Roaming the streets of Rome is only exploring the tip of the iceberg. There are layers built upon layers spanning thousands of years from the beginnings of the ancient Roman civilization. When you visit Rome and take a stroll around the streets, there’s a great deal of history beneath where you’re walking, too. One of my favorite parts of visiting Rome was wandering down a street and discovering Roman ruins, some not even fully excavated, just sitting at the side of the road. How cool is that? Furthermore, there are miles of burial sites, underground tunnels, and cult temples lying beneath the modern roads. I wanted to see more and learn more about these ancient underground places. In an effort to see Rome and many of its layers, we booked a tour with Walks of Italy called Crypts, Bones, and Catacombs: Underground Tour of Rome.
After meeting at Piazza Barberini with our friendly tour guide, Julia, we took a short walk down the street to our first stop, the Capuchin Crypt. The tours with Walks of Italy are only small group tours, meaning that there were only a handful of us in the group. The tour group never exceeds a maximum of 15 people. You’ll have full access to seeing all of the sites without the crowds and most importantly, be able to hear and interact with your guide. We were always able to hear Julia clearly as she explained the details of the ancient sites. One more thing to mention: we weren’t allowed to take photos at any of the sites, so you don’t need to bring your camera. I took a few exterior photos of the buildings on the tour.
Julia asked our group, “Why did you want to take this tour?” We heard a couple of people exclaim, “For the bones!”. And yes, we saw plenty of bones.
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There was something incredibly eerie about walking amongst the bones of the Capuchin friars. Nowadays, Christians bury or cremate the body, and honor that life with a tombstone. While the practice of exhuming and displaying bones is no longer permitted, the bones of the monks were arranged as a reminder of our own mortality. The Catholic order wanted to remind everyone that life is short. It is important to be a good person and to make the most of our own short lives in this world.
In the early construction of the crypt in 1631, the monks brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars from their old location at a monastery. Soil was delivered from Jerusalem by the order of Pope Urban VIII. When monks passed away, they were buried in this soil at the crypt. The bodies of monks who had decomposed in the soil for the longest amount of time were exhumed and displayed in the crypt. Typically, the bodies would decompose in the soil for 30 years until the bones would be separated and contributed to the various crypts. In total, approximately 3700 bodies of friars were used amongst the intricately designed presentations.
In 1851, this bone church was open to the public for viewing for a small admittance fee. Shortly after Italy became a country, the practice of displaying bones came to an end and the remaining buried friars stayed in the ground.
The crossed mummified arms in the above photo is the Capuchin logo. Our guide explained that in some circumstances, individual bones would be used to decorate the crypts and in some cases, there would be entire bodies of friars wearing their robes. The true reason is not known, though she speculated that in the cases of full bodies being used that perhaps they were exhumed too quickly. The individual bones were still joined by skin, so they were kept in tact.
The sheer amount of human bones was astounding. There were various body parts decorating every wall space, with bones piled on top of one another. There were lighting fixtures created out of bones that hung from the ceilings. There was even a decorative bone clock on one wall to remind us that our time on this earth is ticking away.
There were six crypts in total, five of which display parts of the human skeleton. The Crypt of the Resurrection showed a picture of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to depict the Christian belief of the everlasting life. It was framed by human bones. There were three crypts that specialized in particular body parts, including the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, and the Crypt of the Leg Bone and Thigh Bones.
The Crypt of the Three Skeletons depicted an oval for birth, a scythe for death, and the scales for judgment. It symbolized both life and death, as well as the good and bad deeds that are judged by God after you die. A placard at this site stated, “What you are we used to be, what we are now you will be.”
The Mass Chapel, used to celebrate mass, did not contain any bones. There was a plaque there containing the heart of Maria Felice Peretti, the grand-niece of Pope Sixtus V and supporter of the crypt.
Walking through the Capuchin Crypt was a little bit creepy, but also quite humbling. Our lives here are far too short. I hope to make the most of things while I’m here.
Catacomb of Priscilla
Our tour boarded a small air conditioned van and took a quick drive to the Catacombs of Saint Priscilla. It is one of the least-visited catacombs in Rome, perhaps due to its distance from the city center. However, it is a highly important historical site to visit in Rome and I highly recommend that you check it out. I recommend that you book this tour and visit the catacomb with a guide. Otherwise, I would have not learned about the vast history and details of this place. Also, the numerous tunnels of the catacomb make it very easy to get lost, so don’t wander off too far on your own! We were the only visitors viewing the catacombs at this time, and it was nice to have the place to ourselves.
The Catacomb of Priscilla has about 13km of galleries at various depths. They were used for Christian burials from the 2nd to 4th century.These galleries are dug out of tuff, a soft volcanic rock used to make bricks and lime. The first level of galleries that we visited was the most ancient and was the only one to contain “cubicula” (bed chambers), small rooms for the tombs of wealthier families and martyrs. We also discovered “arcosolia”, tombs of upper class families that included religious paintings. Some early popes were also buried here, including Pope Marcellinus and Pope Marcellus I.
