Saturday, 29 May 2010


I had started to do a simplified version of this post a couple of nights ago, then remembered the bad reaction I received from my work-mates when I sent them a postcard of these catacombs, with the greeting, "Wish you were here" on the reverse. So to avoid any misunderstanding, I pulled it, but now here it is again in a different form.

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.


  1. Sounds absurdly, grotesquely, surreal.

  2. Yes it is, Jacqueline. Well worth a visit if you're there, and there are many places to choose from around Italy.

  3. I visited that place with its signs "That to which you are now, we once were" And, "That to which we are now, YOU shall be!". And I remember when I had attempted to take a photo, one of those grotesque skeletons suddenly grew flesh and with a gruff voice and Italian accent grabbed me and threw me out into the street! Bloody scary!

  4. I own a small crucifix (yes, I do), with a back that comes off to reveal a miniscule amount of earth from those same catacombs. I guess the earth is supposed to contain saintly bone-dust, and as such can perform magic! I'm still waiting.

  5. I believe you, McCabeandco. Those quotes were used widely on roadside memorials to ancient Romans - momento mori - I love 'em. Don't be so ungrateful, Cro! You may not have a beautiful house, a beautiful wife and beautiful grandchildren if it were not for that scrap of earth...

  6. ... and also I noticed that when I left the catacomb, my shoes had been miraculously re soled...