Friday, October 31, 2014

10 Spookiest Places in Rome

Halloween is here! What better way to celebrate All Hallow's Eve, the night that spirits freely roam the earth, than with a tour of Rome's most sinister sites?

Those Artful Bones
For lovers of the macabre, there’s no more deliciously creepy place in Rome than the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchins, where the skeletons of more than 4000 monks have been used as eerie decoration. Hipbones become moldings, chandeliers dangle with leg and arm bones, and vertebrae make intricate cornices. In the last room, over a pile of bones and three reassembled skeletons sporting the famous Capuchin hood, an ominous sign reads, “What you are we once were; what we are you will become.” Via Veneto, 27.
Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, Santa Maria della Concezione

Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, Santa Maria della Concezione [source]

Messages from Beyond the Grave
A tiny church in Prati has found a way to communicate with souls suffering in purgatory, and their tiny annexed museum has proof. The Museum of Souls in Purgatory displays fingerprints burned into a prayer book, a charred handprint on a wooden table, clothes marked with mysterious signs, and other creepy evidence that heaven’s unpleasant waiting room might actually exist. Lungotevere Prati, 12.

Fingerprints burned onto a prayer book, Museo delle Anime in Purgatorio [source]

Handprint burned onto wood, Museo delle Anime in Purgatorio [source]

Dungeons and Death
Although today Castel Sant’Angelo is a magnificent palace and a fascinating museum, it wasn’t always so. Up to the late 19th century, the dungeons of the castle were used as the papal prisons, and more often than not, once you went in, you rarely came out again, unless to mount the scaffold. Famous prisoners have included Benvenuto Cellini, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo. The bridge right outside, with its copies of Bernini angels, may look uplifting, but it was here that countless public executions took place, including the infamous decapitation of 22-year-old Beatrice Cenci in 1599. Her ghost is said to walk the bridge every September 11th, the anniversary of her death, with her severed head in her hand. The bridge was also the site of a stampede during the Jubilee of 1450, when more than 200 people were trampled to death or drowned. Lungotevere Castello, 50.

Passageway leading to the dungeons of Castel Sant'Angelo [source]
Angel Statue (copy after Bernini), Bridge of the Angels, ©

Bridge of the Angels, Rome © Kathleen Waters

RIP John Doe
In Renaissance Rome, murder was practically considered a sport, and bodies floating in the Tiber were far from rare. From its convenient position just a few steps from the riverbanks, the church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte would fish the bodies out of the river, stack them in the cellar, and bury any that went unclaimed. The church is decorated with ghoulish images and boasts a cross made of skulls. A chilling sign on the door reads, “Today for me, tomorrow for you.” Via Giulia, 262.

Decoration on the doorway of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte @Toni Bruguès

"Me today; you tomorrow" inscription outside Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte © Tiffany Parks

Death’s Portal
St. Peter’s Basilica has five sets of Bronze Doors, the most noted being the Holy Doors (open only on occasion of a Holy Year) and the massive central Filarete doors, the only set original to the Constantine Basilica. Less well-known, but no less intriguing are the Doors of Death, to the far left of the portico, used as the exit for funeral processions. Cast in the 1960s by Giacomo Manzù, the doors feature morbid scenes of crucifixions, hangings, and other martyrdoms, as well as the heads of vultures looking out ominously. When I used to give tours of St. Peter's basilica, I refused to walk through these ones, even though they are one of the two main exits. Piazza San Pietro.

Left "Door of Death," Giacomo Manzù [source]
Detail of "Doors of Death," Giacomo Manzù [source]

The Art of Torture
If you find torture even creepier than death (and let's face it, who doesn't?), make a timely visit to Rome's Museum of Criminology. Learn about medieval torture techniques and see many of the gruesome devices used to elicit "confessions". Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this place is realizing some of these torture techniques were used until the 20th century. This museum is not for the faint of heart, especially if you've got a good imagination. Via del Gonfalone, 29.

Screw chair (reproduction), Museo di Criminologia, Rome [source]

Female skeleton discovered shacked in Poggio Catino in the 1930s, Museo di Criminologia, Rome. [source]

Human-shaped cage, discovered with real skeleton, Museo di Criminologia, Rome [source]

Doctors of Death
If the image of an old abandoned hospital or insane asylum conjures up your worst nightmares, this is the place for you! Even the name of it is enough to make a grown man squirm. The National Museum of Sanitary Art is one place that will make you glad to be living (and getting sick) in the 21st century. Located in a wing of a hospital founded in the 1400s, this museum displays such unappetizing objects as pickled fetuses, child skeletons, and many, many more atrocious sights. Lungotevere in Sassia.

