One of the most bizarre and beautiful places to visit in Rome is the Capuchin Crypt. This catacomb and museum is a small area located underneath the little church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Hidden in one of Rome’s major piazzas, the Piazza Barberini on the Via Veneto, this tiny space underneath a church is home to the remains of no less than 4,000 Capuchin monks, brought here in 300 carts when the monks moved in. All the bones are displayed in a beautiful way – for some people, I might add – over the walls and ceiling.
Chandeliers made of vertebrae, crossbones, and other parts, skeletons clad in monks’ robes, a morbid (and literal) coat of arms, a real skull are some of the things you’ll find inside. The Catholic order insists that it is not to be view as an offensive thing, but a silent reminder of our brief existence here on this Earth. As one sign proclaims: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be.“. I gotta say that for the first seconds I didn’t actually realize I was seeing human bones, the way that they are displayed over there is without a doubt less “heavy” than the catacombs in Paris for example.
Our Visit to the Crypt of Capuchins
The reason for the unusual display of, what I call, arabesques of bones, can’t even be explained by the Cappuccini. The place is there since 1631, and it was built by the wealthy Barberini, a family who owned a palazzo nearby. And the dirt on the burials was brought from Jerusalem in the 19th century.
The crypt holds six rooms connected together, five featuring a unique display of human bones believed to have been taken from the bodies of friars who had died between the years 1528 and 1870. In total there are bones of over 3700 Capuchin friars as well as some indigents of Rome, including young children. The rooms are organized by names such as Crypt of the Resurrection, Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, Crypt of the Three Skeletons and The Mass Chapel. The last one is the only one without any bones. Each and every one of the five rooms with the bones has a theme and artwork on the walls and above.
A curious fact about this place is that Marquis de Sade said that his visit to the crypt in 1775 was worth the effort and called it memento mori (in English: a monument of funerary art) and Nathaniel Hawthorne mentioned the grotesque nature of it in his 1860 novel called “The Marble Fun”.
It is a must see if you’re planning a visit to Rome. The admission fee is 6€ and grants you access to all six rooms of this unusual crypt and a museum with several artifacts from the monk’s lives that offer a greater and deeper insight into what it means to be a Capuchin monk and how was the life of them after swearing to a life of poverty. The highlight of this museum is for sure Caravaggio’s canvas, ‘St. Francis in Meditation’.