JOAN LEWIS in Rome describes one of the most macabre sights in all Italy — the Church of the Immaculate Conception where the bones of 4,000 religious have been disinterred and form the design of the chapel and corridors. MOST visitors to Rome, whether their sojourn is brief or prolonged. set aside several hours to relax over a coffee or aperitif in One of the famed cafes lining the city's elegant Via Vittoria Veneto
While most might have spent the day touring Rome's ruins, museums. basilicas and the Vatican, few realise that just around the corner from where they are sipping their evening brandy is one of the most unusual and macabre sights of not only Rome but all Italy.
At Via Veneto 27, just several feet from its junction with Piazza Barberini, is the Church of the Immaculate Conception, run now, as in the early seventeenth century when it was built, by the Capuchin friars.
This lovely church, which houses several splendid works of art. in particular Guido Reni's St Michael Tramping on the Devil (first chapel on the right) was designed by Casoni and built for Pope Urban VII I's older brother, Cardinal Antonio Barberini. a Capuchin friar.
Unlike the other luxury-loving members of his family, Cardinal Barberini was a simple man whose tombstone, set into the pavement in front of the main altar, reads "here lies dust, ashes, and nothing."
A crypt under the main church, became, with time, the burial place of all Capuchin monks in Rome. However, as time passed, the crypt, whose entrance is to the right of the outside staircase leading to the main door of the church, became too small to house the bodies of the monks buried there, the bodies were disinterred and the remaining bones now line the walls and ceilings of the six vaulted chapels in an almost baroque design.
All told, the bones of 4,000 religious who died between 1528 and 1870 form the macabre design of the 40-metre long corridor and the six chapel-like compartments to the left of the corridor. Only one chapel has a pavement floor, the rest being filled with ground brought from Jerusalem by Pope Urban VIII.
The crypt's walls. niches. vaulted ceilings and arches are lined with skeletons, some integral, others disjointed to form part of the unique designs of the Capuchin cemetery.
Tibia, femur, ulna, pectoral and pelvic bones have been disconnected to form. according to their size, different parts of the chapels. The larger bones — along with the skulls — have been used to create niches where entire skeletons, said to be the more worthy among the friars, rest in an incumbent or standing position, fully clothed in the long cowled robes of the Capuchin friars.
Smaller bones. those of the hands, feet and arms, were used to create astonishingly delicate designs along the chapel and corridor ceilings. The chandeliers along the main corridor are also made entirely of skeletal bones.
. Two young princes and one princess of the Barberini family are buried alongside the monks in the sixth compartment. Prince Matte° Orsini, clothed in the Capuchin habit, is buried in the only chapel to have an altar; in front of the altar is an urn containing the ashes of a patriarch of Jerusalem.
In the same chapel. in a tomb in the centre, lie the bodies of papal Zouaves who died defending Porta Pia in 1870. Zouaves, a derivative of the Algerian tribal name Zouaoua, was the name given to soldiers in certain infantry regiments of the French army.
First organised in 1830, the Zouaves fought valiantly in French wars and gained renown fighting with the Free French forces in North Africa during World War II. Napoleon Ill organised the Papal Zouaves in 1860 to protect the papal states before the unification of Italy. This particular regiment was disbanded one year after the unification in 1871.
It was not known who first created the crypt in the gruesome form in which we know it today. Tradition says that it was the Capuchin friars themselves under the direction of a French monk. Whatever the effect on the visitor, the Capuchin cemetery is surely one of the most unusual burial grounds in the world and the artistic quality of this singular work does appear to reduce the morbid atmosphere.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception had a second claim to fame more than a century ago.
The Roman populace attributed the Capuellin friars with a certain ability to foretell the winning numbers of the national lottery. One in particular. Friar Pacifico, was said to have exceptional talents in this field and the stream of "penitents" coming to talk to the friars in the confessional was so great that .finally Pope Gregory XVI had to intervene to put an end to the gambling tips.
Friar Pacifico, banished from Rome and from his fortune telling, made a last public appearance before a crowd assembled in Piazza del Popolo where, with great acumen and verbal acrobatics, he managed to insert into his speech the five winning numbers of the next lottery before bidding farewell to Rome.