Exhibit at Museo dell'Arte Sanitaria, Rome [source]

Exhibit of child skeletons, Museo dell'Arte Sanitaria, Roma [source]

Death Lives Here
Miles and miles of dimly lit, underground burial chambers? I think that would qualify as spooky. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the Catacombs (besides the fact that thousands of souls were buried here, some of whom suffered horrifically violent deaths) is knowing that one wrong turn could lead you into utter darkness and you could easily end up lost for days in the maze of narrow death-soaked passageways, as happened to a few French kids in the Paris catacombs a few years ago. There are many (some say upwards of 40) Catacomb sites in Rome. The most popular is probably The Catacombs of San Callisto, Via Appia Antica, 110.

Catacombs of San Callisto, Rome [source]

Catacombs of San Callisto, Rome [source]

Death is in the Air
As the site of the brutal deaths of an estimated 700,000 people, is it any wonder the Colosseum is considered one of the most haunted places in the world? In the Middle Ages it was believed to be a gathering place for souls at unrest, and as late as the early 20th century, it was thought that the noxious fumes of the countless murders that took place here could be fatal to anyone who breathed them, particularly at night. Such was the fate of Henry James’ heroine Daisy Miller, whose nighttime visit to the Colosseum proved fatal.

Colosseum by Night [source]

On Hallowed Ground
Although it is a cemetery, I'm not sure this site can really be described as spooky. In fact, it could just as easily be included in a list of the 10 Most Beautiful Places in Rome. Dubbed by Oscar Wilde “the holiest place in Rome,” the exquisite Non-Catholic Cemetery is reserved for Rome’s Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and otherwise non-Christian dead, and is famously the resting place of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Goethe’s only son. With its view of the ancient Pyramid of Cestius, towering cypress trees, and tombstones and mausoleums that are veritable works of art, this might just be the most enchanting cemetery in the world. Via Caio Cestio, 6.

Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome @Rmishka Singh

Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome @Rmishka Singh

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Rome's Artistic Treasures .... Hidden in Banks

Dome of the chapel of Palazzo del Monte di Pietà

As if Rome didn't possess enough spectacular sights to satisfy the greedy eyes of her art-loving visitors and residents, today we'll get a chance to see even more, like the eye-popping gold-leaf and stuccoed chapel at Palazzo del Monte di Pietà above, near Campo de' Fiori.

Since even the wealthiest of Rome's old noble families can no longer afford the upkeep on their ancestral palaces, the ones that haven't been turned into museums, embassies, or cultural associations, are mostly in the hands of the banks. While I cringe to think that there are so many works of art hidden away and out of sight for the average Roman, at least one day a year, we get a chance to see them. The event is called Invito a Palazzo, and it's not just happening in Rome. All across the Italian peninsula financial institutions are opening their doors to reveal their treasures today, 4 October 2014, and the best part is, it's free!

One measly day a year is a pittance, but I don't know about you, I'll take what I can get. I have participated in Invito a Palazzo in previous years, and one of the most spectacular Roman institutions participating has its headquarters in Palazzo Altieri near the Chiesa del Gesù. This baroque wonder, closed to the public 364 days a year, is packed to the gills with glorious frescoes, paintings, and tapestries by the likes of Guido Reni, Carlo Maratta, Giulio Romano, Domenico Maria Canuti, Domenichino, Paolo Veronese, Coreggio, and many more.

If you only have time to visit one site today, this should be it!

The Allegory of Mercy, Carlo Maratta, Palazzo Altieri

Pompeian Salon, Palazzo Altieri

Apotheosis of Romulus, Domenico Maria Canuti, Palazzo Altieri

Palazzo Altieri

Also opening its doors today is Palazzo de Carolis on Via del Corso. This early-18th-century palace features a gorgeous oval spiral staircase by Alessandro Specchi (of Spanish Steps fame), very similar to (and possibly inspired by) Borromini's staircase at Palazzo Barberini.

Spiral staircase by Alessandro Specchi, Palazzo de Carolis

Palazzo Ronadanini, near the Pantheon, will also be open to visitors. The most noteworthy aspect of this palace is the sublime courtyard, decorated with ancient busts and sculptures, as well as intricate stucco and bas-relief details. Also on display are the sumptuously appointed rooms of the piano nobile, that some lucky bankers out there get to use as their conference rooms.

