I recently watched Italian action film The Beast (La Belva) on Netflix. The gritty action flick centres around Leonida Riva, an ex-military Captain suffering from post-traumatic stress and growing more and more estranged from his family every day. When his daughter, Teresa, is kidnapped one evening, Riva will stop at nothing to get her back in one piece. Though the storyline is hardly original, the movie is suspenseful and, ultimately, quite entertaining.
As the weather gets colder and I watch more and more movies set in warmer climes, I am reminded of my own trip to Italy in May of 2017:
Most travel to Rome for the warm, sunny days, vibrant city life, beautiful architecture, and delicious cuisine. But when I headed to Rome for a ten-day getaway, I hit the underground.
Like the cites of Paris, Alexandria, and Rabat, there is a whole other world that hides beneath Rome’s surface. Labyrinthine tunnels extend for miles beneath the feet of the roughly 2.8 million people who call this vibrant city home. In the 2nd century CE, overcrowding, combined with Roman reluctance to bury their dead within city walls, became problematic; as a solution, underground burials began. Two thousand years later, tours are now offered. On these tours, patrons are taken underground to see for themselves some of the places the ancient Romans chose to lay their dead to rest.
We descend a short, dimly-lit, staircase before stopping to stand in front of a wide door. Our guide pushes the door open and we press forward into near-darkness. Sparsely scattered lights mark our path, punctuating the shadows with narrow bursts of illumination. The feeling down here is sombre, calm and yet vaguely claustrophobic. Our guide warns us that we won’t spend more than forty-five minutes in the tunnels; any longer than that and the low oxygen levels may cause us to feel light-headed. He warns us to stay with the group and, to underscore the importance of this warning, he tells us a story about a child who became separated from the group and was lost alone in the tunnels for several hours. The image matches the surroundings: being trapped alone underground—low light, low oxygen— potentially the only breathing soul around for miles. The thought is unsettling, and completely unsurprising. It is all too easy to imagine how someone could get lost down here.
The tunnels are all very similar—each a narrow tube dug into the ground—the walls of which are lined with row upon row of long, rectangular cut-outs which each once held a body. Some of these resting places are closed up, a permanent resident neatly tucked away inside. Many of them, however, are open and empty, a nest of glaring voids in the wall. Some of the bodies were stolen, the tunnels having been ransacked hundreds of years ago. The thought of ancient marauders rummaging through this sacred, almost serene, place of rest adds to the eeriness in the air. After the 6th century CE, the practice of catacomb burial began to die out.
Nearing the end of the tour, we approach a small set of stairs leading down to a squat, square doorway. Our guide asks us to pause and look up. To the right of doorway, on the ceiling, is a very small fresco of a woman nursing an infant. It is said to be the oldest depiction of the Virgin Mary, said to have been painted in the third century CE. It is faded but beautiful—tucked up high enough that, if one wasn’t paying attention or didn’t already know it was there, one could easily miss it entirely.
If you go, check out: