Home News In macabre Rome, it’s Halloween all year round

In macabre Rome, it’s Halloween all year round

Published on 30/10/2009

Rome -- Romans don't have to wait for Halloween to enjoy the macabre.

The spirit of Halloween stalks the city’s myriad of churches, from skeletons galore to mummified monks, embalmed papal hearts to a purported piece of John the Baptist’s head.

A good place to start is the Church of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Via Veneto.

The ghosts of La Dolce Vita are quickly forgotten when the visitor enters the church’s crypt, elaborately adorned by the earthly remains of hundreds of Capuchin monks.

Vertebrae create a floral effect, while shoulder blades suggest the wings on the hourglasses symbolising the inexorable flight of time for us mortals.

Clavicles also make up the Grim Reaper’s scythe held by a skeleton attached to the ceiling.

Decorated by the monks themselves using the bones of their departed brothers, the sanctuary is a series of alcoves dubbed the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, and so on.

Mummified monks in their brown robes lie in niches or stand, heads bowed in prayer, against the wall.

Here the Capuchins would come to pray before retiring for the night, contemplating the message that "Death closes the gates of time, and opens those of eternity," the church says on its website.

Most chilling are three skeletons, displayed in the final alcove, of small children, said to have been members of the noble Barberini family that produced Pope Urban VIII and built the friary.

Those who may be more shaken than stirred by the omnipresent reminders of death need to put things into perspective.

Centuries ago, the Grim Reaper stalked the Eternal City in the form of famine, violence and diseases, notably malaria and tuberculosis.

Whether their souls were headed for heaven or hell, Rome’s legions of unidentified dead had a home at Santa Maria dell’Orazione e delle Morte, built by a charity, the Company of Good Death, that buried abandoned corpses or those of the poor.

The 16th-century church near the banks of the Tiber — convenient for fishing out corpses — has a forbidding facade decorated with laurel-wreathed skulls and a winged skeleton.

The effect is enhanced by moonlight — as it happens, Halloween falls two days before the full moon this year.

On a plaque near the entrance, a skeleton holds a banner reading "Hodie mihi cras tibi," the Latin for "My lot today, yours tomorrow."

In the crypt, the upper part of a skeleton with one arm raised as if to say "hello" is set in the wall above a holy water basin.

Only one burial chamber remains from a set that contained some 8,000 bodies until the late 19th century, when the graves were destroyed during the building of an embankment.

Here the decor includes a candelabra made from vertebrae.

For those on the threshold of eternity, there is the tiny but spooky Museum of the Souls of Purgatory, with purported messages from beyond the grave begging for help to get in.

The tortured souls seeking prayers to speed the process left imprints of burning hands or fingers on items such as prayer books and garments, collected by Father Victor Jouet in the late 19th century from around Europe.

Those with a taste for the grotesque on top of the morbid may be interested to know that a certain baroque church facing the Trevi Fountain is the custodian of the hearts and intestines of three centuries of popes, ending with those of Leone XIII, who died in 1903.

The gruesome tradition begun by Pope Sixtus V raised the theological conundrum of how the popes’ bodies would be recombined at the time of the General Resurrection, when people are to rise from the dead to face the Last Judgement.

Presumably, the popes’ organs will find their way across the Tiber to St Peter’s Basilica where the rest of their bodies lie buried.

Rome is well known for its catacombs, spooky underground cemeteries with thousands upon thousands of burial niches lining dark and narrow passageways, with the occasional sculpted mausoleum or stunning fresco — but no skeletons, at least not in those that are open to the public.

No matter, for skeletons, bodies and body parts abound elsewhere in Rome.

One of the first sights awaiting the visitor to St Peter’s is the embalmed body of Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), lying in an ornate glass case in the right aisle.

At Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, another glass case contains the body of Santa Wittoria, lying on her side, propped up on an elbow looking out.

There’s also the Blessed Annamaria Taigi in Trastevere’s San Crisogno; Saint Francesca Romana at Santa Maria Nuova in the Forum, and Saint Philip Neri — his decomposed face covered with a silver mask of his likeness — in the Chiesa Nuova, among others.

Body parts are also commonplace.

Saint Ignatius has a silver reliquary containing the arm of Saint Francis Xavier; San Silvestro in Capite claims to harbour a fragment of Saint John the Baptist’s decapitated head; Santa Croce in Gerusalemme boasts the finger of Saint "Doubting" Thomas.

Gina Doggett/AFP/Expatica