Capuchin Crypt, Rome
An ossuary or 'bone church', in which the bones and skulls of several thousand deceased Capuchin monks have been arranged into artful ensembles covering the walls and ceilings of four chapels. Also incorporated into some of the chapels are whole, semi-mummified bodies dressed in traditional brown habits and hoods. Probably the spookiest sight in Rome
More background info: Some of the remains on display here may even pre-date the construction of the crypt. When the friars of the Capuchin Order arrived in the early 17th century at their new church, the Santa Maria Della Concezione dei Cappuccini, they allegedly already had a cache of bones with them. Added to these were exhumed bodies and through the years their own dead over the generations.
In total nearly 4000 dead ended up in this crypt, their bones and skulls arranged in artful ways, nailed to the walls and ceiling to form various patterns and figures.
The whole thing is supposedly meant to remind the living of the ephemeral nature of Earthly life and that it is secondary in importance to the afterlife to be enjoyed in heaven. The rather depressing main message, however, is even unequivocally spelled out by a plaque inside the crypt: “what you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be!”
The Capuchins seem to have a pronounced liking for such treatment of the dead. There's also a stunning crypt including mummified children in Palermo, Sicily, the Catacombe dei Cappuccini
. And in Vienna
, the final resting place of the aristocracy of the Habsburg empire is also underneath a Capuchin church: the Imperial Crypt
(though here no real bones and skulls are on display, only sarcophagi decorated with ornate representations of skulls and bones).
The practice of preparing remains in this style in the crypt in Rome carried on until the second half of the 19th century. So until then the friars could actually picture themselves as part of the bony artwork after their own demise, and some may even have looked forward to that honour in a strange kind of way.
Like the much more famous Catacombs of Paris
, this crypt can be considered an early example of the practice of dark tourism, long before that concept was given this name.
Famous visitors of the 18th and 19th centuries, from the Marquis de Sade to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain, have commented on this site in their writings, mostly in a mixture of disbelief, horror and awe. The crypt also features in some more contemporary works.
However, within the overall tourism portfolio of Rome, the Capuchin Crypt is today far less prominently advertised than its Paris counterpart
, and is almost a “hidden secret”, not regularly mentioned in tourist guidebooks and brochures.
For the dark tourist, though, it's a must-see attraction, especially for those into this category of somewhat macabre displays of death
. Those with a more delicate disposition (the “faint of heart”), on the other hand, should think twice before going there. It really is creepy.
What there is to see: Before you can see the crypt you have to make your way through a whole museum exhibition about the Capuchin Order and its history.
Those with an interest in such histories of the Christian faith and its expression in monastic orders may find intriguing details and objects here too. The museum part is actually a rather recent addition and is quite modern in design. There are a few darkish artefacts too, such as tools of self-flagellation. Yet without a special interest in the museum's subject matter as such, it can be a bit on the boring side.
So, like many other visitors too, I made my way more or less straight to the crypt, only paying a minimum of attention to the museum exhibits, and more in an attempt to show a little politeness and respect rather than out of genuine interest. It cannot be denied that the real attraction comes only at the end, when you enter the crypt.
And it is indeed a stunning sight to behold from the minute you arrive. It is grim and creepy. But it is also absolutely awesome!
The crypt is subdivided into several chapels connected by one long corridor. As you walk along your pass five chapels where human remains play the main role, and just before the last one there is also a boneless chapel that is used for mass. In each chapel there are information plaques with text in Italian and English that explain the symbolic meanings of the bone arrangements.
The first chapel is called the “crypt of the three skeletons”, but I actually spotted more than that: four dressed skeletons - two lying in niches on the side walls and two standing at the back wall plus two undressed smaller skeletons (children, presumably) in between them and another small skeleton fixed to the ceiling. The latter is holding a scythe and a set of scales (also made of bones), like a mini Grim Reaper. The rest of the walls and ceiling are adorned with bones arranged into geometric figures and other decorative patterns.
The “crypt of the shin bones and thigh bones” is not only full of bones of these types, but is also flanked by eight monk skeletons (four on each side) dressed, again, in the traditional brown Capuchin habits. On the rear wall a Franciscan Crest (the coat of arms, or “logo”, of the Capuchins) is made out of a mummified naked arm (Christ) crossing another, clothed arm (St Francis). The floor of the space in front of all these is natural soil – cemetery soil … with crosses stuck into it. Do they still bury their dead friars here?
