Death is staring at me. He has no eyes, just hollow eye sockets, but I know he can see me. With no more than ten feet between us, Death stands immobile, garbed in a dirty, dusty cloak with a hood. Beneath the hood, I can make out a skull, grinning.
It’s early December, and on this crisp morning in Rome I’m walking on Via Veneto, one of the poshest streets in the city. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, this was the nerve center of la dolce vita, which Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini brought to the screen in his iconic masterpiece of the same name. But I’m not here to get a taste of the sweet life. If this were a film, the title would be La Dolce Morte. The sweet death.
At 27 Via Veneto sits the Chiesa di Santa Maria Immacolata, or the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Rome is home to more churches than New York City has Starbucks, but this isn’t just any church. It’s a historic church of the Capuchins, a Catholic order established in the 16th century. Its friars are devout in their dedication to living the Gospel. They dress solely in brown tunics and take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Beneath the church lies a crypt where almost 4,000 friars have been laid to rest. They’re not neatly buried under tombstones. Instead, their skeletons adorn the walls and ceilings, like 3D paintings. Even the ornate chandeliers are made out of bones.
I’m far from the first traveler to come to Rome to see this crypt for myself. It’s estimated that upwards of 200,000 visitors come every year. And they follow in the footsteps of famous tourists. The Marquis de Sade paid a visit in 1775. He commented that “I have never seen anything so striking,” high praise coming from a man who wrote violent pornography. A French libertine, Sade led such a depraved life the word “sadism” was coined after him. Almost a century later, in 1867, a budding American writer showed up at the crypt. “Here was a spectacle for sensitive nerves!” Mark Twain exclaimed, struck by its “picturesque horrors.”
The crypt has lost none of its mystique since Twain was here. But, today, visitors must first travel through a museum. According to Esmeralda Shahinas, the museum’s head of operations, entry fees to the museum and crypt help fund the Capuchins’ different missions around the world. She explains that “a great part of the earnings goes to them and also to maintain the artworks in the church.”
The museum recaps the history of the Capuchins, replete with artifacts—including rosaries and instruments of penance—and an original painting by Caravaggio, St. Francis in Meditation, which depicts the Capuchin patron saint basked in chiaroscuro, or contrasts of light and shadow, looking serene while holding a skull.
The artwork reflects the Capuchins’ approach to death. For them, since eternal life awaits all those who accept Christ, it’s not something to dread but rather to embrace. Therein lies the true purpose of the crypt: to make people comfortable with mortality. Other Capuchin crypts, Palermo, Italy, and in Vienna, serve the same purpose. But the one in Rome is the most spectacular—and it’s still in use, too. Shahinas says that it continues to be “a place of prayer.” Each year, on All Souls’ Day (November 2), the Capuchin friars hold a mass down there.
The museum, which opened in 2012, attempts to explain the shrouded mystery of how the crypt came to be constructed. The year was 1624, and the Capuchin order was booming. It was time for bigger headquarters. An eminent Capuchin, Cardinal Antonio Marcello Barberini, turned to his older brother, who just so happened to be Pope Urban VIII, for help. The Holy Father gave Barberini a plot of prime real estate in Rome on which to build a new church. He even came on the building site to bless the foundation stone.
The imposing building was completed in 1631. A question arose: What to do with the remains of the clergymen buried in the old Capuchin friary? It was decided to dig them out and stash them in a chamber beneath the new church. For over a century, Capuchin friars from the world over were buried there.
Then, in the middle of the 18th century, someone decided to get creative, and the crypt was made to look as it does today. Researchers don’t know for sure who was responsible. According to Roman lore, the mastermind was a brilliant artist who had committed a horrible crime and found a safe haven among the Capuchins. Toiling over this macabre shrine was his way of asking God for forgiveness. However tantalizing, this story appears improbable. A more believable hypothesis has been put forward by Rinaldo Cordovani, a Capuchin friar and historian. “It is likely,” he writes in the museum leaflet, “that the present arrangement is the work of one of the Capuchin artists who were habitually present in the friary, helped by various craftsmen, also friars.”
But who could this Capuchin artist be? The Marquis de Sade, of all people, might hold the key. In his travel diaries, he wrote that “a German priest … fashioned [the] funerary monument.” Cordovani reckons Sade was talking about a Viennese Capuchin named Norbert Baumgartner, who spent time in Rome in the 18th century. If so, Baumgartner deserves to be known as a masterful artist.
For that’s what this crypt ultimately is: a work of art. And like all great works of art, it tells a riveting story. It’s one that speaks to the essence of the human experience, which is impermanence. As the Book of Genesis puts it: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This line echoes in my mind as I enter the crypt. It’s divided into six alcoves, alongside which runs a narrow corridor dotted with windows.
The first alcove sets my pulse racing: The skeletal remains of a Capuchin friar, holding a wooden cross, are reminiscent of the popular image of the Grim Reaper. Elsewhere, striking motifs compete for my eyes’ attention: a door frame made of jawbones and vertebrae, a fake clock made of foot and finger bones, and a skull out of which two wings emerge. Most achingly of all, up on the ceiling, I see the skeleton of a child. It’s said to be that of an infant from the Barberini family.
The other alcoves are equally phantasmagoric. Capuchin skeletons lay on beds of bones. Pelvises are attached to shoulder blades to form rosettes, and jawbones are arranged in triangles. Skulls are heaped atop skulls atop more skulls. Everywhere, there’s something to scrutinize. Some assemblages hold esoteric meanings. Take, for instance, the two arm bones affixed to the wall in the shape of a cross. One of those arms is covered by the sleeve of the Capuchin tunic. According to Cordovani, this is meant to evoke the “Franciscan coat of arms,” in which the arm of Christ and the arm of St. Francis are interlocked.
The craftsmanship is so intricate, so precise—every bone is just the right shape, just the right size—that I begin imagining what it was like to actually put this ossuary together. It must have been strenuous to pick through piles of bones to locate the perfect piece for each motif.
But there’s more than a good scare to be had from this place. A sign in one of the alcoves spells it out pithily. It’s a message from the friars to us, from the past to the present, from the dead to the living: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
The crypt is what’s known as a memento mori (Latin for “remember you will die”), a physical reminder that life is finite and that we all have an appointment with Death. Your appointment may be tomorrow or 80 years from now. Either way, you won’t be able to get out of it. It’s written down in your calendar in invisible yet indelible ink.
What should you make of this brute, inescapable truth? Pretend to forget it and live in denial? Or, if existentialism is up your alley, let it drive you to despair? Neither seems like a wise option.
The Capuchin crypt shows there’s yet another, better approach. It dawns on me as I enter the last two alcoves. First up is a small marble chapel. Above the altar hangs a painting depicting the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child saving souls from purgatory. Then, in the next alcove, surrounded by skulls and bones, hangs a painting of a biblical scene: Christ raising Lazarus from the dead. The message comes through loud and clear. After death will come resurrection.
I’m not even Christian, but I find there to be a tremendous life lesson to be learned here anyway. To confront your own mortality is daunting. It’s like dying a little in your head. Yet, if you do it purposefully, something miraculous happens. You experience life anew, if only momentarily, and feel gratitude for simply being alive right now.
Like Lazarus, I find myself resurrected.
The Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Friars is located at 27 Via Veneto, Rome.