An Italian Memento Mori

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

An unusual network of lost limbs, dismembered heads, and haunting chapels made from the chalky white bones of thousands of friars exists in Italy. Some are tucked away in the back of grand churches — hidden from view yet always on display — while others are set into labyrinthine tunnels beneath the streets of Rome. But all of them share the same grisly history woven through dark reminders of death, exhibited as a growing number of examples of dark tourism. Though these are not necessarily places of human horror such as Auschwitz or the Killing Fields, no they are more reverent in their nature. They are the heads of saints and the fingers of heretics preserved in gilded reliquaries. They are the bones of unknown friars posed in their robes and worked into morbid arches and grim frescoes below the unwavering floors of ancient churches.

A Saint’s Head In The Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Siena

When compared to the staggeringly attractive Duomo di Siena, the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico looks almost common, more medieval and castle-like, yet pretty as one takes in those familiar green hills and tall emerald-coloured trees that are so quotidian in Tuscany. And the congregate, made up of locals and priests, perhaps because of their faith, or an intense reverence, rarely make it past the bare walls that surround the wooden pews, and so rarely see the atmospheric and ornate chapel in the back of the church. But in that chapel, amongst vivid frescoes and a pretty tiled floor lies one of The Church’s most intensely macabre artefacts: the decapitated head of Saint Catherine of Siena. Her head, still wrapped up in her nun’s wimple is set inside a reliquary and looks out from behind stark metal bars that form the central piece of a shrine. And around her, candles and incense burn just feet from fresh flowers, creating an eerie yet ceremonious atmosphere. And while her thumb is displayed close by within the same chapel in a small circular reliquary topped with a cross, the rest of her body rests beneath the altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — Rome’s only gothic church.

Also in Siena: the Museo Anatomico at the University of Siena, home to a vast collection of skulls and anatomical specimens. 

A Heretic’s Finger In The Science Museum (Museo Galileo), Florence

There seems to be little reason other than “why not” to keep this particular piece of history in Florence’s Museo Galileo. But there, just moments from those scenic banks of the River Arno and the iconic Ponte Vecchio, within the walls of a museum dedicated to the life, times and science of Galileo (and to science in general) rests a small oval, hand-blown glass vase… and inside? Galileo’s middle finger, rampant. Called an heretic in his time, but mercifully vindicated in the 1990’s, one could consider the possibility that the phrase “as in life, so in death”, has been given new meaning here in the Museo Galileo, as Galileo continues to give the middle finger to the church that branded him “heretic” and wrong. And yet much like saintly Catherine of Siena, this bit of him lies venerated for all to see, while the rest of him lies in the arms of Florence’s endlessly breathtaking Santa Croce.

History tells us that the finger was snapped off the hand 95 years after Galileo’s death in 1737, along with two more fingers and a tooth, but wasn’t exhibited in the museum for a couple of hundred years after making its way through various private collections. And intriguingly, the other fragments were lost until they popped up at an auction in 2009, but are now where they belong…. not in Santa Croce, but displayed alongside the middle finger, close to those same instruments — telescopes and associated lenses — that helped to strengthen Galileo’s belief in Copernican heliocentrism, and eventually led to his conviction for heresy.

Also in Florence: the mummified Relic of St. Antoninus in San Marco and the entombed bodies of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo in Santa Croce.

The Capuchin Crypt, Rome

Atop the stately Quirinal Hill in central Rome is the jovial Piazza Barberini and Bernini’s fabulous centrepiece the Triton Fountain. And close by, in stark contrast of the vivid piazza, is the Capuchin Crypt hidden below the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. According to officials, the crypt was created, not to be macabre, but to be a reminder of our mortality… a kind of walk-through memento mori with loudspeakers warning against taking photographs.

At the crypts core, it is a series of six small chapels, viewable from a single cold walkway (whose exit is a gift shop selling photos of the crypts…) formed from 3,700 bodies of long-dead Capuchin friars who were buried for thirty years before being exhumed to have their bodies posed or dismantled and used as decor in the Crypt of Skulls, the Crypt of Pelvises, the Crypt of Leg and Thigh Bones and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. The latter is dark, haunting, but beautiful, with three full skeletons posed in their friar robes amongst various frescoed bones, and another on the ceiling holding a scythe — symbolising death as a person, forever looming over us. There’s a small museum before the crypts that many are tempted to skip, but don’t. It holds several intriguing artefacts, many of which were personal items of the monks, as well as illustrations and some illuminating histories presented by a surprisingly modern collection of touch screen portals.

Also in Rome: the Rome catacombs, like Paris, spread across the city and home to an immeasurable number of interred bodies. And the Vatican Necropolis set deep below the Vatican.

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