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Skeletons and ghouls at the Capuchin Crypt in Rome


Santa Maria della Concezione is a Capuchin church on the Via Veneto in Rome, famous for its eerie underground ossuary. I’d read about the bone-covered crypt in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and was looking forward to experiencing the grotesqueries first hand.

When Mother and I arrived at the entrance, we found it blocked by a quartet of Japanese girls in pleated skirts and knee socks. After an animated discussion, one of the bigger girls pushed one of the smaller girls through the portal. She penetrated exactly three feet before bolting out again, alternately screeching and giggling into her hand.

We went around them into the church. As we were buying our tickets at the desk, a flurry of titters erupted behind us, and we turned to find four curious faces, all topped with identical black bangs, peeking around the doorjamb.

“Be brave,” I said, waving them in. “Banzai!”

This resulted in a collective paroxysm of sniggering, after which the faces were withdrawn and replaced by four complete girls. They wrestled briefly, banded together, and entered the room in a single clinging, wide-eyed mass.

The man at the desk was not amused. He gave the girls a stern look, and me an even sterner one for having encouraged them. I don’t know if he was a Capuchin monk (he lacked the characteristic garb), but his manner certainly suggested a severe impatience with the trifling frivolities of mortal existence. He raised a gaunt arm and extended a finger in the direction of the crypt.

“Go,” he said.

The Capuchins moved from their old friary to Santa Maria della Concezione in 1631, bringing with them the skeletal remains of thousands of deceased brethren. The bones were piled up along the walls of the crypt so that newly expired Capuchins could be buried in the soil. At some point, for reasons unknown, the monks began to raid this grisly heap for decorating material. Clavicles became ornamental trim. Metatarsals and vertebrae were transformed into baroque wall art.

The literature we picked up at the desk said that the Capuchins went to the crypt “to pray and reflect each evening before retiring.” I don’t know any monks personally, but I presume they’re as prone to bedtime domestic squabbles as their secular counterparts are. The idea to convert human remains into home decor probably came after a hard day of monkish labors.

Capuchin bones, Palermo, Italy
The year is 1750. Two Capuchin friars have just finished their nightly prayers in the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione.

FIRST FRIAR (looking around glumly): What a dump.

SECOND FRIAR: Excuse me?

FIRST FRIAR: I said, “What a dump.” You’ve really let this place go to seed.

SECOND FRIAR: What do you mean I’ve let it go to seed?

FIRST FRIAR: Well, why don’t you do something with all these old bones? It’s disgusting.

SECOND FRIAR: They’re not my old bones.

FIRST FRIAR: I suppose they’re mine. I’ve probably been stacking skeletons in the basement for years without realizing it.

SECOND FRIAR: I never said they were yours.

FIRST FRIAR: You implied it.

SECOND FRIAR: You’re in quite a mood tonight.

FIRST FRIAR: No, I’m not. I’m just sick of these filthy bones everywhere—falling off the pile, rolling around the floor, always under foot. It’s nothing but clutter.

SECOND FRIAR: They never bothered you before.

FIRST FRIAR: Well they bother me now. Is that okay? Am I allowed to be bothered?

SECOND FRIAR: Not if it means more work for me.

FIRST FRIAR: A little exercise wouldn’t hurt you a bit.

SECOND FRIAR: What’s that supposed to mean?

FIRST FRIAR: Everyone knows you’ve been letting out your robe.

SECOND FRIAR: Me? What about you, Friar Tuck?

FIRST FRIAR: Who’s in a mood now?

SECOND FRIAR: Well, I’m sick of it. Every time you have a snit, I end up with extra chores.

FIRST FRIAR: I don’t have snits.

SECOND FRIAR: What do you call this?

FIRST FRIAR: A reasonable complaint.

SECOND FRIAR: Oh, fart.

FIRST FRIAR: If you want to talk like a child, I’d be happy to treat you like one. How would you like an extra week of refectory duty?

SECOND FRIAR: You wouldn’t dare.

FIRST FRIAR: Wouldn’t I?

SECOND FRIAR: Do you even know how obnoxious you can be? Sometimes I just can’t stand you. I really can’t. I’m starting to think I’d be better off somewhere else. I hear they’re making some really amazing wine up at the Florence monastery.

FIRST FRIAR: Here we go again. You’ve been threatening to move to Florence for years. Why don’t you just go already?

SECOND FRIAR: Maybe I will.

FIRST FRIAR: Good.

SECOND FRIAR: Fine.

FIRST FRIAR (relenting): You really are a big baby, aren’t you? I suppose you want me to apologize.

SECOND FRIAR: It would be a start.

FIRST FRIAR: Fine. I’m sorry. I’ve had a long day.

SECOND FRIAR: So have I. We’re both very tired.

FIRST FRIAR: Am I forgiven?

SECOND FRIAR: Yes.

FIRST FRIAR: Good. Now hear me out. The bones annoy me, and I know they annoy you. All I’m suggesting is that we spiff the place up a bit.

SECOND FRIAR: We?

FIRST FRIAR: Yes, we. With your eye for composition and my flair for drama I think we can really make this crypt pop.

SECOND FRIAR: You know, I did have a few ideas.

