Memento Mori: A Tour of the Convento dei Cappuccini

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. If you missed part one of this post where I discussed my tour of the Roman catacombs, check it out here: https://dramaticdelights.com/2021/01/28/voyage-underground-a-tour-of-the-roman-catacombs/ 

Via Veneto: this elegant, historic street is home to many luxurious hotels, artsy cafes, and the famous Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees; sculpted by Bernini in 1644). This street, however, is also home to a  somewhat lesser known attraction: La Cripta dei Cappuccini (The Capuchin Crypt).

Rome is often referred to as The Eternal City.  For the nearly 4000 individuals whose remains are on display at the Convento dei Cappuccini, this moniker takes on a whole new meaning. 

Located beneath a 17th century church (Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini) this site consists of a thirty metre long passageway connecting the chapel with five other crypts. Most of these crypts are named after the particular type of bone which serves as decoration. The crypts are as follows: 

  1. Crypt of the Resurrection 
  2. The Mass Chapel (no human remains found here)
  3. The Crypt of Skulls
  4. The Crypt of Pelvises 
  5. The Crypt of Leg Bones and Thigh Bones
  6. The Crypt of Three Skeletons 

Our tour begins not in the crypts themselves, but in the museum just above them. On this part of the tour, we hear the story of the history of the Capuchin Order. 

Matteo da Bascio, a Franciscan friar, was none too pleased with the current state of the Franciscan order. Feeling that the order had become disconnected from the teachings of its founder, St. Francis of Assisi, da Bascio initiated a reform movement in 1525. This reform  sought to bring the order and its teachings back to their roots: namely, simplicity, poverty, and austerity. This reform also brought with it a notable wardrobe change. Da Bascio chose to ditch his footwear altogether, grow a beard, and don a pointed hood. This became the staple of the new branch of friars: the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. 

Next, we descend into the crypts. Our modest group suddenly seems quite large in the enclosed space. The bright light of the upstairs has been reduced to small, sporadic windows and electric candles. Photography is strictly prohibited. Without being prompted, our group grows quiet, the sombre chill of the atmosphere beckoning us into introspective silence.  

The human remains on display are believed to have been former Capuchin friars. When the friars moved into this church in 1631, they brought many of their dead with them. When friars passed on, their bodies were buried in the dirt which makes up the floor in each of the crypts. As time went on, and when floor space became limited, the skeletal remains were dug up and hung on the walls and new bodies were buried below. 

We stand just outside the first room, Crypt of the Resurrection. Skulls, tailbones and various others form an arch surrounding a Baroque painting of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus. Two oval alcoves in opposite walls hold the mummified forms of two brown-robbed friars. 

Next, we enter the Crypt of Skulls. Three skeletal figures in robes hang on the far wall, displayed in such a way that they appear to be in motion. Behind the trio, a wall of craniums ascends, diverging into three dome-shaped designs. To either side, there is an oval alcove cut into the wall; here, two more friars lie in repose, a wooden cross resting in their grasp. On the ceiling is an intricate design comprised of various types of bone. 

The figures in the Crypt of Pelvises are arranged in much the same way. I notice immediately that this trio of friars have a much more gruesome appearance: leathery, desiccated skin clings to these bones, giving them a nightmarish quality. Stacked pelvic bones work their way up to the ceiling. 

In the Crypt of Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, eighteen crosses are stuck into the earth below, at regular intervals. Above the crosses, the walls and ceiling are once again covered with various bones arranged in a somehow-aesthetically-pleasing Baroque design. In the centre of the far wall, two dismembered arms are crossed—one arm is bare and other clothed in the brown sleeve of a friar’s habit. The bare arm is said to represent the arm of Christ; the clothed arm to represent that of St. Francis. Mummified robed figures stand guard at various intervals around the room. 

As we stand outside the Crypt of Three Skeletons, our eyes are naturally drawn upward. In the centre of the intricate design is the diminutive skeleton of a small child (“the Barberini princess”). In one hand, she holds a scythe—the symbol of death; in the other, she holds a scale—the symbol of God’s judgement. The robed figures once again stand guard at regular intervals. In the centre of the far wall, the skeletons of three children are seated on a stack of pelvic bones. 

It is easy to walk out of a place like this with a sense of grim acceptance. These friars are memento mori—translated as “remember you must die.” They stand bastion between this world and the next. And, yes, they are a reminder of the fate that awaits us all. But, as we leave the crypts, I am not filled with a sense of dread. As we emerge once more into beautiful Roman streets teeming with life, I choose to view my experience in the crypts not as an omen, but as a reminder: cherish this life until the next one beckons.

Sources:

“Capuchin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/topic/Capuchins. 

“Convento Dei Cappuccini: Rome, Italy Attractions.” Lonely Planet, 31 Mar. 2020, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/rome/attractions/convento-dei-cappuccini/a/poi-sig/389833/359975. 

Magal, Samuel, director. Italy, Rome – Capuchin Crypt – Santa Maria Della Concezione Dei CappucciniYoutube, 26 Aug. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7XxZARhOWA. 

Palmitesta, Alessandra. “Top 10 Things To Visit On The Via Veneto In Rome.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 9 June 2015, theculturetrip.com/europe/italy/articles/top-10-things-to-do-in-rome-s-via-veneto/. 

“Rome’s Capuchin Crypt: Coming Face to Face with the Dead.” Archaeology Travel, 12 Aug. 2020, archaeology-travel.com/italy/capuchin-crypt-rome/. Zebrowski, Henry.

“Oddities: The Capuchin Crypt.” LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT, LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT, 10 Oct. 2017, http://www.lastpodcastontheleft.com/blog/2017/10/9/the-capuchin-crypt. 

5 thoughts on “Memento Mori: A Tour of the Convento dei Cappuccini

  1. I too visited this chillingly interesting museum Your description is excellent, and brought me right there again. I even felt the chills up my spine. Thanks Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

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