It’s not every day you see a chandelier handcrafted from a human skull and bones. S had passed through, without looking up to notice it. F’s attention ahead of me was on the shelves, door frames and arches – all made of human bones.
Some 3700 skeletons have been transformed into such functional objects in the Crypt of the Convento dei Cappuccini . Nobody is quite sure who did it. Some say it was a Viennese monk while others claim he was from northern Italy. There is general agreement that it was a monk who was at this monastery in the 18th century. It begins with a depiction of Jesus raising Lazarus, surrounded by body parts. I’m not sure this was what was meant by raising the dead, but there we go. A poignant quote on the wall says “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be”. Clearly this macabre art was intended to be viewed, reflecting quite a different attitude to death from other parts of Europe and North America. When an astonished Mark Twain visited the crypt, he accused the monk guiding him of thinking “with complacent vanity that his own skull would look well on top of the heap…”
We had started the day on a far less morbid note exploring the Centro Storico. Describing any district of a 3000 year old city as the historic centre, does seem arguable depending on which period of history you’re referring to. In Roman times, it was a district of barracks, temples and sports arenas outside the city centre. Talking of sporting arenas, our first port of call was the Piazza Navona. The Piazza was laid out in the shape of the first century stadium of Domitian, venue for Greek style athletic events and later chariot racing. According to our guidebook, some remains of the stadium can be seen just to the north of Piazza Navona. I’m slightly sceptical because we entered and left the Piazza several times from/to the north during our stay in Rome, not once noticing these ruins. Back in the square, a Christmas fayre was proceeding with merry-go-rounds, shooting galleries, stalls and a puppet show. The holiday season stays in full swing till after 6th January here. F was half tempted to try and win a cuddly toy bigger than our combined suitcases, but Michael Jordan would have struggled to reach the extraordinarily high hoop necessary to claim victory. We rested a while to take in the scene. There are 3 sets of fountains in the square, which is surrounded by grand buildings and palazzos. The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi is considered a Bernini masterpiece. It has 4 figures representing what were considered to be the great rivers of the world – the Ganges, Plate, Danube and Nile – strangely excluding the Wye and the Taff.
Leaving the Piazza Navona to the south, we found our way to another square, the Campo de Fiori. Instead of a fairground, this one contained a fruit and vegetable market, along with stalls selling other foodstuffs and clothes. We browsed, and after failing to find a jar of local honey (one of my foibles), took a break at a cafe overlooking the square.
The Piazza Farnese was comparatively vacant, with mere fountains to occupy its space. It is bordered by the Palazzo Farnese, built for Alessandro Farnese, who was later to become Pope Paul III. The top floor was designed by Michelangelo and the building now houses the French Embassy.
We walked onward through the narrow alleys of the Centro Storico until we came across the Pantheon. At 1900 years old, it is the oldest intact building in Rome. Built by the Emperor Hadrian as a temple, it is an incredible architectural feat having a 43 metre diameter dome with no visible arches or vaults to hold it up. A 9 metre diameter hole in the centre of the dome lets in shafts of light. Holes in the floor allow rainwater to escape. Now a church, the building is impressive on the outside and the inside. It houses the tomb of Raphael.
A girl can have too much sightseeing, so it was time to give F a break. We headed to that well known Italian fashion outlet called Zara. Other shops ensued as well as a bite to eat, before heading to the Cappuccini Monastery. No coffee seemed to be available, so we proceeded into the museum, which told us about the history of the Cappuccini order of monks. Pride of place was taken by Caravaggio’s depiction of St Francis in meditation. The fact that the painting shows St Francis holding a human skull is a clue to what comes later in the crypt. There can’t be many museums where a Caravaggio painting is upstaged by an unknown artist whose raw material was human bones.
We said goodbye to the 3700 people we’d just met and made our way to Trinita dei Monti. It was late afternoon and the church facade was bathed in a lovely soft winter light.
Feeling cold, F was wondering why we couldn’t return to our warm apartment and its wifi, but it was not time to leave yet. The real view was facing the other way, for we were standing at the top of the Spanish Steps. The whole of Rome was laid out before us and it produced a beautiful image as the sun went down. An ideal way to finish off the day.
Rome is the capital of Italy, about half way down its west coast
We walked everywhere described in this blog. For information on getting to and from the city, please visit my previous blog The Ruins of Ancient Rome