With larger-than-life monuments like the Colosseum and the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, it’s easy to get distracted with so much to look at when visiting Rome. But there’s so much more to the Eternal City than meets the eye. Rome is like a lasagna. With each new era, a new layer was built on top of the previous burying thousands of years of history. As many times as I’ve been to Rome, I’d never peeled back the layers and I couldn’t wait to dig in to a whole new side of one of my favorite cities on Walks of Italy’s Crypts, Bones and Catacombs tour.
It’s estimated there are around 40 different catacombs, the ancient underground burial places of the Christians and the Jewish, beneath Rome. Many of these catacombs have only been discovered as recently as the 1950s.
The catacombs were dug because Roman law forbade the burial of corpses within the city walls and unlike the Pagans, who incinerated their dead, the Christians and the Jews buried theirs. We know the first catacombs were dug in the 2nd century and this burial method slowly declined after 380, when Christianity became a state religion. It was at this point in history that it was much more desirable to be buried in a church cemetery than in the labyrinth of catacombs beneath the city.
The 10th century saw the total abandonment of the catacombs as important religious relics were moved above ground to basilicas. The next few centuries left them completely forgotten. It was only after the catacombs were accidentally rediscovered in 1578 that archeologists took interest and they were finally recognized as important history from the early Christian church.
Today, only five of the catacombs are open to the public and you can visit them on guided tours like the one I took with Walks of Italy. The rest are closed because of their structural instability. The easiest of the five catacombs open to the public to visit is the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. It’s the largest of the catacombs with its maze of burial chambers stretching for over 19 kilometers beneath Rome’s suburbs.
With Walks of Italy, I wouldn’t expect to visit the most popular and tourist frequented of the catacombs and I wasn’t disappointed. Our small group tour piled comfortably on to a (thankfully air-conditioned – it was already blazing hot in April!) mini bus and made the journey to one of Rome’s oldest catacombs, the Catacombs of Priscilla. Even better that we had the catacombs entirely to ourselves.
The Catacombs of Priscilla stretch for about 13 kilometers, so we really only saw a fraction of them. And it quickly became clear why you must visit with a guide; it’d be easy to get lost in the maze of tombs without a knowledgeable guide.
Loculi, the most common kind of tomb, were dug into the soft volcanic rock. The bodies would be wrapped in a shroud and placed directly on the dirt and rock. A piece of marble would cover the opening and was written on in either Latin or Greek. As I slowly wandered the dirt tunnels, I noted that most loculi were stacked five or six high. It seemed a crude way to lie in rest.
The Catacombs of Priscilla are also called the Queen of the Catacombs because two popes, Pope Marcellinus and Pope Marcellus I, along with many martyrs are buried there. Those who were wealthy or of importance, like the popes, were buried in individual tombs and some were even decorated with religious paintings. Some have since worn away with the centuries; others are still so vibrant you almost can’t believe they were painted in the 2nd through 4th century.
Back inside the ancient wall that still surrounds Rome and just steps from Piazza Barberini (near to one of my favorite attractions in Rome: the Borghese Gardens and Villa), is the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. And beneath that church is by far one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.
Under the church lies a crypt with five individual rooms that have all been decorated with human bones. It’s creepy, yet fascinating. The bones form intricate designs and the individual rooms each have a religious theme.
The bones of 4000 friars from the Order of Capuchin Friars make up the designs of the crypts. Once the friars were buried, the order would wait about 10 years for the bodies to decompose. They would then open the casket and if the skeleton was complete, it was an indication that the friar had been in good health. Only bones from healthy friars were selected to be displayed in the crypts and even though they appeared healthy, the bones were still treated to avoid spreading the plague.
It’s also thought that the Barberini family, Italian nobility of prominence in Rome in the 17th century who gave their name to the Piazza Barberini, also used the crypt and the skeleton on the ceiling of the first room is that of a Barberini princess. I couldn’t help but notice the plaque on the wall that reads: “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.“
Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed so you’ll just have to take the Walks of Italy tour to see it for yourself.
Know Before You Go
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Our Crypts, Bones and Catacombs was provided by Walks of Italy in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.