Inside Rome’s Capuchin Crypt

Whilst I loved Rome’s amazing architecture above ground, arguably one of the most spectacular places that I visited was underneath the pavements. You could walk past the Capuchin Crypt, on the Via Veneto, without really taking a second glance, as it’s not that remarkable from the outside. In fact, the whole street is a bit shabby, having had its heyday in the sixties and now looking like a shadow of its former self. It is living in the past, so what better place than the Via Veneto to find rooms full of bones? Rather than holding the remains of sinful sixties celebs, in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini you’ll find traces of devout monks.

Morbid signage at the church of Santa Maria della Conzecione dei Cappuccini

‘What you are now we used to be…’ is the warning from the monks.

Everything from the walls to the archways and light fixtures is made from parts of the human skeleton, with each body willingly donated by a monk from the Capuchin order (more is explained about them in the attached museum). The overall effect is incredible, seeing thousands of bones arranged with careful precision, and pelvises slotting together like Robyn Day’s stacking chairs. Their motto (from beyond the grave)? What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.

I guess the monks saw themselves as part of the collective order, rather than individuals, so it seems fitting that they each ended up being part of a larger design, with different rooms focusing on different body parts, such as ‘the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones’, but working together as a whole. I’m not religious, but even I found myself impressed by the devotion of the monks who designed and created the crypt.

Entering the bone-filled Capuchin Crypt in Rome

What you see when you enter the first room. Note the bone clock on the ceiling… Credit:

One thing that a lot of people have asked me is if I found it scary to be surrounded by dead people, and I can honestly say that it wasn’t frightening at all; there was no chill in the air and I didn’t feel goosebumps creeping up my arm. To look at the crypt and be intimidated or freaked out would be to miss the point. Yes, the skeletons left whole were perhaps a bit of an odd touch, but the sight of skulls, vertebrae or shin bones making intricate patterns was beautiful rather than weird.

What I found frustrating was the running of the place, from the over-zealous stewards acting more like burly security guards outside a club, to the snappy shop assistant trying to promote deals on the merchandise at the end. I would have loved to take photos in the crypt, but I can understand how this might not seem respectful; what I can’t quite get my head around is that taking photos is strictly banned, but you can then go and buy some fairly tacky and embarrassing souvenirs in the shop, which cheapens the whole experience. Colourful bracelet or inappropriate t-shirt, anyone?

Skeletal postcards from the crypt of Santa Maria in Rome

My shop-bought postcards really don’t do the place justice.

I had to buy postcards, as I wanted to remember what the different rooms looked like, but they don’t reflect what I saw. They’re polished and perfect and have this colourful glow that wasn’t actually there at all (bloody Photoshop). The actual rooms are dark and quiet, whereas the postcards make them look more like a gimmick or a film set. I’d also brought a sketchbook and pen with me, but kept getting such massive evil stares from one steward for lingering too long in one room that I didn’t dare start sketching, in case I was frogmarched out in disgrace. It felt very much like the staff wanted a quick procession to the exit, with a conveyor belt of visitors, but you can’t rush being in such a unique and fascinating place. You need time to process what you’re seeing – I certainly did.

If you ever find yourself in Rome, take a walk down the Via Veneto and pop into Santa Maria della Concezione and its museum (entry is €6). Go in with an open mind and prepare to be amazed at what you find beneath the ground.

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