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To ordinary people, the highlight of a trip to Rome might be the monumental architecture, delicious food or amazing coffee. To me, the best bit was standing in a crypt decorated by gruesome sculptures made from around 4,000 skeletons. Don’t get me wrong; the coffee was also great, but nothing appeals more to the inner archaeologist, and makes you question the role of religion, than church-sanctioned monuments of human bone.

The crypt is beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (‘Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins’) on the Via Veneto. It was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII as a home for Capuchin friars. Unlike monks, who tend to live a self-sufficient and ascetic lifestyle away from the sins of the human world, friars live among normal people and were the friends of the poor.

In 1631 Cardinal Antonio Barberini, the pope’s brother and a fellow member of the Capuchin Order, ordered the remains of deceased friars to be dug up and brought to the new church. Sources indicate that some 300 cartloads of bodies and exhumed skeletons were assembled and displayed in the crypt. Over time, as these things often seem to do, the practice became institutionalised and bones continued to be added until 1870.

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The church and crypt are, in modern times, open to the public as a museum, which you can visit for €5. The museum is a pretty typical affair, but the crypt will literally blow your mind. Bone lampshades hang from ceiling whilst skeletons dressed in robes lie in niches made of bones. My personal favourite was the child, with a scythe made of bones, surrounded by a ring of more bones, glued to the ceiling. My first reaction was amazement but, then again, I could well be a sociopath.

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And to remind us that this isn’t a twisted vision of the depths of human depravity, there’s a nice picture of Jesus at the end.

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To someone with no knowledge of medieval and early modern Christianity’s obsession with memento mori (‘remember that you will die’), this may seem a very peculiar series of events. However, in many ways this willingness to embrace death is healthy, and it does serve to be reminded of the brevity of life. However, it is almost impossible to comprehend how anyone thought the butchery, modification and display of thousands of skeletons was a good idea. Seems a little extreme, doesn’t it?

Despite this, and regardless of whether you see it as an abomination, it is definitely worth a visit. If anything, perhaps we should remember our own mortality more often and do the things we want to do.

          What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.


Pictures courtesy of http://www.italysbestrome.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/cript1.jpg, http://itthing.com/wp-content/uploads/santa-maria-della-concezione.jpg, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Cripta_Cappuccini.jpg and http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Capuchin_Crypt.jpg

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