What a Piece of Work is Man
by Loren Rhoads
From the Via Veneto, home of La Dolce Vita, the yellow brick church didn’t look like much. Mason marched up the sidewalk past it, but something about the name Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione gave me pause. “I think we’re here,” I called after him.
One might expect that a centuries-old international tourist attraction like the Church of the Immaculate Conception would have a multilingual sign. Not until we climbed the first flight of stairs up to a landing large enough to be considered a patio did we see a small plaque with an arrow pointing toward the Coemeterium.
That caught me off guard. I hadn’t expected to see a cemetery, which I think of as bodies buried in dirt or, at least, bodies hidden behind stone. We had come to see skeletons. This Capuchin “cemetery” ranked with the Paris Catacombs and Kutna Hora’s Bone Chapel in the European triumvirate of weird assemblages made from human bones. The visit marked a pilgrimage for me.
The Capuchins separated from other Franciscan monastic orders in 1525 AD. The Capuchin monks wanted to exist closer to the way St. Francis of Assisi had lived at the turn of the thirteenth century. To that end, they wore sandals without socks and a simple brown tunic that had a hood to cover their heads when the weather turned bad. The name Capuchin derives from this hood, called a capuce.
Capuchin monks gathered in houses near woods or green spaces, where they could meditate. They planted orchards, in which their work served as prayer. They cared for the poor, especially the sick. They continue those ministrations today.
In 1631, the Capuchins of Rome moved from their friary near where the Trevi Fountain now stands to land donated by Cardinal Barberini near his palace. The monks exhumed and brought with them bones of 4000 of their brethren. These bones were piled under their new church of Santa Maria della Concezione, in six rooms connected by a sixty-meter corridor.
Sometime in the 1700s, arrangement of the bones began. Several theories exist about the identities of the decorators. Either they were French Capuchins who fled the Terror, or a notorious criminal who sought refuge with the monks and atoned for his crimes by positioning the bones, or a man of “ardent faith, who is almost joking with death,” as the brochure suggests. The Marquis de Sade, who visited in 1775, suspected that a German priest constructed the decor.
Just inside a thick wooden door to the “cemetery” sat a paper-thin old man in blue coveralls. People tossed money into his wicker basket as they passed his rickety wooden table. Since the Capuchin catacombs were our first destination in Italy, we only had large bills or very small ones, neither of which Mason considered an appropriate donation. He put in a couple of thousand lira notes and hoped that once everyone came in, he could make change out of the basket to add more.
Although I felt devastated to be forbidden to photograph the bones, nothing prevented note-taking. I tugged my notebook out of my backpack and jotted down descriptions of the crypts.
A dim hallway stretched ahead of us. Gray light flowed in through cloudy windows facing an alley alongside the church. Inside the “cemetery,” the cool air smelled of dust.
To the left of the hallway, a painting of Christ leading Lazarus from the tomb dominated the first room. Grasping his friend’s wrist, Christ tugged the revenant up from the ground. The former corpse was nearly naked: his shroud had slipped down beneath his buttocks. Turned away from the viewer toward his sisters and Christ, Lazarus’s expression was impossible to gauge. One can only imagine his thoughts after having spent four days in his grave. Lettered boldly in yellow at the bottom was the legend: “Lazare veni foras”: Lazarus, come forth.
The command made me uncomfortable as we stood outside a room crammed with bones. I had a sense that the monks had tried to use as many bones as possible here, in order to fit everyone in. Skulls formed two triangular arches, beneath which lay the dusty mummies of two monks in tattered brown robes. I wanted to climb the low fence, step across the holy dirt brought from Jerusalem, and take a feather duster to the cadavers. Mason pointed out that the Catholic Church probably had a sacred maid to dust the hallowed bones. Looked to me like she didn’t come around often enough.
The next room — the only one on the corridor free of bones — served as the cemetery’s mass chapel. The altarpiece depicted Mary seated on a cloud. A toddler Jesus stood on her knee, his nakedness shielded a mere wisp of white fabric. With the help of three monks in brown robes and an angel in gray, they raised souls out of the flames of purgatory. Only one of the dead seemed to be female: she was modestly wrapped in more fire than the others. A dead man gave her the eye: bold behavior at the feet of his savior.
Next door, the Crypt of the Skulls had been decorated with curved niches formed by arm and thighbones, supporting cornices of skulls. Inside each arch lay another dusty monk.
In the tympanum of the central niche hung an hourglass made of two tailbones tip to tip. The bottom coccyx looked darker in color, as if the sands of time had all run down. A double row of very straight bones, perhaps somebody’s forearms, drew the hourglass’s case. Outside the case, four shoulder blades symbolized wings. While the message was certainly intended to be serious, I smiled at the artwork. Time flies, as these bones testified. The bone art seemed lighthearted, though not at all disrespectful. Joking with Death, indeed.
