Escape the Crowds & Explore Rome’s Underground
By Jade Raykovsky
“In the second-last room of the museum, you’ll see a fabulous painting of St Francis of Assisi by the rockstar of Baroque painters, Caravaggio.
I say that because he did everything a rockstar did – sex, drugs, even killed a man.”
I’m standing in the center of Piazza Barberini, straining to hear our guide over the sounds of modern Rome (mostly traffic).
Within just half an hour, however, I will descend into the Capuchin Crypts, decorated with the bones of dead friars. Yes, you read that correctly.
This is the beginning of my visits to historical sites beneath the streets of Rome underground where so much of the city’s history lies waiting to be explored, away from crowds and the heat of an Italian summer.
The Capuchin Museum
Before the grisly sight of decorative bones, however, our tour group must first enter the museum within the Capuchin friars’ 500-year-old monastery, just a 2-minute walk from the piazza.
I listen to the included audio guide, which is comprehensive and narrated from the character of a friar, as I wander the rooms looking at various artifacts.
The Capuchins are a sub-order of the Franciscan friars and were formed in 1525, a holy year, by a friar who was feeling a “little disgruntled with his own monastery”, according to our guide (the next holy year, if you’re wondering, is 2025 – book ahead if you’re planning to visit Rome then).
If you’ve noticed a similarity between the words Capuchin and cappuccino, it’s because both derive from the word cappuccio, meaning hood (the friars wore a habit with a hood, and the coffee has a ‘hood’ of milk foam).
Our last stop before entering the crypts was of course, admiring the Caravaggio painting. I was struck by his use of light – Caravaggio’s signature style, chiaroscuro – which gave the painting of St Francis a moody, realistic feel. Our guide later shared a great tip for seeing more of Caravaggio’s works for free – visit the Church of St Louis of the French, between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.
The Capuchin Crypts
Not having seen any photos of the Capuchin crypts, I had no idea what to expect. In my mind I was imagining stacked skulls, similar to the catacombs I had previously visited in Paris.
As I descended the stairs and glimpsed the corridor ahead, however, my breath caught. Bones lined the walls and ceiling in decoration – floral motifs, coats of arms, chandeliers – anyone tall enough would have simply been able to lean back against a wall and make contact with a bone.
We shuffled forward silently in single file, listening intently to our audio guides. There were five crypts (basically small alcoves, plus a chapel) on the right of the corridor, each one revealing a macabre display of bones arranged in ornate designs. One crypt was made up of entirely skulls, another pelvises… some had full skeletons wearing friar robes, another with a skeleton dressed as the Grim Reaper. I felt like I had stepped onto the set of a horror film.
There were two main questions running through my mind – who, and why?
The Legend of the Crypt
Unfortunately, with no documents from the time, no one knows exactly who used the bones of approximately 3,700 friars and arranged them in such a spectacular fashion. There are plenty of theories, of course. The official website of the crypt itself suggests it is the work of a “grotesque hermitic genius” or of “the patience of a friar” – one with a lot of time on his hands.
Whoever’s mind conceived and arranged the work of art, one thing is certain; the crypts will continue to fascinate visitors who enter for many more years to come.
The Museum Details
Address: Via Vittorio Veneto 27, 00187 Rome
Hours: Open every day 10am to 7pm (last entry 6.30pm)
Tickets: 10 euro for adults; 6.50 euro for minors, student sunder 25, 65+; kids under 7 are free.
Photos: Not allowed (and staff were watching, as one tourist discovered when a stern telling-off came through the speakers).
The Catacombs of Domitilla
The next stop on our tour is the Catacombs of Domitilla, outside the city walls. The catacombs are underground Christian cemeteries, in use from the 2nd century, which pre-dates Christian churches (the first purpose-built church was built in the early 300s).
Domitilla is one of the largest catacombs, with 10.5 miles of tunnels, four levels, a sunken church, and 26,000 tombs, according to our guide. But there are no bones – the tombs stopped being used around the 5th century, and they have long since decomposed. Some, however, were removed in the 9th century.
“The Pope took out the bones of the saints and martyrs, trying to put a stop to the Trade of Relics,” our guide explains. “Their bones were put into the churches of Rome. Many have a crypt of saints and martyrs, like the Pantheon.”
Next time you visit the Pantheon, remember the bones that lie beneath its floor.
Time to Explore
We descend to the second level of the catacombs, which dates from the middle of the 4th century. The air is cold, raising goosebumps on my arm. I feel like Indiana Jones as we follow our guide through narrow dark tunnels, intermittently lit with golden lights.
Apart from a couple of ‘Uscita’ (Exit) signs, I’m already hopelessly disoriented. Most tombs are open, so they all look the same – rows of narrow, empty shelves along the walls. The many small shelves, half an armspan wide, are sobering reminder of the high infant mortality rate of the time.
