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Darkest Places in Rome: Murders, Ghosts, Mysteries (Part 1)

Updated on March 2, 2018
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Lana is an aspiring travel writer with a serious case of shutterbug and an insatiable curiosity about the world.

Perpetually overflowing with sounds, sights and smells of the eternal and the ephemeral, Rome may be the most fascinating city in the world. But some of that aged aesthetic splendor has a dark side.

"Why remember the bad times?" you might ask. Because they are meant to be the reminders that no matter how advanced we get, the true measure of culture is how we treat our damned, destitute and unwanted.

I invite you to take this decisively dark tour of Rome not out of morbid curiosity, but out of appreciation for how far we've come, as people, ethically and intellectually, so we can leave the darkness in the past.

1. Castel Sant'Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel)

Ponte Sant'Angelo, the bridge in front of the Castel Sant'Angelo, is one of the most notorious execution sites in Rome.
Ponte Sant'Angelo, the bridge in front of the Castel Sant'Angelo, is one of the most notorious execution sites in Rome. | Source

Castel Sant'Angelo is one of the most recognizable Roman landmarks. It was built as the mausoleum to Emperor Hadrian in 139 AD and later became a fortress, a papal residence, and finally, a military prison.

It is also a notorious execution site. Many were decapitated here, others died in dark cold prison cells from hunger, thirst or after being tortured.

Announced by the Bell of Mercy (Campana della Misericordia), the executions were carried out in the castle courtyards or out on the bridge, and the severed heads were then hung for days along the bridge.

Typically only people of lower class were executed - wealthy noblemen could buy their life and freedom. One rare exception was the 1599 execution of the prominent Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, sons Giacomo, Bernardo, and daughter Beatrice.

Beatrice Cenci is a legendary figure in Italy, regarded as a symbol of uncorrupted innocence and courage. Her story - disputed by the skeptics and cherished by the romantics - reflects humanity's common wish for the good to triumph over evil, even if posthumously.

The legend has it that Beatrice's father was a domestic despot with a violent temper. His favorite pastime was getting drunk and beating up his family. The authorities were alerted but they always looked the other way or slapped him on the wrist with fines. Accused of several crimes but never brought to justice (thanks to his standing and wealth), he was feared and despised by everyone, but Beatrice had another reason to be apprehensive of her father: allegedly, she was being sexually abused since she was a child. In other accounts, she was on the verge of being a victim of incest. So the plot was conceived to get rid of him, for good, and on September 9, 1598 the head of the Cenci clan turns up dead.

Portrait of Beatrice Cenci by Guido Reni
Portrait of Beatrice Cenci by Guido Reni | Source

Beatrice and others were immediately arrested and tortured until the confessions were extracted from them. 22-year-old Beatrice resisted the torture for as long as she could, until she was confronted with the confessions of her family.

Convicted of patricide, Beatrice and the rest of the Cenci family were executed on the bridge, in front of the entrance to the Castle, except for the youngest son, Bernardo, who was forced to watch his entire family die before being castrated.

It is said that the crowd was so shocked and disturbed by the beheading of young Beatrice, a known philanthropist and a noble woman, that Pope Clemente XIII, presiding over the ceremony, decided to "mercifully" spare Bernardo's life. Poor boy died the same day from bleeding.

His sister Beatrice, however, lives on in the imagination of people - from writers and painters like Shelley and Guido Reni to ordinary Roman citizens who believe that Beatrice's ghost still haunts the bridge, appearing every year on September 11, the anniversary of her last day on Earth, with her severed head in her hands.

Directions: Lungotevere Castello, 50, 00186 Roma. Metro Line A to "Ottaviano" (Vatican), you'll find it from there - it's impossible to miss; or buses 40 Express or 64 (leaving from Termini and Piazza Venezia).

Execution of Beatrice Cenci.
Execution of Beatrice Cenci. | Source

2. Campo de' Fiori

Campo de' Fiori ("the field of flowers") is a small piazza not far from Castel Sant'Angelo that functions as an open-air market during the day, and an entertainment central at night.

Campo de' Fiori is always buzzing with life: the street vendors selling fresh produce, flowers and ubiquitous Roman souvenirs (plastic Colosseums, soccer t-shirts, Pieta mouse pads), tabaccherias bursting with brightly packaged news and cigarettes, outdoor cafe-bars, restaurants and clubs crowded by vigorously socializing young people.

A hooded silhouette in the center of the piazza is the statue of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican philosopher and one of the countless victims of the Catholic Inquisition.

On a cold February morning of 1600, after rejecting the last offer to recant and turning away from the crucifix, he was gagged, stripped naked and burnt at the stake on the exact same spot where his statue now stands.

It was a severe punishment even for Medieval times, reserved only for the most outrageous heretics.

Bruno's philosophy was Hermeticism, which is a belief in the endlessly evolving Universe with an infinity of worlds and life forms. It sounds harmless now, but XV century Europe was uneasy about creative interpretations of the Bible. Hermeticism was thought to be a radical and dangerous heresy because it made the Catholic Church with its massive repression apparatus look pompous and obsolete. Bruno wrote,

"There is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call void: in it are innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow, this space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, sense-perception nor nature assign to it a limit."

But the Church wouldn't have it. Even 400 years later, while admitting that it was an "atrocious death", the Catholic Church maintains that they did "everything possible to save his life." Giordano Bruno's death was at his own hands, they say. He refused to repent, like Galileo did, so he must have had a death wish. It's the same logic that says rape victims were asking for it if they dressed or behaved provocatively.