Courtyard of Palazzo Rondanini

I will be visiting the Banca di Sassari, which occupies the site of a converted monastery of Santa Susanna Church (coincidentally the American national church in Rome), not far from Piazza della Repubblica.

Sardinian Tapestries (Banca di Sassari)
In addition to a collection of Sardinian tapestries above (who knew the Sardinians made tapestries?), visitors will be able to visit the underground Roman domus upon which the monastery was built, a site that has only recently been excavated.

Roman domus under the Monastery of Santa Susanna (Banca di Sassari)

If this event sounds like your cup of tea, hurry up, it's only on today! You can find more info here

All images provided courtesy of MiBACT
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Augustus's Rome, 2000 Years Later

Modern bronze copy of the Augustus of Prima Porta, Via dei Fori Imperiali,
© Alice Barigelli

I love anniversaries and meaningful dates, and this year has been full of them. Back in February we commemorated the 450th anniversary of the death of the great Michelangelo, in April we celebrated the 450th birthday of Shakespeare and remembered the 300th anniversary of the passing of El Greco. This year has also seen important anniversaries of events that have changed history, from the toppling of the Berlin Wall (25 years ago), to the passing of the Civil Rights Act (50 years ago), to D-Day (70 years ago), to the opening of the Panama Canal and onset of World War One (both 100 years ago).

But the most awe-inspiring and moment-of-silence-worthy of all, particularly for those of us who love big, round numbers (and happen to live and breathe ancient Roman history), is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Emperor Augustus.

Detail of the Augustus of Labicana, Museo Nazionale Romano a Palazzo Massimo (source)

Exactly 2000 years ago today, on 19 August A.D. 14, Emperor Augustus, born Gaius Octavius and the first emperor of Rome, breathed his last. Throughout his long life, Octavius wore many hats, and carried many titles. He was known as Princeps (the “first” citizen of Rome), Divi Filius (the son of the divine, in reference to his great-uncle and adopted father, the deified Julius Caesar), Augustus (illustrious one), Pater Patriae (father of his country), and, of course, Caesar, a family name that would eventually become synonymous with the term “emperor.” His official roles were just as varied, from Consul (Rome’s highest elected office) to Pontifex Maximus (high priest) and eventually Imperator (military commander).

During his 41-year reign (the longest of any Roman emperor), Augustus built enduring monuments, developed the city’s infrastructure, and established the Pax Romana, the empire’s most enduring period of peace. If you’re in Rome today and have nothing more important to do (and really, in the middle of August, what else could you possibly have to do?), I suggest commemorating the extraordinary man’s death with a tour of his greatest monuments and portraits.

Ara Pacis (source)
The best way to appreciate Augustus’s footprint on the fabric of his city is to take a tour of the works he built. He was credited with the line, “I inherited Rome a city of brick; I left it a city of marble,” and whether or not he actually said it, the words certainly ring true. Perhaps the most recognizable of the monuments in his legacy is the Ara Pacis (Lungotevere in Augusta). Although the first years of his reign were marred by war, Augustus’s dedication to restoring peace to the empire was what set him apart from the leaders who would follow him. The majestic white marble Altar of Peace was inaugurated in 9 BC to celebrate the peace brought to the empire by Augustus’s military victories in Hispania and Gaul. Although partially reconstructed, the altar nevertheless possesses much of its original bas-relief decoration, depicting Roman myths, scenes of ritual sacrifice, intricate garlands, and a procession of Augustus and other members of the imperial family. 

Ara Pacis illuminated (source)

Despite the modern misconception that ancient Rome was a city of gleaming white marble, in actual fact, Roman marble buildings were generally painted in bright vibrant colors, and this was certainly the case with the Ara Pacis. In honor of this big anniversary, the exquisite monument will be illuminated with colored laser beams to recreate what it most likely looked like in the emperor's day. This is not the first time this technique has been used (see my post: Real Rome: The Ara Pacis in Technicolor), but it is always spectacular to behold. You can visit tonight from 9pm to midnight without a reservation.

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto, © Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group
In the heart of the Imperial Fora, found partially excavated alongside right and left of Via dei Fori Imperiali, the Forum of Augustus was the physical representation of Augustus’s power. The forum incorporates the Temple of Mars Ultor (the avenging god of war) and was at the time considered “greater than any in existence.” While not completed until 2 BC, the temple was first planned by Augustus after he successfully avenged Caesar, killing his assassins Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC. Just in time for the big anniversary, the forum comes to life in a summer-long project that helps visitors experience the site as it once was. 

