Lou and the Skeletons

It’s time for another story where Lou plays a pivotal role.  One of the important things to know about him is that he hates large towns in general, and when he’s in Italy, he thinks anything over 4,000 people falls in the “large” category.  So needless to say, that would include Rome.

When we first talked of doing the winter scouting trip for our biking friends’ vacation, I wanted to take advantage of being in Italy for the first time without a bike by spending some time in Rome.  Unlike most people who cover The Eternal City on their very first visit, I had been in the country 10 times without managing to see anything except the Rome airport, which, let’s face it, is not quite in the same “must see” category as the Coliseum and all of the other tourist sights that I’d read about since childhood.  So Lou “generously” allowed me 2 days to pack in whatever I could.

Now just because he hates large cities doesn’t mean he’ll drag his feet while in one – especially not in Italy.  He wants everyone to see everything that’s possible to see — even if you only have an hour there.  So to him, 2 days really was generous.

Unfortunately, the day before we left, I got what I still consider to be THE worst cold I’ve ever had.  Breathing was almost impossible, and all I wanted to do when I arrived in Rome was to check into my hotel room, lie down in a fetal position and pray for an early death.

But Lou would have none of that.  He gave me 20 minutes to get settled and then came knocking on my door, insisting we had to hit the cobble stone pavements.  I will spare you, at this time, the story of my Forced Death March through the sites of Rome, because that day really deserves to be written about on its own. Today I want to talk about Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

Lou was dragging me down the Via Veneto, when he asked if I liked the macabre.  He obviously had forgotten that he was talking to someone who had hiked all over Siena in search of St. Catherine’s head and thumb — and this being Italy, I mean her actual head and actual thumb – both of which, I must tell you, have not been treated kindly by Father Time.

But that’s how we ended up in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.  Under the church is an ossuary, which is a place for keeping bones. However, in this particular case, the space turns out to be more like a somewhat ghoulish art gallery, since the bones of the departed Capuchin brothers are arranged as decorative elements, filling a series of rooms.

You just can’t imagine what a nice pattern 200 jawbones can make when nailed to the beams in the ceiling.  And did you know that if you arrange pelvic bones in just the right pattern, they will look like the petals of a large flower?  Each room had its own display in a prominent place – perhaps in an unoccupied corner or in a large basket hanging on the wall — of a “bouquet” of skulls. Don’t ask about dusting – and I don’t even want to think about what happened to all the internal organs that used to fit nicely around these bones!!!  Even through my jetlagged, cold-induced delirium, I knew that Lou had indeed introduced me to a fabulous place!!

As I understand it, the Capuchin friars had lived somewhere else in Rome starting in 1528.  In 1631 they decided to move to this particular address and it was suggested that they bring along the bones of their departed so that past and future friars could stay together throughout eternity.  Between you and me – I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this suggestion was made by their former landlord….though on their webpage, they say it was the Pope’s Capuchin brother who suggested it.  Wonder if he was also their former landlord…..  At any rate, what we see now is the remains of 4,000 friars who died from 1528 to 1870.

The remains of 4,000 friars adorn the ossuary ...

See how decorative skulls can be when you put a little time into their artistic placement?

However, just because they were moving all those bones from 1 place to another doesn’t explain how they came up with the idea to make decorations out of them rather than just giving them the usual respectful burial.  Were the friars sitting around one night, fretting about the high cost of funerals, what with the inflation in land prices, and someone – I’m sure jokingly – suggested that they cut up the bodies of their dead brethren, separate their bones into piles (“all shin bones over by the table, all rib cages over here by the green chair”), and then nail them to the walls in attractive design patterns?????!!!!  I’m betting that more than just a little sacramental wine had been consumed that night before they came up with this particular solution to their over-abundance of bones problem!!! Normally I really hate meetings, but I have to admit – that was one meeting I’m sorry to have missed!!!

I have since recommended Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini to everyone I know who’s planning to spend any time at all in Rome.  Very few have taken advantage of my advice.  I dragged my nephew Ben there when he was 15, and while he didn’t say it was great, he hasn’t seemed to suffer any residual ill effects from his visit.  The only people who came close to me in their admiration for it were my friends Nancy and Kathy.  Remember them from the bat episode?  Hmmmm…..bats, bones…..  Could it be a coincidence?  The next time we get together, if we’re standing around the stove and we start chanting:  “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble”, it better be over a pot of pasta water!

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3 thoughts on “Lou and the Skeletons

  1. Candace and Frank first brought me there many years ago. Such a strange and spooky place . . . but I keep going back. Since that first visit, I’ve brought everyone I’ve been in Rome with to see it. I would get varying reactions from disgust and horror to fascination and delight. It’s one of those places you have to see to believe!

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