Night Tour in Rome: The Crypts and The Catacombs of Priscilla

Rome (Italy) is one city that I simply can’t get enough of, normally I tire of cities after a day or two, however Rome is different, there is always something more to see, the history and architecture are sublime. In my mind there is no where in the world that gives you such a literal feeling of going back in time and walking through history.

Even when you have ticked off all the main sites, I’d recommend going back to visit each of them again, but at different times of day, just to see monuments in a different light and to feel the diverse atmosphere of the city.

That being said, Rome in the summer, and especially in August, is heaving and bustling with tourists from all over the world. In the busy tourist season Marco and I are always keen to try new tours and actively seek out places which are slightly off the tourist trail.

So we were delighted to be invited to review a unique tour run by the LivItaly Tours to discover a small part underground Rome to visit the a Crypt and Catacombs of Rome.

Capuchin crypt in Rome

We don’t often take tours when visiting historical sites, but when we do, we prefer small groups. This one was ideal, we were only four people in total.

After meeting our friendly and informative guide (Shannon) our first stop was the Capuchin bone crypt, a cemetery literally built from bones.

Now, unlike most tours which start at 8am or 9am in the morning, this tour was unique as we were meeting at 6pm in the evening. It was great to see city in the evening as there was less people and it was beginning to cool down which created a lovely calm atmosphere.

Capuchin ‘Bone’ Crypt is where six rooms intricately decorated with the bones of 4000 capuchin Monks. First we swept through the small museum, which houses some small artefacts linked to the monks, but don’t miss a captivating and beautiful Caravaggio painting.

Then we headed quickly into the Crypt although it is such a macabre site, you cannot dispute the artistic inspiration and the hard work that has gone into creating the rooms. Our guide Shannon briefly explained some of the meaning and symbolism of the bones, which was fascinating.

The capuchin order believes that the bones are far from a macabre and the remains of former friars are a silent reminded of our own mortality and the passage of life on earth.

Each room is given an evocative name such as Crypt of skulls, Crypt of pelvises and crypt of leg and thigh bones. In one room two served arms cross one another to represent the coat of arms of Capuchin order.

Although the atmosphere is quite eerie, the crypt is thought as a place of contemplation, no matter what your own religion is. When visiting, its hard not to contemplate our own mortality and I think it was a highly unique way to go about it.

What makes this particular site in Rome unique is that, because it became illegal in 1870 to decorate with human body parts. The bone decorations cannot be restored or altered in any way, so when a bone falls down, it must be left, which means that this is living history that cannot be restored or altered, so we are privileged  to be seeing it now, as in years to come it may not exist.

Catacombs of Priscilla

The second part of our tour took us to another less visited Catacomb on the outskirts of the city, the incredible Catacombs of Priscilla. Again because this was a private tour with only four people in our group we were whisked off in a private car to the next venue which was easy and stress free.

I was particularly excited to visit this historic site as they dated back to 150 year before christianity was legalised and we were going to view some of the oldest tombs which were held at the first levels of the catacombs, so any subsequent tombs were built underneath on lower levels.

Also as it was an evening tour that just added to the atmosphere and I was curious to explore this intriguing underground world.

It was fascinating to hear the true history of the catacombs as many historical facts have been exaggerated to make for a better story. It was once thought that early christians used the catacombs to hide and worship, but this isn’t true at all, the catacombs would be an awful place to worship or live due to awful stench of rotting corpses.

Many believed the catacombs were a secret, but this isn’t true either: they were a registered burial place, although in ancient Rome in the 2nd and 3rd century it was illegal to be a christian and carry out christian worship it was not illegal to bury christians in a christian ceremony. This was due to the fact that the Paganism the main religion in Rome at the time, held great respect for death and burial ceremonies, no matter your religion and therefore allowed the proper burial of christians.

As we made our way down into the first level of the catacombs a series of narrow tunnels with two of three levels of graves on either side of the tunnel, most of the tombs marble tomb stones were missing, probably due to the invasion of the barbarians, who stole the marble for money. Some tomb stones did remain interact with engravings.

Although being underground and being surrounded by so many corpses was an eerie feeling , the historic nature of the places was overwhelming. I was immensely fascinated by the fresco’s, considering their age, the colours seemed so vibrant and our guide Shannon explained the  use of the early of christian symbolism for example the good shepherd and the sign of the fish was the symbol used instead of the cross.

The best part of the tour was to see the oldest known depiction of the Virgin Mary which although very small was moving to see something so old and which held so much significance to early christians. I felt privileged to see such a fresco, that also may not exist forever.

Thinking Nomads Verdict of the LivItaly tour

5 Stars

A fantastic tour that is so different from the usual guides experiences, we loved the small group of only four, it made visiting the sites easy and stress free. Visiting in the evening added to the atmosphere and intrigue of the catacombs.

There was only one other group visiting the catacombs at the same time which meant the tour flowed easily and we didn’t have to wait or be interrupted.

Our guide Shannon was highly informative and explained the historical significance of the sites in an exciting and interesting way which made me want to go away and read and learn more about early christianity and ancient Rome. 

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