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto,
© Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group
Every night, a digital multi-media show recreates the original appearance of the forum before your very eyes. Audience members are provided with earphones with audio in six languages, while the images and animation are projected directly onto the walls of the forum. Visit for more details.

Interior of the House of Augustus, Palatine Hill (source)
Unlike the emperors who would succeed him, Augustus lived not in an opulent palace but a comfortable, tasteful home. He chose to live on the Palatine Hill (as would his successors) to underline his connection to Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome who were raised, according to legend, on the very same hill seven centuries earlier, and where Augustus himself was born. Despite its relatively small size, the House of Augustus is celebrated for its superb second-style Pompeian frescoes in vibrant red, black, yellow, purple, and green. See the glorious and well-preserved works in several rooms, including the mysterious Room of the Masks and Augustus’s own study, an intimate haven he called “Siracusa.” When visiting the Palatine Hill, keep in mind that this particular site is only open Mon, Wed, Thu, Sat, and Sun, from 8:30am to 1:30pm. (It’s always a good idea to call and double check if it’s open: 060608.)

Mausoleum of Augustus (source)

Built in 28 BC, the Mausoleum of Augustus (Piazza Augusto Imperatore) is perhaps the most neglected of Rome’s ancient sights. Over the centuries, it has been the victim of cannon fire, earthquake, abandonment, and vandalism, and during its long life has been used as a fortress, a bullring, and a concert hall. But thanks to sturdy defensive walls, some 15 feet thick and 50 feet tall, the site has survived against all odds. Although the mausoleum has been closed for decades, this year’s milestone has been the impetus for the city to pledge €12 million to its restoration and eventual reopening. Although this site is *never* open, it is today! To commemorate this once-in-a-millennium anniversary, the city of Rome is opening the mausoleum for three guided tours this morning. I’ll be there at 9:30, and documenting my visit on Twitter (if I’m allowed to take photographs, that is). If you see this in time, call 060608 and you might just be in time to join one of the groups.

Theater of Marcellus (source)

A few other sites that shouldn’t be missed and are all within walking distance of one another: the Theater of Marcellus (Via del Teatro Marcello), an imposing performing arts center and the second-largest theater in ancient Rome, was built by Augustus in 13 BC and is crowned by a still-inhabited palace built in the Renaissance. (All month long, the theater’s purpose is revived with classical musical performances staged just outside the towering structure. Check out for a full list of performances.) The Portico of Octavia (Via di Portico d’Ottavia) is another Augustean site, once a vast cultural and religious center, although sadly little survives today beyond its entrance gate, which is currently hidden under a dreary layer of scaffolding. The Obelisk of Montecitorio (Piazza Montecitorio) (originally from Heliopolis and dating to the 6th century BC) was brought from Egypt to Rome by the emperor in 10 BC to be used as the pointer of his massive sundial that spread across the Campus Martius neighborhood. The 70-foot monolith cast a shadow across the Ara Pacis on Augustus’s birthday (23 September), a not-so-subtle hint that he was born to bring peace to the empire.

Augustus of Prima Porta, Musei Vaticani, Source: Wiki Commons

Get to know the man up close by studying one (or more) of his many portraits, located in museums across the city. By far the most famous is the Augustus of Prima Porta. This larger-than-life-sized marble sculpture depicting Augustus in the role of imperator, or military commander, was discovered in 1863 in the ruins of the Villa of Livia, in an area that was once countryside and is now on the northern outskirts of the city. The commanding work now has its residence in the Braccio Nuovo section of the Vatican Museums (Viale Vaticano).  

Bust of the Divine Augustus, Musei Vaticani,
© Nick Thompson

Also displayed at the Vatican, in the welcoming Pinecone Courtyard, is an enormous posthumous portrait of the Divine Augustus, discovered in the 16th century on the Aventine Hill. Another celebrated portrait is the Augustus of Via Labicana. Located today at the National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo (Largo di Villa Peretti, 1), this moving work represents a togaed Augustus in his role as Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s spiritual leader. The Hall of the Emperors at the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio, 1) displays the Ottaviano Capitolino, an important early bust of Augustus, showing him as a determined, ambitious, yet vulnerable young man. But you don’t have to visit a museum to find a portrait of Rome’s favorite leader. A modern bronze copy of the Prima Porta statue stands in front of Augustus’s forum along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Ottaviano Capitolino, Capitoline Museums, Source: Wiki Commons

“If I have played my part well, clap your hands and dismiss me with applause from the stage.”
Augustus’s last words
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