Off the Beaten Path: The Darker Side of Italy

Originally published on February 4, 2014, at TravelersToday.com

Sick of the same old tourist traps? Tempted to indulge in guilty pleasures and morbid curiosities?

In Rome on the Via Veneto, the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini sits atop Capuchin Crypt. Although the Capuchin friars maintain a quaint cathedral above, the stairs lead down to macabre constructions of human femurs and jawbones nailed to the ceiling in elaborate patterns.

With nearly 4,000 bodies residing in the crypt, the Capuchin friars arranged the bones in interweaving designs spread across 5 rooms: Crypt of the Resurrection, Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, and Crypt of the Three Skeletons. Entire walls are covered in human skulls staring apathetically at dazed tourists.

Confronted with thousands of dismembered cadavers artistically arranged throughout the rooms, one cannot escape the introspective reflection of one’s own mortality. Although the experience itself may be terrifying, confronting death can also be quite liberating.

The death-obsessed Italians usually keep a holy relic on display in each of the churches. The holy relic often consists of the finger bone or any other saintly body part they have acquired. Many of the churches also possess a painting of their patron saint’s brutal execution or gruesome death. Even the Vatican displays the bodies of dead popes preserved in glass coffins.

After visiting Capuchin Crypt, Mark Twain wrote:

“The reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock…and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.”

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