The Eternal Bones

IMG_6405Last week I had the pleasure of paying a trip to The Eternal City. I also had the extreme good fortune to book this trip the day before Pope Benedict XVI handed his notice in to a frankly startled world. Secure in my bookings, flights and hotel prices to Rome were now happily able to rocket skywards as both the world media and devout Catholics sped towards Italy in their pilgrim boots; ostensibly to watch for the plumes of white smoke that would usher in a successor. Given I really wanted to see the Sistine Chapel I was also pleased the Conclave of Cardinals got about their business with some unusual alacrity and voted in the first Argentinian Pope in plenty of time to ensure the hallowed doors of that sacrosanct place were nicely reopened to the gawping public.

Rome…once known as the centre of the European universe with its Empire spanning from 753BC to 476AD, latterly the epicentre for the Catholic Church, fondly now known by locals as the city of “La Dolce Vita”. I venture it is a city with more history than any other, save perhaps Jerusalem. I wasn’t planning on blogging about Rome as the wealth of material on it is huge, more than one person could encompass in a lifetime; yet, I did find myself dragging two children along to a place that was both fascinating and worthy of mention as it is also fairly new. This would be the Capuchin Friary Museum on the Via Veneto.

Recently refurbished with a museum opened in late 2011, it is now listed as one of the top ten places in Rome to take kids to. Primarily because of the “ghoulish” nature of the place as it is an ossuary. Given the selling of it, it was a must see. It’s priced at about €12 (like most things in Rome) and kids under 16 go free. What better place to encourage a recalcitrant 9 and 11yr old to?

“It’ll be better than your IPad games.” I promised, whilst fervently hoping it would.

Luckily they were not disappointed. A wander down the Via Veneto led us to the steps of the Chiesa Dell’Immacolata Concezione Della Beata Vergine Maria where a jaunty hop, skip and jump in a cool 12C took the three of us to the entrance. It’s a place that’s not yet groaning under the weight of vast crowds, unlike the usual venues of the Colosseum, Vatican, Palatine Hill etc.. So, why did we go? Well, basically, the Capuchin friars (closely linked to the Franciscans which is all the more relevant given the ascension of Pope Francis I) moved from San Bonaventura to the new friary on the Piazza Berberini in 1631 and took with them the remains of the friars that were buried there. Historic first hand accounts detail the act of moving these bones. One Brother Michele tells us that there were 300 wagonloads of skeletal parts and they ended up being stacked in the crypts beneath the new chapel. Various disputes during 1729-32 over the rights of the Capuchins to bury non-friars led to a resolution meaning an increase in the numbers of laity bones. Around 1723 the first knowledge of ornamentation appears in the record, strangely when the notorious Marquis de Sade visited the place. Without quoting his substantive letter, he speaks of the crypts, the bones, the fact they are all arranged decoratively, well preserved. He concludes by saying:

…the sight of death surrounding them on all sides does not prevent them from being as cheerful as in the rest of Europe

So, in this place, in the six chambers are the remains of about 3700 people. They are off a corridor about 30m in length. The earth in the rooms are traditionally held to be from The Holy Land, even perhaps from Jerusalem itself. The creator of these decorative crypts is disputed. Some hold it was a Father Raffaele de Roma, a talented Capuchin painter who died in 1805. Others think it was Father Norbert Baumgartner of Vienna or even Ennemond Alexandre Petitot as the style is distinctly Louis XVI. There is a legend that certain Capuchins fled the Terror of the Guillotine in 1793, came to Rome, holed up in the crypts to save their own heads and spent the time creating what is seen today. Whichever may be true, it is certainly a place that inspires you to consider what may be either the tormented conscience, or the grotesque hermit-like genius, or the ardent faith of a monk laughing at Death.

The kids were so enthralled with the place they went round it twice. The second lap was completely on our own as it was past closing time. A kindly friar tolerated their enthusiasm and I was happy to let them learn a bit. The crypts are at the end of the Museum, before that you pass the usual collection of thousand year old relics that festoon Rome. There was even a reliquary that had two thorns from Christ’s crown (whether you believe there are genuine or not, it’s fascinating to look at given the veneration ascribed to them). Here are some photos:

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Once we had finished, with the usual visit to the tourist shop, we exited into the dusk of Rome, its white walls washing out to grey in the forgotten light. The kids agreed that it was better than their IPads, but that didn’t stop them returning to their apps as soon as they could. Still, that’s Life. Or, in this case, that’s Death. Almost makes you want to launch into a Monty Python song…. I’ll leave you with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s impression of the place…if you are ever in Rome then I highly recommend this one. Different to the usual tourist places indeed.


Is this what diplomacy is all about?



Categories: Italy, Rome

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