This is why I took the fascinating Crypts, Bones and Catacombs tour with Walks of Italy, led by Mike, and explored a small part of what Rome hides beneath its present-day surface.
Touring underground Rome helps you delve into the life in the imperial age.
Our tour kicked off at the Capuchin Crypt in Via Veneto, where you can visit both the museum, displaying a beautiful Caravaggio painting and the crypt itself. The museum is a collection of objects and documents related to the Capuchin order, such as their vestments and paintings, and right after that, you’ll be directed towards the crypt.
Built close to Palazzo Barberini, beneath Santa Maria della Concezione church lies a small cemetery where the Capuchin friars used to bury their dead by creating a real art masterpiece with the bones of the exhumed monks. Each of the five small side chapels bears its own theme, be it Time or Justice, with the first displaying a rather creepy message: “What you are we were, what we are you will be”. Pretty straightforward.
Containing, or better decorated with, the bones of almost 4,000 friars who died between 1528 and 1870, the year when Rome was annexed to unified Italy and the new government started forbidding the amassing of the bones for hygienic reasons.
Apart from all types of bones (skulls, thighs, pelvises, tibias), the crypt houses also the mummified bodies of some of the friars with their own garments on, and the full skeleton of princess Barberini, who died as a child, displayed holding a scythe in her right hand and a scale in her left hand. The path is utterly fascinating and grotesque, so much that even the notorious Marquis De Sade felt intrigued by such a macabre composition.
After the crypt, we were ready to start our Rome catacombs tour
Less spooky but equally fascinating, our next stop was at Priscilla Catacombs (430, via Salaria), a maze of underground tunnels where Christians and martyrs were buried. Most spaces are now empty, but some are still closed and with their original bones inside. In these catacombs, there are also beautifully preserved frescoes and what is considered to be the very first image of the Virgin Mary.
For as much as we had seen so far, what proved to be the very highlight of the tour was our next and last stop, San Clemente basilica (95, via Labicana). Apart from the present-day basilica itself, beautiful needless to say, at about 4 meters below street level we visited the early Christian basilica, dating back to the 4th and the 5th centuries, while descending yet another staircase we arrived at about 10 meters below current street level to visit a 1st-century building turned into a Mithraeum in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the seat for a Persian pagan cult of the god Mithras. Not only can you see the Mithraeum, but also a Mithraic school, a building that is believed to be the Roman mint and a narrow passageway dating back to imperial times will unfold before your eyes.
Underground Rome is becoming a truly unhealthy fixation of mine, I’ve been visiting site after site, and soon I will be writing more articles on the fascinating sites that can be visited beneath the surface showing how life was in ancient times.
Here you can enjoy a fascinating video Walks of Italy made for the underground Rome tour:
I loved this tour with Walks of Italy, I recommend you follow them on Twitter at @walksofitaly and on Facebook at facebook.com/walkingtours!
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Now it’s also possible to do the underground tour of Rome at night with the exclusive after-hour access. Click here for latest prices and information on this fascinating night tour!