Monday, January 30, 2012

The Catacombs of Rome


I am a morbid person, but not in a bad way - at least, I don't think. I am a morbid person in a 'historical fascination' way. I think graveyards are interesting, and went through a phase where I did grave rubbings or photographed really old or unusual headstones. I used to do cemetery tours as part of my museum job when I lived in Lethbridge, Alberta. I like stories about how famous people died, or learning about the places they were buried at. When I went to Seattle, we had to make a special trip to visit the grave site of Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite musicians. When I took my Junior High students to Paris, I convinced several of them to accompany me to the Paris catacombs to check out piles of bones.

The interior of one of the catacomb rooms in the Roman catacombs of St. Callixtus

So of course, when visiting Rome, I just had to check out the ancient catacombs of St. Callixtus, also known as the Catacombs of Callisto. Our tour guide gave us the option of spending a day at gladiator school (I know, I know - that would have been a total blast too), or seeing these remarkable and historical catacombs. Naturally, I chose the dead bodies, although I unfortunately did not see so much as a femur during our tour. We boarded our tour bus and headed down Appian Way, en route to an underground burial site built after AD 150 - too cool!

Before descending into the underground tombs, my tour group shuffled into a small chapel whose walls were decorated generously with broken pieces of headstones and grave markers, all dating back to a time when only three numbers were needed to state the year. I barely heard a word the catacomb guide said, so busy was I in surreptitiously photographing the ancient stones. I did hear him say, "No photographs please", but I'm not sure if he was telling the whole group, or noting me specifically. I calmly pocketed my camera anyway.

Before going down to the tunnels, we learn about the tomb markers (displayed now on the walls).

Then it was time to descend into the catacombs. As we climbed down the narrow set of stairs, the air became colder and held a strange, stale smell. I had been expecting tiny, claustrophobic passageways, but surprisingly the ceilings were nearly vaulted, with room on either side of the tunnel for at least three to four rows of tombs stacked atop one another. Sadly for my morbid side, the tombs were all empty. It was interesting noting their size - some were large areas reserved for families, some were narrow and long for the average adult, and some were short and small for babies. Some tombs were simple, some had tables and sitting areas, and some even had the original painted frescoes on the walls.

It is a veritable labyrinth in the tombs of St. Callixtus in Rome!

Light filtered down into the tombs as well - and not just man-made light. Now and then, cut high into the ceilings above were long and narrow ventilation shafts. These were very few and far between, so if you do get nervy by being underground or in labyrinthine passageways, perhaps the catacombs aren't for you.

Leaving the tombs via a very steep staircase!

One of my favorite parts was the room in which the effigy of Saint Cecelia is located. The room is tall, spacious, and has some remnants of the original painted frescoes on the walls. In a nook on the floor, hollowed out from what I can only assume is her original resting place, is a marble statue of Saint Cecelia, a young woman who was martyred for her Christianity, and probably more-so for her affiliation with the late Emperor Valerian. The story didn't move me as much as the beautiful statue, exquisitely carved and surprisingly peaceful (considering the poor girl had someone try to behead her with a dull ax, hacking at her at least three times before burying her alive).

The haunting effigy of Saint Cecelia in the tombs of St. Callixtus.

The Catacombs of St. Callixtus are not the only catacombs in town, not by a long shot. They are part of a much larger network of ancient tombs, including a creepy one of Capuchin monks that I desperately wanted to visit. Alas, we ran out of time that day, and were unable to return. Since I am hoping to come back to Rome again during my lifetime (I have yet to visit the baths), perhaps I can join a full-out day tour of the city's catacomb system, and get the full story!

6 comments:

  1. just read your actual bucket list. I noticed 5 things on there that I have done and you not yet! Keep the stories coming!

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  2. What a lovely post on Rome! You make my heart to go back to Italy ! You have a stunning blog ! I have always dreamed of visiting Italy!
    I would love to enjoy Catacombs Tours in Rome!! Thanx for sharing excellent informations.
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    Rome Skip the line tours

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  3. Rome IS amazing - best of luck in your travels! Maybe I will see you in Italy.

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  4. I looked at your bucket list and have done 25 of them. I was at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland BEFORE they made a spa out of it! I recommend that you do not drive the Cinque Terre in Italy, HIKE it! :)

    Also, when you go to Costa Rica, do your zip lining in the cloud forest in Monte Verde!!!!

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    Replies
    1. Wow - 25! Excellent! You must travel a lot, which obviously is my dream. I am going to the Blue Lagoon in July, so I'm pumped about that. I like your tip about hiking Cinque Terre, as hiking is one of my favorite activities. And Monte Verde has always been on the list, but it is quite a drive from the family home down there, and we've never made it yet. One day! Thank you for sharing! :)

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    ReplyDelete