Top 10 Places to Dead Bodies & Bones for Free in Rome

By: Sarah Gildea

The Capuchin Cript used to be the #1 place to go for all things creepy - bones of long dead religious, organized in various piles - skulls over here, hip bones over there, etc.
However, in 2013 they added several rooms on the history of the Capuchin order, including paintings by unknown artists, old books and an old guy with beard preaching at you from a tv ... all just one huge obstacle to the bone rooms - and, they are charging a whopping €6 per person for the added delay.

Why pay more, when Rome has several creepy corners with which to satisfy your craving for all things ... dead ... for free.

Starting with least to most exciting ...

#10. Basilica San Lorenzo Fuori della Mura (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls)

This is a little distant from the center just to see a corpse on display, and for this reason is at #10. In the lower crypt of the church one will find nicely laid out the holy, bodily remains of Pope Pius IX. Unfortunately, Pius did not get a pius funeral - in fact, there was a fight to dump his body into the Tiber river! The church itself is very historical, holding also the relic of the marble slab that held the body of St. Lawrence after his martyrdom - more on him, later. And also, an exploded American bombshell from WWII. And also, a catacomb, but presently unaccessible.

#9. Basilica Saint Chrysogonus.

Over in Trastevere (take tram 8 from Largo Argentina), first chapel on the right as you enter, a room full of bones. 'Nuff said. Gets a '0' for excitement value, unless you're actually looking for holiness value - then it ranks #1. Also, if you are into speleology, they have the original 4th century ruins available for a tour underneath the present church.

#8. Church of San Francesco a Ripa

Also ranking a low grade mainly for distance from the center, continue to the next stop on tram 8 to via San Francesco a Ripa, then walk down to this church. There you will find not only St. Charles of Sezze (his bones are in a manikin), but also the early martyr Saint Leontiae (also in a manikin).

If the sacristan isn't busy ask him (in your best Italian) to see the museum. Besides more old bones in old reliquaries, you will also get to see a magnificent altar made of walnut, done by a Franciscan in the 17th century. The sacristan will at some point go over to the right side and start turning a huge crank - this turns the paintings of saints in the altar around to reveal about 100 tiny fragments of Franciscan saints bones in little round "theca's". That contraption was added in 1708. Beautiful and cool at the same time. Offer the sacristan a few euro for his time, even if he tells you St. Francis was really quite short! He seems to think some holes in the wall were for the original ceiling or floor ...

#7. Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin

More famous for the 'Mouth of Truth' (Bocca della Verità) in the church are the bones of St. Valentine - yes, our lover of all things February 14ish - showing that even true love dies. Everything, in fact, dies. Your dreams, too [insert photo of Grumpy Cat]. Church hours are 9:30 to 5:50pm - a little unusual - most are open until 7 or 8pm.

#6. Church of Saint Agnes

At first glance, the skull you see might appear to be more the size of a pet cat than a 14 year old martyr girl - but - take a closer look. The skull is actually in parts, with the upper cranium having been pressed down into the lower cranium. You can find this little treasure in a room off to the left of the main altar. And, while you're there, you can also admire the Häagen-Dazs tutti frutti swirl painting in the dome, painted by the artist Ciro Ferri.

#5. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

So named because someone thought the church was built over a temple to the goddess Minerva (it's not), it is the best example of a Gothic church in Rome (it's a poor example of a Gothic church - Romans can't do Gothic).
However, it is a very large church where it is possible to hide all kinds of artistic as well as ghoulish goodies. In this church they have a sculpture by Michelangelo and the tomb of Fra Angelico, which was sculpted by Donatello. A side chapel or two back down from him, you will find St. Vittoria. At first, you won't see much, just a ghostly white blur - but, take a closer look. Nice set of teeth, she had. The inscription says something like, "Martyrdom - So Easy, Even A Girl Can Do It."

And, if that's not scary enough, you will perhaps see a small passport sized photo of someone that was placed in the coffin - that could be the photo of Emanuela Orlandi, a girl who was kidnapped in Rome in 1983. Her father was a banker for Vatican City. She has never been found.