Most of the tombs throughout the catacomb were the “loculi”, as pictured above. The bodies were laid within the loculi, directly on top of the dirt. Then, they were wrapped in a shroud, sprinkled with lime to restrain the decaying process, and closed in with tiles. Sometimes there were inscriptions written by the tombs or small objects were placed to help identify the remains.
I immediately noticed that the loculi were mostly empty. You could see narrow spaces in the dirt stacked one on top of the other, yet there were rarely bones or remains to be seen. Many marble tiles or frescoes that would have once been displayed on the walls or the tombs were smashed or had vanished completely. You could see fragments of tile now and again, particularly terracotta tiles. Vandals in the past had struck the catacombs, and in one instance, had done so by the demands of the Vatican. Pope Innocent X and Pope Clement IX sent treasure hunters into the depths of the catacombs in the 17th century. Another theory as to why the catacomb was plundered was due to the belief that it was haunted and cursed.
Christians weren’t the only ones buried here. All people, no matter the religion or status were buried here as it was a Christian belief that everyone had a right to a burial. There were many small chambers meant for children. Perhaps many unwanted children that perished due to exposure were brought here for a proper burial.
The Catacomb of Priscilla is highly notable as it contains the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary.
The image is thought to date to the 3rd Century, depicting a veiled woman holding a baby. The fresco is quite small and placed in a very strange location, up high on the side of the vaulted ceiling. Other sections of the fresco have crumbled away over time, though the image of Mary holding the baby Jesus partially remains.
Basilica San Clemente
Our final stop was Basilica San Clemente, a prime example of the layers of Rome. The level that we can clearly saw from the ground level was the present day church, built during the height of the Middle Ages in the 12th Century. Below this church was a 4th Century church, the first basilica. Beneath this church was a Mithraic temple from the 2nd Century. And lastly, this temple was built on top of a building from the Roman Republic that burned down in the Great Fire of 64 AD.
2nd Century Mithraic Temple
Julia started our tour at the lowest level of the building. We discovered a space that was used as a mithraeum, which was used as a sanctuary by the cult of Mithras. The majority of Mithraea were built beneath existing buildings or constructed within caves, and some had a hole in the ceiling to allow natural light to pour through. This possibly connected the worship site to the universe or conveyed the passing of time. It’s possible that the worshippers gathered here for a common meal to be shared while sitting on the rock couches that line the walls.
4th Century Church
The lower level of the building, including the mithraeum, was filled in with dirt and the first basilica of the 4th Century church was constructed. The church was dedicated to St. Clemente (Pope Clemente). This church is notable because the largest collection of Medieval wall paintings are located here. One fresco depicts the earliest known writings in the Italian language. It’s quite funny because the first known recordings of Italian include curse words, and they’re on a fresco in a church! The story illustrated how the Pagan man, Sisinnius, demanded that his servants drag the captured St. Clemente behind them. He yelled at them in Italian (translated to English), “Come on, you sons of bitches, pull!”. The cursing was used to detail the personality of Sisinnius, who was furious that his wife was secretly Christian and worshipped St. Clemente. The men thought that they were pulling the captured saint behind them, but in reality, they were actually moving heavy columns. In Latin, St. Clemente says, “Duritiam cordis vestris, saxa trahere meruistis”, meaning “You deserved to drag stones due to the hardness of your hearts.”
12th Century Church
It is not completely known why a second basilica was built on top of the first one. One theory explains that the lower basilica was closely associated with the imperial opposition pope, Clemente III (the Antipope). Today, it is one of the most highly decorated churches in Rome. We saw detailed mosaics, intricately painted ceilings, beautiful marble floors, and lots of glimmering gold all around. We were able to see part of the 4th Century church protruding through the floor of this second church, mainly to support the weight of this church. Julia explained to us that many people view Basilica San Clemente as a “lasagna” with its many layers. She didn’t see it entirely as a lasagna, as the layers are not cleanly stacked one on top of the other. There is some overlap between the layers, so that’s definitely something to keep in mind.
The tour lasted around 3 1/2 to 4 hours in length. It was an incredibly informative afternoon. I learned so much! I highly recommend that you take this tour if you’re interested in history, the underground parts of Rome, or if you’re just into seeing bones like some of my fellow group members. You’ll be toured around to unforgettable areas of Rome by an energetic and knowledgeable guide. Be sure to visit the Walks of Italy website and book the Crypts, Bones, and Catacombs tour!
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Disclaimer: We were sponsored to take the Crypts, Bones, and Catacombs Tour with Walks of Italy. Our opinions, as always, are solely our own. We adored this tour and think you’ve gotta see these places when you’re in Rome. There are affiliate links within this article, which help us to travel more often!