The next section, the “crypt of the pelvises”, also has whole bodies, three standing at the back, two reclining in niches on the side walls. Some of these bodies still have mummified remnants of skin on their faces and hands. And somehow these (semi-)mummified bodies are even creepier than the skeletons, skulls and bones.
The “crypt of the skulls” is of a similar design, with five friars in habits (I also spotted some kind of labels attached to their habits), while the rest of the design incorporates hundreds of skulls. One of cloaked standing dead friars is leaning forward a bit as if bowing to the visitors, while the one on the other side appears to be averting his eyes by looking sideways. But the eye sockets of the skull of the middle one are aimed straight at you. Spine-chilling.
The fifth room, the boneless chapel for mass gives a little temporary respite from all the grim displays of death, but the final room, the “crypt of resurrection”, picks up the theme once again by incorporating two dead monks in niches with skull & crossbones above them.
All in all this is indeed an especially creepy and spooky place, but also full of beautiful, striking aesthetics. So if you can handle the sight of such amassed displays of death, it's a stunning place not to be missed!
in the centre of Rome
, at No. 27 Via Veneto, towards this street's bottom end, just north of Piazza Barberini.
Access and costs: centrally located and not too tricky to find; an admission fee is charged.
Getting to the location is easy, either walk it from central Rome
or use the metro: the stop Barberini (line A) is just at the bottom of Via Veneto.
Once you've found the Capuchin church you have to go up the stairs and look for the museum/crypt entrance to the right of the church's. There are signs.
Opening times: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (last admission 6:30 p.m.), daily except Thursday (so some sources say – the Capuchin's own website does not specify this, but I would rather err on the side of caution or check ahead of time).
Admission: 6 EUR (regular adult fee), concession: 4 EUR (under 18s and over 65s) So it's no longer “free”, i.e. ignore what some older guidebooks and other sources still say (namely that admission is “by donation” – this is no longer the case!)
The admission fee is for both the general Capuchin museum and the crypt. There's no separate entry to either of them, you have to walk through both.
You can also hire an audio guide for 6 EUR (available in English).
Strictly no photography! The rule is also enforced through CCTV cameras and I've read that if you do try and sneak in a surreptitious shot and get caught on camera a stern voice over the loudspeakers will publicly tell you off! No, this is not my own experience. It must happen a lot, though, going by the number of photos posted on TripAdvisor and other forums! But I was well-behaved and left my camera in its bag, even though I admit it was very tempting …
The official explanation why photography
is not allowed is that this is a places of worship as well as a cemetery, so you should respect the dead. Fair enough, but then why do they sell postcards with professional photos of the skeletons and bone ensembles in the shop at the exit of the museum? They even have a full glossy catalogue on sale for 26 EUR (in Italian and English). So you can still take home plenty of images …
Time required: If you only go to see the crypt, then not that long, maybe 15-20 minutes or so. But if you also want to explore the Capuchin Museum you'll need at least 45-60 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Rome
The dark site easiest to reach from the Capuchin crypt would be Villa Torlonia
. You can hop on bus 62 from Piazza Barberini, which will take you straight there.
The Resistance Museum
is also quite conveniently reached from here, namely by metro (line A) from Barberini to Manzoni, from where it is only a short walk.
If you don't mind walking a bit, you can stroll all the way through the Centro Storico (historic centre) of Rome to the Vatican
. That's what I did, and it took a lot less time than I had expected.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Capuchin church and crypt is located on Via Veneto, a grand, tree-lined street which featured prominently in the classic Fellini movie “La Dolce Vita” and is hence a sight in itself, at least for fans of Italian cinema.
The nearest of the classic tourist sights of Rome would be the Spanish Steps, just a few blocks' walk to the north-west. Also close by is the famous Trevi fountain, half a mile to the south-west. It's an opulent extravaganza in baroque overload and probably the most famous fountain not only in Rome but in the world. It also featured in “La Dolce Vita” and other movies. At the time of my visit in November 2014 it was undergoing renovation and was barely visible behind all the scaffolding. By the end of 2015 the work is scheduled to have been completed.
If you follow the Via Veneto as it snakes uphill in a drawn-out S-curve you'll reach the southern end of Rome's most famous park, the Villa Borghese.
See also under Rome