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Darkest Places in Rome: Murders, Ghosts, Mysteries (Part 2)

Updated on January 9, 2021
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Lana is an aspiring travel writer with a serious case of shutterbug and an insatiable curiosity about the world.

6. St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome seen from the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo.
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome seen from the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo. | Source

What's so dark about the largest Christian church and one of the most beautiful basilicas in the world?

Let's start with the fact that it was built on the site of the Circus of Nero, and a cemetery. The excavations in the area found the remnants of the circus about 15 feet below the level of the piazza.

In 65 AD the circus was the first official site of Christian executions. Nobody knows how many people were martyred there, but one death is fairly well-documented: Apostle Peter's.

Peter was a simple fisherman from Galilee. Transformed by Jesus' teaching, he was spreading the gospel everywhere he went, until he was arrested and executed in Rome.

Apostle Peter died at the exact spot where the obelisk now stands in front of his church, and the obelisk itself once stood in the Circus of Nero, brought (stolen) from Egypt by Caligula, Nero's uncle.The method of execution was the upside down crucifixion, said to be chosen by Peter himself.

"Crucifixion of St. Peter" by Caravaggio
"Crucifixion of St. Peter" by Caravaggio

Roman historian Tacitus describes Christian executions in detail:

"Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs. Some were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed, fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed, covered by inflammable matter, were set on fire to serve as torches during the night. Or tied to stakes in Nero's gardens while he drove around in his chariot, naked, indulging himself in his midnight revels, gloating over the dying agonies of his victims".

He continues:

"The Roman Christians, accused by Nero of setting the city on fire, were massacred in a spectacular fashion on the Vatican Hill".

The fire in question was probably started by Nero himself, so when the Romans turned against him, he accused an obscure religious sect - Christians - of a major arson in preparation for Christ's supposed second coming. Ironically, Nero's persecution made people more sympathetic towards Christians, contributing to the spread of Christianity all over the world.

Directions: Metro Line A to "Ottaviano". Walk south on Via Ottaviano towards the big gates: you're in Vatican.

Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City. Apostle Peter died at the exact spot where the obelisk now stands. The method of execution was an upside down crucifixion.
Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City. Apostle Peter died at the exact spot where the obelisk now stands. The method of execution was an upside down crucifixion. | Source

7. Crypt of the Cappuccini Monks

This is one of the most unique places in Rome, and it's rarely in any brochures. Just beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione you'll find the Crypt of the Cappuccini Monks, intricately decorated with human bones. These lovely anatomic arrangements include rows of skulls stacked up together, skeletons still wearing their monk robes, and several picturesque graves.

The order of the Cappuccini monks was established in 1520 by a group of disillusioned Franciscan monks. They were seeking the life of true solitude and austerity, in accordance with the words of the apostle, "Having food and covering, with these let us be content."

The monks wore a pointy hood attached to a simple brown robe - an outfit that gave them the name "Cappuccin" (in Italian "cappuccio" means "hood" or "cap"), later borrowed by the coffee producers for a new type of coffee with a cream foam on top.

The Cappuccini monks were not allowed to accumulate any possessions or even touch the money. They were forbidden to do anything that could distract them from the purity of spiritual life. That sums up their philosophy about death, too: the body is perishable like anything material, but the spirit lives on forever. The eccentric idea to use the bones for decoration was a symbolic expression of this belief, captured in the inscription "What you are, we used to be. What we are, you will become".

The entrance is free (but they do ask for a donation) and you're not allowed to photograph inside the Crypt. Frankly, I find this rule to be in direct contradiction with the very essence of the Cappuccini monks' philosophy: if they had so little concern for their bodies after death, who are we to come in and treat them as relics?

Directions: Via Veneto 27. Metro Line A to "Barberini" or buses 492, 62 to Piazza Barberini. Tel. +39-06-487-1185, closed on Thursdays.

The Crypt of the Cappuccini Monks, Rome
The Crypt of the Cappuccini Monks, Rome

8. The Mamertine Prison

The main cell of the Mamertine Prison
The main cell of the Mamertine Prison

The Mamertine prison is an ancient prison at the base of the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Its grim legacy began in VII century BC, when it was built, according to the Roman historian Livy, to deal with "men's growing lawlessness".

The prison was 12 feet underground and featured the most horrendous cells imaginable. Another Roman historian left a rather colorful description of the place:

"Neglect, darkness and stench make it hideous and fearsome to behold."

Even now the remaining 2 damp unappealing rooms can give a glimpse of what the original construction might have been like. Prisoners were usually thrown in through the hole in the ceiling and basically left to die. Most died of starvation (since nobody bothered to feed them), others of strangulation (since there was no air to breathe).

There is a long list of Christians who died in the prison. According to an apocryphal story, apostles Peter and Paul were also imprisoned here before being executed. There is a stone at the top said to have an imprint of Peter's head when he was thrown into the cell.

Directions: 1 Clivo Argentario. Metro Line B: "Colosseo".

9. Piazza del Popolo


Piazza del Popolo is another lovely piazza that was commonly used for public executions until the 19th century. We have at least 2 literary accounts of the executions that took place here.

In 1817 Lord Byron was on a holiday in Rome, when he saw 3 people beheaded at the Piazza:

"The day before I left Rome I saw three robbers guillotined. The ceremony — including the masqued priests; the half-naked executioners; the bandaged criminals; the black Christ and his banner; the scaffold; the soldiery; the slow procession, and the quick rattle and heavy fall of the axe; the splash of the blood, and the ghastliness of the exposed heads — is altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence."

In 1846 Charles Dickens witnessed another beheading here, but was less impressed than his countryman Byron:

"It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor."

Speaking of wretched actors - Piazza del Popolo is connected with another famous name - Giovanni Battiste Bugatti, who would later become known as Mastro Titta, an Executioner Extraordinaire. Bugatti discovered his talent for killing at the age of 17, and was relentlessly perfecting it ever since. A total of 516 people (each name was meticulously documented in Bugatti's journal) were put to their death, mostly through beheading, and many of them at the Piazza del Popolo. He retired honorably with a generous pension from the Church, wishing his successor's list of victims would be shorter than his.

Directions: Metro Line A to "Flaminio" or an electric bus 119 from Piazza Venezia.

Executioner Bugatti offering snuff (tobacco) to a condemned prisoner in front of Castel Sant'Angelo.
Executioner Bugatti offering snuff (tobacco) to a condemned prisoner in front of Castel Sant'Angelo. | Source

© 2009 Lana Adler


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