Ornaments made of bones continued overhead. A garden of ribs suggested furrows of earth, where tulips bloomed into single vertebrae. A chain formed by jawbones came to a point, from which descended a lamp made from a sheaf of thighbones. Unfortunately, it wasn’t illuminated. I wondered if it had been wired for electricity. Baroque squares with in-turned corners decorated the ceiling. A double row of vertebrae sketched these on the wall. Inside blossomed ten-pointed stars made of tailbones.
Next came the Crypt of the Pelvises. Against the back wall rose an ornate canopy made from stacks of pelvic bones. The flat planes of the hipbones nested together like scales or roof tiles. A fringe of vertebrae dangled from the cupola.
Mummies of three monks leaned into the room, so stooped they seemed to be bowing. Each cradled a wooden cross in the sagging sleeves of his robe. From their cuffs protruded hands that looked like withered sticks wrapped in autumn leaves. More than anything that had once been human, the monks’ leathery faces looked like masks from some science fiction film. I suppose that two hundred and fifty years of standing around in the open air will do that to a person.
Reading up on them later, I learned that some of the mummies are unidentified. I’d assumed that anyone important enough to preserve “whole” would have been important enough to remember. The records must have been misplaced or destroyed.
My favorite decorations in the Crypt of the Pelvises were crosses suspended from the ceiling formed of thighbones. X-ed across them were shinbones. Something about the mobile aspect of these dangling three-dimensional crosses struck my fancy.
Though the fifth room was called the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thighbones, its predominant motif seemed to be skulls. Rows of leg bones interspersed with orderly stacks of skulls gave the overall impression of pinstripes. It was an incredibly beautiful arrangement — and functional, because it used up a great deal of bones. When you’ve got thousands of dead monks to jam into five rooms, you’ve got to get busy.
The room’s centerpiece caught my eye. Two severed arms, lopped off at the shoulders, had been affixed to the back wall. The arm on top was bare; the other wore a rough brown sleeve. Their skin had dried to the color of paper ash. Instead of curled into fists, bones protruded through their outstretched fingertips as if they wore Fagin’s gloves. The image shocked me more than anything else I’d seen. All the other bodies were either complete or defleshed. These amputated limbs looked inexplicably creepy.
(Much later, while researching the details of this essay, I discovered their significance. They represent the Franciscan coat of arms: the bare arm of Christ crossed over the robed arm of Francis of Assisi.)
The final room, called the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, was the most ornate. Complete skeletons of two children lounged over the altar made of pelvises on the back wall. The children reached up toward an adult skull. One child held a short spear like a fishing pole. The other balanced a winged hourglass atop his ribcage.
Another small skeleton lay flat against the ceiling. He held a staff formed of shinbones crested with a blade of scapulae. In his other hand swung a scale whose cups were skullcaps, dangling from chains strung of finger bones. A halo of foot bones and vertebrae encircled him. He was the least threatening death figure I’d ever seen. Even his grin looked wistful.
I turned to look back down the hall and saw an ornate clock above the arched doorway. Hand and finger bones formed its large Roman numerals. A breastbone served as its single hour hand. I read later that the clock symbolized that eternity had no beginning or end.
The ultimate sensation I took away from the Capuchin crypts? Joy. I could not interpret the lacy tracery of vertebrae and foot bones and ribs on the vaulted ceilings as anything other than ecstatic. What wonderful creatures we are, how marvelously made! Inside us hide complicated puzzles. Whether you believe in the cosmic clockmaker or rest your faith in evolution, you have to admit that humans — with joints that knit together, tailbones like doilies and shoulder blades like wings, the myriad complicated bones of hands and feet, the inquisitive orbits of our eyes, the cuplike hollows of our pelvises — are miraculous creatures.
Mason pointed out that most of the tourists in the dusty twilight corridor grinned. It was difficult not to get caught up in the joie de vivre of the decorators.
The sole English-language text Mason and I found inside the “cemetery” said that the monks made the place for three reasons: because the body doesn’t matter, to glorify God’s handiwork inside man, but especially because time is so short that one can’t wait to do good works.
We bought a stack of postcards from the little man in blue. Mason threw a larger bill into the collection plate. The caretaker beamed at us and disappeared under the church to find the last brochure they had in English. After he returned, Mason and I slipped out into the Roman sunshine to search out the Pantheon and the Mausoleum of Augustus. Life seemed rich and full. I was in Italy with the man I love and Rome was full of dead people. Carpe diem.