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Hidden Sights

Some Underground Sites in Rome

24th Sep 2015

When people think of Rome, images of folks sitting in piazzas enjoying coffee, as Vespas scoot past the Colosseum often come to mind, however have you ever imagined what lies beneath the city?

When walking around Rome, chances are you are actually walking over ancient ruins and tunnels that stretch for miles beneath you. Places that have yet to be discovered. Buildings and homes that haven’t seen the light of day for a millenia.

There are indeed many places underground in Rome that are well worth a visit. Sites that are far more interesting than what is available at street level. Through Eternity offers a fantastic Catacombs tour which takes you deep beneath some of the city’s sites, into excavations below some fascinating buildings in Rome. This tour will also take you outside the city walls to the Catacombs of Callixtus. Here you will venture deep down underground and into a labyrinth of tunnels which once was the resting place for the thousands of Romans and Popes who were buried here. These tomb lined tunnels, which were carved out of the soft lava rock in the 2nd century, stretched for over 300 miles and housed half a million bodies.

After falling into disuse and decay many of the relics were moved to various churches in Rome. After being long forgotten in the middle ages, the catacombs were rediscovered in 1854 by the pioneering Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi. As you delve deeper underground you will realise the grand scale of these tunnels over several levels, many of which are still undiscovered due to the fact the the tunnels have collapsed. With every step you take, you will pass an empty tomb which once housed a body. You may also notice that a lot of these tombs are quite small in size, this is because the mortality rate for infants back then was around 40 percent.

Another place of particular interest that you could add to your Catacombs tour, is the Capuchin Crypts. Located just off Piazza Barberini, the crypts are made up of several tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccuni.

Inside you will find the skeletal remains of nearly 4,000 friars who once belonged to the monastery. The bones of these friars make up the different themed rooms, all of which run off the side of a passageway. Some of these include the ‘Crypt of the Skulls’ the ‘Crypt of the Leg Bones’ and the ‘Crypt of the Pelvises’. Each room has a dirt floor with soil that was brought in from Jerusalem by order of Pope Urban VIII.

Once described as ‘one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom’ the display which is full of skeletons still dressed as monks, bones nailed to walls and hanging from the ceiling, isn’t meant to be macabre, but more of a silent reminder of the passage of life on earth and our own mortality.

In fact once inside you will find a sign which reads ‘What you are now we used to be, and what we are now, you will be’. A haunting reminder that life on earth is fleeting.

When the monks first arrived at the church in 1631, they were moving from their old monastery and by order from the Vatican, they were asked to take the remains of their deceased brethrens with them. 300 cartloads later, the large amount of friars bodies were used to construct the bizarre crypt.

Over the years as more friars died, the bodies of the deceased would spend around 30 years decomposing in the ground before being removed and used for display.

The place is completely fascinating and eerie at the same time. As you look at the hundreds of skulls, you can’t help but wonder what life would have been like for each of them. Standing face to face with someone who lived hundreds of years before you.

When you exit the building and come out onto the busy street its a reminder that you never really know what lies beneath your feet. Such is the case, particularly in Rome.

The Capuchin Crypts are defintely well worth a visit when you’re in town and whilst you are sitting in a piazza enjoying your italian coffee or cappuccino, you may be interested to know, that the word ‘Cappuccino’ actually derives from these particular monks. You see the word ‘Cappuccio’ which literally means ‘ small hood’ in Italian, alludes to the brown colour of these monks habits, which in turn was referred to the ‘peaked finish’ on top of your coffee.

– By David Dodd –