We sat in a cafe on on the other side of the street in the outskirts of Rome, drinking coffee and waiting for the church catacombs to open - trying to ignore the rising feeling of guilt about our morbid curiosity in going to rubber-neck a vast stack of neatly arranged corpses of long-dead monks. I noticed one of the brand new, three-wheeled Lambrettas coming down the road, and I spent a good few minutes trying to understand how the steering worked for the little wheels on the front - it looked so strange. Then we noticed the doors open, so we paid the bill and furtively crossed the road.
It is very cramped in this catacomb, as it amounts to a long corridor with with antechambers leading off one side. The extremely old man on the ticket desk had an extremely old microphone in front of him, and this was connected to a series of extremely old loudspeakers running down the corridor. At regular intervals, his hoarse voice (made even hoarser by the metallic speakers) would boom out, "NO PHOTO!", in a thick, Italian accent. There were many picture postcards of the merry scene at the desk, so I suppose he was only protecting his livelihood.
I also suppose that if you are going to save space in the cemetery by stripping the bodies of flesh and stacking them - one on top of the other - by the thousand, then you might as well do it as artistically as possible for the sake of those who come, en masse, to pay their respects in the future, and - boy - have they gone to town with the artistry down there in the bowels of the huge church.
The ceiling is adorned with massive, tiered chandeliers made entirely of the smaller of the bones, wired together in a grotesque parody of Rococo splendour. At your feet, the floor is paved with vertebrae laid out in intricate patterns and polished by the shoes of thousands of visitors. There are niches in the walls, housing skull upon skull, and religious pictures are constructed from every part of the human body, like an underworld version of the gilded, living church a few yards above your head.
Standing guard at regular intervals are the intact monks, and these have been allowed the dignity of being dressed in the brown habits they inhabited in life - now rotting and torn by hundreds of years of exposure to the desiccated atmosphere. They have also been allowed to retain some of their flesh and all of their skin, so that they caricature the postures that they adopted when alive. Drying them out must be easier than wiring them back together. "NO PHOTO!"
So exiting with a final grazi to the dour old man at the desk, we get back out into the sunshine of the bustling street. Suddenly we understand what is meant by la Dolce Vita.