FIRST FRIAR: I knew it. Shoot.

SECOND FRIAR: Well, how about that stack of shoulder blades over there? What if we attached skulls to them?

FIRST FRIAR: I like where you’re going with this.

SECOND FRIAR (picking up a skull and shoulder blades and putting them together): What does this resemble?

FIRST FRIAR: I don’t know. A skull with big ears?

SECOND FRIAR: Wings! A skull with wings! And what has wings?

FIRST FRIAR: Bats.

SECOND FRIAR: Yes, bats, and what else?

FIRST FRIAR: Ravens!

SECOND FRIAR: Right. But what about something more cheerful? What if we thought of them as butterflies? Beautiful butterflies, flitting across the walls of the crypt.

FIRST FRIAR: I love it.

SECOND FRIAR: Do you?

FIRST FRIAR: I said I did, didn’t I? I wish you’d get over this insecurity of yours. You know you’re a genius.

SECOND FRIAR: And I think I’d like to design some rosette and fleur-de-lis patterns for the ceiling. We’ll need a lot of smalls, though.

FIRST FRIAR: Fingers? Toes?

SECOND FRIAR: Possibly. We’ll come back to that. Over there I see arches, or a baldacchino, like they have in St. Peter’s.

FIRST FRIAR: We can use femurs. But what about all these pelvises? There must be something we can do with pelvises.

SECOND FRIAR (dreamily): Picture a wide canopy of polished pelvises, with a vertebrae fringe. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. Not even in Florence.

FIRST FRIAR: Fabulous. I love fringe. But if we’re going to build a canopy, we have to have something under it.

SECOND FRIAR: Like what?

FIRST FRIAR: How about a tableau? We have all these old stiffs still in robes. We can prop three or four of them up in different poses, like they’re conversing, you know?

SECOND FRIAR: Now who’s the genius?

FIRST FRIAR: I’m just getting started.

SECOND FRIAR: Why don’t we whip up some sketches in the morning?

FIRST FRIAR: Perfect. Hey…

SECOND FRIAR: What?

FIRST FRIAR: You aren’t really thinking of transferring to Florence, are you?

SECOND FRIAR: Of course not, you fool. I was in a mood, and you know I say horrible things when I’m in a mood. But I’m better now. I’m inspired.

FIRST FRIAR: Good.

SECOND FRIAR: Let’s call it a night. We’ve got some serious decorating to do tomorrow!

Capuchin bones, Palermo, Italy
The fruit of their fancy is truly an elaborate and shocking spectacle. The crypt is comprised of six separate chapels, named for the sort of bones they predominately contain. There is the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, and the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones.

Most disturbing is the Crypt of the Skulls, which contains a number of intact Capuchin skeletons (some reclining in niches of stacked bones, others standing erect before a wall of skulls), still sporting their dusty brown robes. Within the hoods of these tattered vestments, faces in varying states of decay are visible. We stared at the skeletal ghouls, unable to look away.

“It’s pretty sick,” said Mother. “Why would they do this?”

I pointed out an hourglass on the wall above the departed monks. It had wings made from shoulder blades. “There’s your message,” I said. “Time flies. Life is fleeting. The whole thing is a memento mori.”

Memento who?”

“Like the sign says, ‘What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be.’”

Mother pondered this for a moment. “It’s like that song.”

“What song?”

“You know. ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink.’”

She was getting the gist of things, but the impromptu samba with which she accompanied her recital was not a good idea. What if a living Capuchin should walk in and find her grooving to a Guy Lombardo tune on consecrated ground?

Footsteps echoed behind us. This was it. We were about to be forcibly ejected from a holy Catholic church for dancing in the crypt. I held my breath, waiting for a cold hand on my shoulder, but nothing happened. Then there was a muffled giggle, followed by a suppressed snicker. Soon, the entire tomb was reverberating with uncontrolled glee.

It was the Japanese girls again. Three of them were huddled in the doorway, holding hands and laughing. A fourth stood separate, studying a circle of bony flowers on the wall. She wore a black and white cardigan, decorated with characters from A Nightmare Before Christmas.

“Cute,” she said, indicating the delicate floral motif.

“Like Tim Burton cartoons,” I said.

The other girls giggled and tugged on their friend’s sweater, apparently teasing her whimsical taste in knitwear. Mother and I moved aside so they could view the creepy tableau. When they saw the corpses, they gasped and went squealing into the next room.

We followed, but not too closely, stopping to admire the bone lanterns, winged skulls and macabre clock. In one of the crypts there was a skeleton mounted on the ceiling, wielding a scythe, which our pamphlet described as a “symbol of death which cuts down everyone, like grass in a field.”

“Always nice to wind up a tour on a hopeful note,” I said.

Mother hummed “Enjoy Yourself” as we exited, which provoked a disgusted glare from the cashier. Outside, the Japanese girls skipped and shoved their way down the street, pausing to pose for pictures and do annoying things with their phones—clearly intent on getting some fun out of life.

Both pictures courtesy of Gandolfo Cannatella/Shutterstock. And, as Dan helpfully pointed out, they’re actually of the Capuchin crypt in Palermo.. though it’s somewhat worrying he should recognise them.

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