and this time I followed the rules. It’s a temporary moral high ground on my part, though, as I break that rule regularly and randomly in other places. I just chickened out here because of the large number of people pressing around me in the small space of the crypt corridor and the sudden visions I had of these ancient skeletons attacking me in my sleep for desecrating theirs. I’ve linked to the relevant pictures that other people weren’t afraid to take throughout the article. Do enjoy my pictures of doors, though.
The remains belong to ancient friars from the Capuchin order. Now, Catholic nomenclature confuses the heck out of me. I don’t know a monk from a friar or a monastery from an abbey, so me outlining the history of the Capuchins in this article would be silly. Plus, I’d just be copy-and-pasting from Wikipedia, anyway. Religious guys in robes is enough explanation for our purposes here, I think.
Underground vaults full of holy bone sculptures seem like an oddity you’d have to trek miles across wilderness before scaling towering cliffs and passing various tests of faith to witness. In reality, though, they’re Metro-accessible. The Capuchin Crypt is located right in the heart of Rome, beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, a church on Via Veneto, just off Piazza Barberini. In fact, these grisly memento mori are across from all the fashionable restaurants and clubs made famous in the 1960s for birthing paparazzi culture and described by filmmaker Federico Fellini as La Dolce Vita.
Inside the crypt, you throw a euro in a basket, walk through a gift shop, descend a couple of stairs, and enter a short, narrow, dead-end hallway. As I mentioned, the small space was packed with people when we visited. Sometimes X-rays aren’t enough to satiate our curiosity about the girders and beams that hold up our bodies.
Most of the crypts share common features such as ceilings and walls adorned with intricate patterns of bones and full skeletons in hooded robes like something out of the Blind Dead series reclining or standing in bone-and-skull-delineated niches. However, each of the crypts is themed according to its main unique feature.
Crypt of the Resurrection, which is called such due to the centrally located painting of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead. Because in a room full of bones, skulls and hooded skeletons, the painting is the most stand-out feature. I actually had to Google just to remember the painting at all.
The second vault, the Mass Chapel, has no bones, just a regular old alter, and is actively used for [Texas Chainsaw] mass. However, in one wall is interred the heart of the grand-niece of Pope Sixtus V, so there is that.
The Crypt of the Skulls is self-explanatory, but not at all self-conceptual. You really have to see the thick stacks of skulls that line the chamber and hear the parents beside you explaining to their children, “This is what people did before Legos.”
Similarly go the Crypt of the Pelvises and the Crypt of the Leg and Thigh Bones. Artists usually have their favorite media, after all.
The last is the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. Here, in addition to all the usual-for-the-Capuchin-Crypt bone adornment, the small skeletons of two children hold a skull winged with shoulder blades while a third child skeleton is fastened to the ceiling of the vault and holds a bone scythe and set of scales. At some point, the nobility thought it cool to be buried here, which is how a celibate order got its hands on child skeletons. Oh, and I’m way intrigued by the idea of a child Grim Reaper.
As much as I love this kind of stuff, the overall effect was certainly a bit disconcerting. Part of me was even kind of trepidatious about breathing the crypt air, as if sharing lung space with these lungless dead was somehow strangely carcinogenic or unholy. I mean, I’m not a hypochondriac by trade, but I can’t vouch for my impressions and impulses while staring into the sockets of thousands of human skulls. I do take comfort, though, knowing that everybody from Mark Twain to Nathaniel Hawthorne to…uh… the Marquis de Sade has visited these crypts.
Man, there really is nothing like religion to satiate my tastes for the macabre.