On our final full day in Rome, after we had visited the Colosseum and almost passed out from heat exhaustion, we decided to visit a little church near the Barberini metro station. This little church is often known simply as the “Convento Dei Cappuchini” or Cappuchin Crypt. I had read about this little place online before we left the UK and I just had to visit it before we left Rome.
The crypt itself (which I will get to in more detail in a moment) is located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or in English Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchin. The little church itself was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VII. Previously the Capuchin Friars had been housed elsewhere, but when they moved to this church and friary they packed up everything, including the bones of their dead and brought them here. Originally, the bones of the Friars had been buried in the Friary Via dei Lucchesi but the Pope’s brother Antoni Barberini ordered everything to be moved, and in the end over 300 cart loads of bones were moved. Today, these bones can be seen arranged in the crypts beneath the friary in quite possibly some of the most morbidly fascinating crypt decorations I have ever seen.
But before you even get to see the crypts, you pay for your entrance in quite a snazzy little entrance hall in the refurbished friary. Having spoken with MadameGuillotine, not so long back you used to be greeted at the doors by one of the monks but alas, not any more (at least when we were there). You are greeted by super friendly staff members in t-shirts with the Friary’s logo on. The most surprising thing when we walked in there however was how quiet the place was. Of course I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as busy as the Vatican or Colosseum. But in front of us in the queue was a small family and as we were wandering around the museum we saw no one else. In fact, the family in front of us seemed to waltz through the museum and crypts not even really giving a hoot about any of it. Whereas the two of us spent hours in there, and I have to say it was an incredibly moving experience for me.
I will mention now that whilst we were there I didn’t take any photographs due to the battery on my camera running out. Where I can, I have credited any images used below.
First of all however, we get to look around the small museum which is apparently rather new. And I loved it, every single second I spent in this tiny museum totally unhindered by tourists. I have to say it was a really nice, and very peaceful change from the previous places we had been. The museum is utterly chock full of artifacts relating to the life of the Capuchin Friars. The first room we entered was full of portraits including this one by Caravaggio.
I found this portrait mesmerising, and stood in front of it for a very long time just taking in its details. It seems that the Cappuchin’s follow the example of St Francis of Assisi, but the Cappuchin’s are much, much stricter than the original order. After the foundation of the order in around 1520, due to their beliefs, they were forced into hiding. But Urban VII ended up saying all was OK with it in around 1528.
The area used for the museum and crypt is used these days completely for those purposes, and just opposite the road the Friar’s still live in quiet contemplation.
Beneath the museum, again of which I have no pictures other than what I have scanned in, lies the ossuary and crypt. Even though there are just 6 rooms in the crypt, we spent so much time down here gazing at the macabre decorations in front of us. I say macabre, yet at the same time it was utterly fascinating to think that the bones on show were once friars who had served at the friary. Below are some photographs (not by me) of each room, each of course with full credits to where I got them from).
The Crypt of the Resurrection.
This one is closest to the gift shop and I have to say probably one of the most moving due to the beautiful portrait. The portrait itself is framed by different bones from the human body. This crypt is said to be the least macabre of all six rooms although I have to say that even in here I had a little shudder, yet odd fascination with what I was seeing.
N.b – I’d just like the add here that all throughout my University years I had an odd fascination with human bones, hence why I’m probably flailing a lot about this…
The Mass Chapel
This is the only room in the crypt with no bones in it. I have to say when I walked into this very peaceful room I was very surprised to not see any decoration. However it seems this room was used to pray for the souls of the dead in the surrounding crypts. There is a plaque within this room that contains the heart of the niece of Sixtus V, and it also contains the tomb of “The Papal Zouaves” – an infantry force formed in defence of the papal states.Unfortunately I couldn’t find any pictures of this room, so I’ll have to ask you all to trust me when I say that this was the most peaceful room in the entire place.
The Crypt of Skulls
Looking at the picture, I wonder why it’s called the Crypt of Skulls?? I have to say it was incredibly disconcerting walking into these crypts and seeing entire skeletons dressed in Capuchin Robes. I don’t know if I’m the only one who felt this way?
Crypt of the Pelvys
I think the name says it all really. This one is made up mainly of pelvis bones!
Crypt of Thigh bones and Leg bones
Apparently the greatest number of bones are buried here in the whole crypt.
Crypt of the Three Skeletons
This room was probably my favourite in the entire crypt. Mainly because of the skeleton mounted on the ceiling which holds a scythe. The skellie on the ceiling is mounted within an oval and holding a scythe, a symbol of both life coming to birth (the skellie within the oval) and a symbol of death (the skellie holding the scythe). The skeleton in the centre of the ceiling is said to be the “Princess Barberini” although I have been unable to find much information on her, even from the guidebook I brought from the museum. The lady in the gift shop began to speak about her but didn’t really go into much detail other than, “you need to know the story”. Sadly I haven’t been able to find much of her story so if anyone knows anything at all then please do drop me an email.
As I said right at the start of this post, the entire place moved me so, so much. Once we were done with the museum and crypt sadly we didn’t go and see the church due to being stupidly tired and needing to recharge before finding somewhere to eat that evening. But I have to say, visiting this place was amazing and I am so, so glad that we didn’t go home without visiting. Not only was the museum fantastic, but the crypts as well and full of so, so much history (including the history of later Friars who were on TV, as well as a rather moving story of a Friar who was murdered by his driver and assistant (If I could have taken pictures, again I would probably have more information but again, if anyone knows any more then please do email me).
And that was the final stop in our Rome visit. I have to say, we are looking at going again, albeit when the weather is a little bit cooler. Hopefully then we can stay a few days longer and also visit the places that we didn’t get to see.
All in all though, an absolutely amazing trip that blew my mind from the moment we stepped foot in the Vatican Museum. Despite its expense (i.e. food), I would recommend visiting Rome to anyone interested in history. Because it is absolutely mind blowing.
The Capuchin Museum (multiple authors), 2012, The Capuchin Museum, Gangemi: Roma (only available at the Museum gift shop)
The crypts and museum are generally open from 9am until 6.30pm (last admission), but please check the website
or get in contact with the convento itself fore more information on opening.