Art from the first Christians
Our guide points out a few remaining tiles that were used to cover the tombs: most people were buried anonymously behind terracotta tiles, but those with more wealth had a marble tile with an inscription. Another option for wealthier families was the arcosolium, a larger tomb with an arch above it.
It is at one of these tombs, an arcosolium, where we stop to admire some of the earliest Christian art. The fresco, though faded and in some parts scraped away, shows the woman who was buried here with her arms outstretched in a prayer position, with St Peter and St Paul.
“We are really close to the origins of Christianity here,” our guide points out. “They [the artists] know these people come from the middle east, and this is how they’ve depicted them, with dark skin and hair.”
Address: Via delle Sette Chiese, 282, 00147 Rome
Hours: 9am–12pm and 2–5pm Monday, Wednesday–Sunday. Closed Tuesdays.
Tickets: 10 euro for adults; 7 euro for children aged 5–15; under 5 are free.
Photos: Not allowed
Tour: Rome: Catacombs and Capuchin Crypt Guided Tour with Get Your Guide
*You may visit a different catacomb, depending on the day.
The City of Water
You don’t have to go out of your way to visit Rome’s historical underground sites; some are right near famous landmarks, such as Vicus Caprarius, otherwise known as the City of Water.
The archaeological site is tucked away on a small street only one minute from the Trevi Fountain, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to be near it at some point during a visit to Rome.
Located about 30 feet (or nine metres) beneath the current road level, the site contains remains of an ancient double-storey domus (a private family residence of ancient Rome), previously believed to be an apartment complex, and a large water reservoir. The Virgin Aqueduct flows through the site – the same aqueduct that supplies water to the Trevi Fountain.
Plan your visit
I visited on a Tuesday in May and had booked ahead, which I would recommend as they were fully booked for the day (message the WhatsApp number on their website). Our small group was given 30 minutes to explore, and I opted to add in an audio guide.
I was first onto the metal walkway, which had been erected on both the upper and lower levels of the site so the remains could be viewed at all angles. The warm lighting pooled in certain areas, casting others in shadow, creating a moody ambience.
As I strolled the walkways, pausing to read the information boards, I tried to imagine what it would have looked like in ancient times: here, a courtyard, and there, the well – did they use this space to relax? To entertain?
On the bottom level was a small display of artefacts that had been discovered during excavations, including ancient coins, fragments of pottery and polychrome marbles, and even the famous head of Alessandro Helios.
The allocated half hour was plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and learn some of the site’s history; a perfect side trip to a visit to the Trevi Fountain.
Address: Vicolo del Puttarello, 25 Rome
Hours: 11am–5pm Tuesday–Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Tickets: 4 euro for adults; 1 euro for children aged 14-18; under 14 are free.
Stadium of Domitian
I’m standing in the middle of Piazza Navona, surrounded by bustling crowds and a cacophony of voices in multiple languages; but I ignore these as I look at the shape of the piazza with new eyes.
Piazza Navona was built above an ancient masonry athletics stadium: The Stadium of Domitian.
Located 15 feet (or 4.5 metres) below street level, the stadium is the only example of its kind outside of the Greek world and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was built around 85-86 AD by Emperor Domitian out of travertine blocks and brickwork. In a shape reminiscent of an elongated horseshoe, it’s estimated the stadium could host around 30,000 people and held various athletics, fights, gymnastics and a stadium race.
Venturing beneath Piazza Navona
I booked the Exclusive Tour, and it starts with a 40-minute audio-guided session in what was the centre of the “hemicycle” (the curved end of the stadium).
As I strolled between the ruins – crumbling pillars, stairs, arches and parts of walls – it felt like I was in a museum frozen in time.
Golden lighting highlighted the textures of the brickwork, with some of the remnants soaring to the second storey of the high-ceilinged room.
In one part I could make out the curve in a row of pillars: a glimpse of where I stood in relation to the stadium’s ancient position.
Across the Piazza
For the second part of the tour, a staff member led us across the piazza, through an unassuming door and interior courtyard, to a set of stairs.
This led us to another recently restored archaeological area, this time in the eastern section of the hemicycle.
Here, beneath the École Française de Rome (a French research institute), are even more ruins, with some rooms still in the progress of excavation.
Whereas the first site was in an open, expansive space, here everything is small and closed in, and even the air feels older.
Our group – limited to ten people – listen to our audio guides through headphones, so all is silent. In one room full of rubble, I spot a skull.
It certainly feels like the modern bustle of the piazza is both miles and centuries away.
Address: Via di Tor Sanguigna, 3, 00186 Rome
Hours: 10am–7pm, every day.
Tickets: Exclusive tour – 14 euro for adults; 12 euro for children aged 12-17 and 65+; 10 euro for children aged 8-11; 5 euro for 7 and under. Photos allowed.
Jade Raykovski is a content writer and travel-hungry bookworm based in Melbourne, Australia, who loves exploring new cultures and places. You can follow her travels on Instagram at @always.a.good.idea