#4. Santa Maria in Vittoria

A drop-dead gorgeous Baroque church famous for Bernini's sculpture of the Extacy of St. Teresa of Avila. Stay on the right side as you enter, and you can get a good view of that statue, and stand right next to an early martyr in a manikin - St. Victor. In the right corner of this glass coffin, you can see a glass container that would contain his blood. Dried clots of dust of blood, that is. More importantly, however - keep walking towards the sacristy. There is hidden along that corridor on the left side under a plastic sheet, yet another glass case with 2 heads and bones of other early martyrs (Sts. Fortunatis & Constanris), dressed in flowers and grinning at you. Bring a small flashlight for this one (I used the iPhone flashlight), and in this case, the only thing separating you from the bones is the glass of the coffin. Right up front and personal is your view, here.

This church also offers a fine collection of another types of spirit - Grappa and Limoncello made by the Carmelite monastery, as well as honey, sweets and other products made of natural things. Should probably be rated higher for that alone.

#3 - The Gesù

Another serious wonder of Baroque art and architecture, here you will find the hand of St. Francis Xavier in the right transcept (he personally baptised 45,000 people - he gets a hand for that), as well as piles of Jesuit bones and skulls to the right of the left nave.
On another side altar one can see a gold box with the depiction of an arm on the outside. Inside the box is the arm of St. Andrew Bobola, whose martyrdom was so gruesome in the 1600's, that his death could compete with any horror movie out there today. Look him up - I dare you. His is recorded as the most gruesome martyrdom in the history of the Church, up until that time.
Oh - and don't forget to look at the ceiling while you're here ...

#2. Chapel to St. Anne, Vatican City

The only reason this chapel rates so high is because:

a. The relic is only on display only 1 week out of the year (the week that contains August 4th);
b. It's one incredible relic - This is the head of St. Lawrence. The skin is still attached.
This chapel also gets a '10' for coolness factor: You get to walk into Vatican City, and when a Swiss guard tries to stop you - motion triumphantly towards this chapel, and he steps aside. This is the parish church for Vatican City (but accessible to the general public) and they put the head relic of St. Lawrence on display during the anniversary week of his martyrdom. This is the saint mentioned in #10 who was burned alive in the year 258 with the famous last words, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side". I did not make that up.

#1 - St. Peters' Basilica

There seems to be an unwritten rule that if you're doing a list of anything in Rome that is 'church-like', St. Peters' has to be #1.
The remains of three popes: Pius X, Innocent XI, Giovanni XXIII and one Eastern Patriarch. Giovanni hasn't decomposed, which is, well - miraculous - but the Church isn't calling him a miracle yet. What you see there is the skin, but it's covered with a layer of wax. He received a normal embalming for 1963, but remember, that's not supposed to keep you around forever ... The Church is waiting around, letting him hang out, to see what happens with the body ...

While you are scurrying around these holy haunts getting your giggle on, remember that these are holy sites - many times, people are in these areas praying or, there is a religious service taking place.

Photos are permitted - but please - turn that flash OFF. And, behave yourself in general. Remember, people die in crowds ...

One last word - remember this from the Capuchin crypt?

"What you are now, we once were.
What we are now, you will be."

No. Actually, it should be,

"What we are now - you will never be this cool."
And, what you are now - we were much cooler then, too."

About the author

Expat Blog ListingSarah Gildea is an American expat living in Italy. Blog description: I came to Rome completely ignorant of art and culture. Through many years of study and experience I have learned much, and now seek to share this experience with others. 'La dolce vita' doesn't mean to be lazy, but to learn and appreciate.
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Contest Comments » There are 4 comments

Suzie wrote 5 years ago:

Hi Sarah, what an unusial guide to Rome! It was fun reading your entry. Saluti from a fellow "expat" in Calabria, Suzie

Carole Jean wrote 5 years ago:

Whoever thought talking about the dead - and their bones. And the containers for their bones could be so darn funny. I love this blog! i want to go to Italy and see for myself now. This blogger is good!

Jennifer wrote 5 years ago:

This is an interesting idea! I will be sure to check some of these out.

Sarah wrote 5 years ago:

I love this! Seeking out the unusual, the unique - there are so many levels to the city of Rome!

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