Why do I love the buried, forgotten and creepy parts of cities so much? Why do I like nothing better than traipsing through cemeteries and photographing ruins? I’m not a macabre person in real life, but when I travel I like nothing better than decay, ghosts and bones.
Rome, as you might suspect, is great for that stuff. With 3000 years of bloody history, the entire city is a living museum of ruins. There’s more though. Hidden history not apparently to the naked eye; the kind of stuff you have to really search for.
I’ve been wanting to visit Rome’s underground catacombs for years, basically since I last left Rome. There are more than forty twisting labyrinths under the city, dug out by second century Christians to bury their dead. Doesn’t that sound creepy and awesome? Of course you can’t just wander around down there on your own, so when Walk of Italy offered me a chance to go on their Crypts & Bones & Catacombs tour I jumped at the chance (okay I might have begged them).
Only four of the catacombs are safe enough to be open to the public. We visited the Catacombs of Priscilla, the “Queen of the Catacombs,” which stretch deep into the earth underneath Villa Ada. The entrance is through the basement of a nunnery. It’s very dark and would be quite easy to get lost wandering the many narrow halls, so I was quite glad to have our tour guide Mike.
The catacombs themselves were not as creepy as you’d think. To my great disappointment, the tombs has long ago been emptied of bodies. All of these ancient Christian bones are now kept safely buried in churchyards, leaving behind the empty gaps where the bodies were once held.
Even though there were no bodies left below, there were some other pretty neat sights Mike pointed out to us. Christian art from the 3rd and 4th century painted directly on the walls, close enough to touch. An ancient wine cellar that’s now a small chapel. Perhaps the coolest and most unexpected of all: the earliest known depiction ever of the Virgin Mary.
Later the tour more than made up for the lack of skeletons by taking us to the crypt of the Capuchin monks underneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church. You’ve probably heard of this place even if you don’t know the name: the crypt contains the bones of nearly 4000 of the monks, arranged into pretty designs and tableaus.
I’d actually been here on my last visit to Rome but it was well worth it to go again with a guide who could explain the symbology and message of the displays which are quite elaborate. Bones are stacked to the ceiling, nailed to the walls in the shapes of flowers and crosses and shaped into dangling chandeliers.
Funny enough, even with all of the bones, the place wasn’t creepy. You see, the monks believed that death was a natural part of life, not to be feared. They created these scenes as a comfort to the living. It was made of death of course, but it was an expression of life, a celebration and a frank dose of reality: the inscription at the beginning reads: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be.”
There were other surprises on the tour, including a visit to a 4th century underground church. By the end I wasn’t really spooked but I did feel like I had a better understanding of Rome and maybe why I love it so much: What you see on the surface of rome is just a tiny fraction of what’s going on in and around the place. There’s a complete other subterranean world that stretches back centuries into the past. It’s a city of secrets, and that’s what makes it so enthralling.
Special thanks to Walks of Italy for inviting me on this tour. All creepy and morbid opinions are my own.