If you find yourself near the Piazza Barberini in Rome, take a stroll along the Via Veneto until you reach the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. This church – often referred to as the Capuchin Crypt, Rome, or more simply the Bone Chapel – dates back to 1626 and is an interesting enough place to visit in itself. It features beautiful oil paintings as altarpieces, and also boasts the tombs of not one but two saints: Felix of Cantalice and Crispin of Viterbo.
But underneath the church itself is where you’ll find the most fascinating part: the Capuchin Crypt. This has got to be one of the most unique sights in Rome. It’s also one of the most gruesome places to visit in the Italian capital. That’s because here you will find bones – many, many bones.
In this post, I will tell you everything you should know about the Capuchin Crypt, Rome, and share some tips for visiting.
What Is The Capuchin Crypt Of Rome?
Rome’s Capuchin Crypt is an ossuary, which is literally a place to gather bones (hence it’s nickname, Bone Chapel). Rather than being a macabre place created simply for the sake of displaying skulls and bones, it’s a memento mori – a reminder of the brief passage of time that humans have on earth. It’s not supposed to be depressing at all, more like a celebration of life.
The bones here – taken from over 3,700 bodies of former Capuchin friars – are suitably arranged in ornate patterns across various rooms.
But how did the bones find their way here?
It was in 1631 that the Capuchin friars first arrived at the church, moving from their old monastery. With them they brought the remains of the deceased friars – this amounted to 300 cartloads! It was Friar Michael of Bergamo that arranged the bones in the burial crypt as you see them today. The soil in the crypt came all the way from Jerusalem, on the orders of Pope Urban VIII (whose brother was a monk in the Capuchin order).
Over the subsequent centuries, friars died and were buried in the holy soil of the crypt. The bodies that had been buried the longest were exhumed in order to make way for the newly deceased. On average, the bodies spend around 30 years decomposing first before being exhumed and used in the ossuary.
The Capuchin Crypt, Rome, has long attracted curious tourists. Famous visitors include Marquis de Sade, who visited in 1775, and American Gothic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who described the crypt in his novel The Marble Faun. Mark Twain also described the bone structures of the Capuchin Crypt in his seminal 1869 travel book The Innocents Abroad.
Twain wrote about his experiences talking with one of the monks here (with more than just a bit of humor):
I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.Mark Twain
Strangely enough, from 1851 to 1852, women were not permitted to enter the crypt. Don’t worry though: today, everyone is welcome.
Why Visit The Capuchin Crypt, Rome?
In Rome there are churches and cathedrals everywhere. I mean, really you cannot walk far without seeing something ancient or at least hundreds of years old that relates to Roman religion or the Catholic faith.
This is the home of Saint Peter’s Basilica, after all, and the spiritual headquarters of Catholics around the world.
With all these churches, chapels, cathedrals, and basilicas, it can be hard to decide where best to spend your time (and your euros). But the Capuchin Crypt offers a unique perspective into Catholicism, especially relating to the Capuchin order. There aren’t many churches in Rome like it!
Continue reading for what to expect when visiting the Capuchin Crypt, Rome.
Rooms of the crypt
There are six rooms in total that make up the Capuchin Crypts. Five of these feature particularly interesting displays of human bones.
The name of each room is pretty self-explanatory, such as the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, and the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. These rooms feature astounding artistic displays, with arches and ceiling vaults covered in bones and walls studded in a mosaic of skulls.
As for the remaining rooms, here is an overview of some of what you can see at the Capuchin Crypt.
Crypt of the Resurrection
Here in the aptly named Crypt of Resurrection you will find a picture of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The painting itself is eerily framed using bones.
The Mass Chapel
As the title indicates, the mass chapel is the part of the crypt used to celebrate mass. It doesn’t actually contain any bones, but it’s still an interesting spot. In the altar you will see a depiction of Jesus and Mary encouraging three saints – Felix of Cantalice, Francis of Assisi, and Anthony of Padua – to free their souls from Purgatory.
Here you may also see a plaque with the letters “DOM” inscribed on it. This is actually an acronym for the Latin: Deo Optimo Maximo (“to the best and greatest God”). Interestingly, DOM is a term that was first used to celebrate the Roman god Jupiter but was later taken into use by Christians.
There may not be any bones on display in the Mass Chapel, but the plaque itself is a macabre feature. It is believed to contain the heart of Maria Felice Peretti, the grand niece of Pope Sixtus V, who was a supporter of the Capuchin order.
Crypt of the Three Skeletons
Possibly the most famous room in the Capuchin Crypt, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons is where you will find the somewhat iconic slogan: “What you are now, we used to be; What we are now, you will be.”
This sits above a group of skeletons and is actually written in five languages – just to make sure the memento mori message really gets out there. Imagery abounds in this crypt: one of the skeletons holds a scythe in one hand, and scales in the other (related to the balance of good and evil deeds done in one’s life).
Capuchin Crypt Museum
The visit to the crypt actually begins at the Capuchin Crypt Museum. Here you can learn more about the Capuchin order and their history, as well as that of the crypt (plus its symbolism). Make sure to keep on the lookout for a work by Caravaggio, which depicts Saint Francis.
Practical Guide To Visiting The Capuchin Crypt, Rome
How to get to the Capuchin Crypt
You’ll find the Capuchin Crypt at Via Vittorio Veneto 27. As mentioned earlier, it’s situated near to the Piazza Barberini. You can get there by getting off at the metro stop Barberini (Line A).
Capuchin Crypt opening hours
The opening hours of the Capuchin Crypt are from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, every day. It’s closed on public holidays.
Capuchin Crypt Rome Tickets
Regular tickets cost €8.50 Euros. Entry is €5 Euros for children under 18 years and those aged 65 and over. If you’d like an audio guide to accompany your visit, they cost €5 Euros.
Guided tours of the Capuchin Crypt are quite in depth. Lasting around one hour, your guide will take you through the museum and then the crypts, offering up further insight and information on the Capuchin order, as well as the meaning of the arrangements of the bones within. It’s possible to book your guide in advance; English-speaking guides are available, too.
Guided tours cost €80 Euros for tours in English, French and Spanish bought directly at the site (this must be booked at least two weeks in advance). However, various third party resellers offer tours that are much cheaper.
For a guided tour that also goes to the Catacombs and to Appia Antica and the Parco degli Acquedotti, click here.
Photography inside the Bone Chapel
You cannot take photos inside the Bone Chapel. You’ll just have to commit the amazing sights you see beneath the chapel to memory.