Impervious to corruption and time, Bruno still stands alone above the gullible crowds of onlookers. His life may be forgotten, but his death still hovers over Rome's Campo de' Fiori.

Directions: there's no metro station in immediate proximity to Campo de' Fiori, but buses 40 Express or 64 to Largo Argentina will get you there.

The Statue of Giordano Bruno was erected in the exact place of his execution in 1600.
The Statue of Giordano Bruno was erected in the exact place of his execution in 1600. | Source

3. Tarpeian Rock

The south-east corner of the Capitoline hill, near the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, is yet another ancient execution spot from which traitors and murderers were thrown down and dragged into the Tiber.

As the tale goes, after the infamous abduction of the Sabine women by the Romans in the 8 century BC, the resulting war between Rome and the Sabines caused the death of Tarpeia - a daughter of a prominent Roman commander.

The accounts of her death differ: in one version she died tricking the Sabines into surrendering. In another, she betrayed her own people for gold. The legend has it that even though it was to their advantage, the Sabines were so repulsed by such an outrageous act of treachery that they crushed her with their shields.

Tarpeia was buried on the hill. When Romans regained control of the Capitoline hill, they made it an execution place for traitors - making it clear which version they believed more.

Directions: the closest identifiable landmark, the ruins of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, is a part of the Capitoline Museums on the Capitoline Hill. Metro line B to "Colosseo"; or buses 40 Express, 62 or 170 to Piazza Venezia, and a short walk from there.

"The Rape of the Sabine Women" by Giambologna
"The Rape of the Sabine Women" by Giambologna

4. The Colosseum

Crème de la crème of the Roman monuments and the largest amphitheater in the world, Colosseum is simply spectacular. It is also a place where over 400,000 people lost their lives.

Colosseum was built in 80 AD under Emperor Vespasian, and later finished by his son Titus. It seated about 50 thousand people and had staged sea battles when the whole arena was flooded, contests between gladiators, between people and animals, and between animals.

On just one of the many similar occasions, 5,000 wild animals were killed at a festival that lasted for a 100 days. Another festival wiped out 70 lions; 40 wild horses; 30 elephants; 30 leopards; 20 wild asses; 19 giraffes; 10 elks; 10 hyenas; 10 tigers; 1 hippopotamus; 1 rhinoceros and, among others, 2,000 gladiators.

Soon addiction to "bread and circuses" led to a new form of entertainment: executions of Christians.

Romans were very creative with their executions. The classic crucifixion or the "damnatio ad bestia" (to be thrown to the wild beasts) were known crowd pleasers, but some emperors even developed their own unique styles. Nero, for example, invented the "twilight executions" when Christians were nailed to the cross and used as live torches to light the arena at night.

The glorious Flavian Amphitheater, The Colosseum
The glorious Flavian Amphitheater, The Colosseum | Source

The first known Christian execution at the Colosseum was that of St. Ignatius in 107 AD. Bishop Ignatius was among many citizens of Antioch who were forced to choose between Roman gods and inevitable horrible death. Ignatius chose the latter and was arrested by the Romans. He met his end stoically and showed no fear of the animals. Minutes later, he was torn to pieces on the arena of the amphitheater. A few bones that remained of his body were secretly collected and moved to the Church of St. Clement in Rome.

Possibly the last execution was that of St. Telemachus, an Egyptian monk. Shocked by the bloody performance he was witnessing, he jumped out on the arena between the two gladiators and tried to convince them to stop fighting. The crowd gave the monk a definitive "thumbs down, and he was immediately stoned to death. The incident, however, didn't go unnoticed, and in 404 AD emperor Honorius outlawed gladiator fights.

Directions: Piazza del Colosseo. Metro Line B: "Colosseo", or buses 87, 75, 85, 175, 571. Tel. 06 7005469.

5. The Church and Convent of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

Santa Cecilia is another legendary woman martyred in Rome in the III century AD. A daughter of a Roman Senator, Cecilia became a Christian back when Christianity was considered a fanatical sect from the Middle East.

As a punishment for refusing to worship Roman gods, she was locked in her own steam room for 3 days. The heat didn't kill her, so the executioners decided to try the always reliable decapitation. The axe was applied 3 times to her neck, yet it failed to separate the head from the body. Cecilia continued living for days, singing hymns and converting hundreds into the new faith. Shortly after she died, she became known as a martyr and a saint.

The miracles didn't end there. In the 9th century the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere was built on the ruins of Cecilia's house, and the remains of the saint were moved there from its original burial place at the catacombs of St. Calixtus. When they exhumed the body, it was said to have had no signs of decomposition, "incorrupt".

Amazingly enough, when her body was exhumed for the second time during the church restoration in 1599, it was found to be still in pristine condition, with 3 axe marks on her neck. The event was witnessed by several people, including a sculptor who've created a statue of St. Cecilia's body (which can be seen near the church's altar), and who stated under oath that he sculpted her as he saw her, "incorrupt". His statement is inscribed on a marble in front of the statue. It reads:

Behold the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia,
whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in the tomb.
I have in this marble expressed for you
the same saint in the very same posture.

Cecilia's relics are still in the crypt beneath the church, which is open for tours daily 9:30am-12:30pm and 4-6:30pm.

Directions: Piazza di Santa Cecilia 2, Roma 00153. Buses 44, 75, 170, 181 or 23 to Ponte Cestio.

This is how St. Cecilia's body was found in 1599
This is how St. Cecilia's body was found in 1599

© 2009 Lana Adler


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