I remember the first time I saw the tiny chapel Cripta dei Cappuccini, sandwiched between Forum Travel agency and the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. I had to smile. There are some treasures that Rome doesn't flaunt. The typical tourist, determined to conquer St. Peter's, the Pantheon, Vatican, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Bocca della Verita in three days, would never know lay behind the plain, unimpressive facade of 27 Via Veneto.
The Cripta dei Cappuccini, or Cappuchin Crypt, houses the remains of exhumed Cappuchin monks. The concept of having bones in a chapel isn't unique - for centuries it was common to have a bone or lock of hair of a venerated person as a relic in a church. What distinguishes the Cappuchin crypt is the unabashed and flamboyant manner in which the bones are displayed.
The first time I visited the Cripta, I waited on the steps outside the doors next to a small group of cheerful Japanese tourists. At 3 p.m. and elderly Italian gentleman opened the outer doors and retreated behind a counter. He peered closely at us, and deftly identifying our nationalities, greeted the Italians in Italian, the Americans in English and the Japanese in Japanese, all the while tapping on the donation box.
We fished for change. The gentleman tilted his head and I was allowed to pass. After warning the Japanese in their native language not to take pictures, the group obediently removed cameras from around their necks and indicated that their video camera was turned off. Satisfied, the man nodded his head and waved his had permissively.
The crypt is located just under Santa Maria della Concezione, a church commissioned by Pope Urban XIII in 1626. The pope's brother, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, who was of the Capuchin order, in 1631 ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin monks exhumed and transferred from the friary Via dei Lucchesi to the crypt. The crypt now contains the remains of 4,000 monks buried between 1500-1870, during which time the Papal States permitted burial in and under churches. The underground crypt is divided into five chapels lit only by dim natural light seeping in through cracks, and small fluorescent lamps which cast strange shadows.
It takes many visitors several seconds to understand what they are looking at - hundreds of bones stacked in neat piles, adorning the walls, and forming intricate designs on the ceiling and arches Surprisingly, the air in the crypt is not stale, but fresh, and the bones seem to have no particular odor. There are signs in four languages forbidding smoking and photography, but there are no security guards, cameras or alarms in sight. Only a thin, waist-high iron gate prevents a three hundred year old skull from being snatched. There is nothing to prevent you from reaching up and giving the lamp a good swing. Yet I've never seen anyone try it. The bones command respect.
The bones are intended to convey a message of hope and resurrection but the sign hanging over a row of skulls reads: "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you will be." Still, the graphic display is not frightening; it simply makes visitors sad at the beauty and brevity of life. I leave with a sense of urgency, and need to get outside and do something. The Cimitero dei Cappuccini is a not-so-subtle, highly effective reminder that time passes quickly, even in the Eternal City.