Most tourists in Rome are content to visit the well known attractions such as the Colosseum and Vatican City. But there are other unique aspects to this ancient city - some high on the hills and others underground.
The Dark Rome Crypts & Catacombs Tour includes visits to the Capuchin Crypt, Roman Catacombs, and the Basilica of Saint Clemente. The Basilica and the underground catacombs provided us with additional understanding of the history of the city.
We met our tour guide Luciana at the Piazza Barberini. From there, private transportation is included. She explained that we should be aware that some of the sights might be repugnant to some and walked us to the nearby Santa Maria Della Concezione dei Cappucci, a church on the Via Veneto.
As we walked through the crypts, it became clear what she meant by possibly repugnant sites. Bones of friars of the Capuchin order of Rome who died between 1528 and 1870 were housed in six different crypts. The bones, which were arranged in geometric patterns by the friars themselves, were almost like pieces of a bizarre Lego set.
One crypt contained only skulls, while others contained thigh and pelvis bones. In one of the rooms we saw bones arranged in the shape of hearts. We were not allowed to take photos. Those shown here were provided to us by Dark Rome.
I was ready to move onto real life and was glad to continue to the another site. Next, our private bus took us to the Catacombs of San Callisto which also contained human remains, but certainly not as gruesome.
On our bus ride to the catacombs, Luciana explained that in ancient times bodies were not permitted to be buried within the walls of Rome. Pagans preferred to cremate their dead, but the early Christians required burial. Therefore catacombs were dug in the soft volcanic rock surrounding Rome specifically for this purpose.
We saw the coffin shaped containers but no remains were visible.We learned that the San Callisto Catacombs, located on the Apian Way, were started about 150 AD and contain the remains of more than 50 martyrs and 16 pontiffs. We walked down and then up a series of narrow steps and viewed many caskets. The wealthier families had their own private burial rooms.
We saw the tomb of St. Cecila, the popular patron saint of music and the statue which is a copy of the sculpture done by Stefano Maderno in 1599. She was venerated in this crypt for at least five centuries. Then, in 821, her relics were transferred to Trastevere in the basilica dedicated to her.
Our private bus then took us to the small, but historical Basilica of San Clemente. Lucianna explained that the basilica contained several layers of history. Irish Dominicans are caretakers of the present church which was built in 1100 AD.
She told us that at Basilica San Clemente the sound of running water drove one clergyman to dig through the floor tiles. What he discovered was the “wedding cake” – layers of history piled on top of each other so that visitors today climb down to a 4th century church, the 2nd century remains of a Mithraic temple and finally, an incredibly preserved 1st century Roman street. With ruins reaching 57 feet deep, one wonders what lies beneath the rest of Rome.
The historical aspects of the site were discovered in the 1860’s. The church contains four levels of history and Luciana led us through them. At the bottom, we were able to view the well preserved remains of a Roman street from the times of Julius Caesar. Some archeologists believe that coins were minted in one of the buildings.
A room from 200 AD was believed to be the sanctuary for members of the Cult of Mithras. Many members of this cult were probably gladiators who would be fighting in the nearby Colosseum.
The next layer contains the remains of a church built in the 4th century as Christianity became recognized in the Roman Empire. The church was well known in the Christian world and was actually the scene of several councils and papal elections.
The present church was built in the 1100’s and contains numerous artifacts and frescoes.
Our tour ended with the bus ride back to Piazza Barberini during which Luciana filled us in on many of the tourist sights we were passing.
This was one of the most unique tours we've ever experienced. It was in some ways unsettling thinking of the monks assembling the bones in patterns. It is a part of history that took us by surprise, and we are glad that Dark Rome Tours has put together this fascinating journey back to some lesser known history.
The Basilica of Saint Clemente brought attention to the fact that so much history is hidden under the surface of what we know. The catacombs were another unique part of the past.
Dark Rome Tours, one of the largest tour operators in Italy, provided us with knowledgeable guides, shorter lines than if we had done this on our own, and small groups to facilitate the question and answer process during the tours. We continue to be appreciative of the high quality of the Dark Rome Tours.
(See Roman Colosseum Tour for our tour of the Roman Colosseum.)
For information and to book this tour or learn more about Dark Rome's Tours in Italy and other countries, contact Dark Rome Tours.