We were looking for a Catacombs tour with kids in Rome, and found a gem in Walks of Italy’s “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour. We were guests of Walks of Italy on this tour.
My daughter keeps a collection of artistic skulls and my son has a thing for zombies so we thought the “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour offered by Walks of Italy would be the ideal thing to allow my wife and I to learn about some of Rome’s religious past without rattling the kids’ bones too much.
CAPUCHIN CRYPTS AND BONES
The tour began in the Piazza Barberino, named after one of the powerful families of Renaissance Rome, where headsets were distributed and our tour guide, Andrea, explained directly into our ears the agenda for our tour. The headsets turned out to be a nice feature because crypts and catacombs tend to be tight spaces; knowing that you would be able to hear Andrea no matter where you stood minimized jostling for position with the other tour participants.
The Capuchin crypt is in the basement of the Church of Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione, a short walk from the piazza. Prior to descending into the crypt, we spent some time in the attached museum looking at a few artifacts while Andrea covered the history of the Capuchin monks, a branch of the Franciscan order. The artistic highlight of the museum was a painting of a monk that was formerly attributed to Caravaggio, but is now believed to be a copy. Andrea is a student of art and he gave us a short biography of why Caravaggio, who was hiding out in another part of Italy after having killed a man, could not have completed the painting on the date attributed.
The highlight of this part of the tour, and what we had really come to see, is in the basement of the church; six crypts filled with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks who have died since the 16th century. The decorations fashioned by the monks from all those bones included chandeliers, skeletons dressed in Capuchin robes, bones arranged in patterns on the ceilings and walls, skulls with shoulder blades for wings, and just plain old piles of bones. This is all very interesting to see – my daughter nearly salivated at the sight of all those skulls – but after visually absorbing it, the two obvious questions are – why would they do this and what is the significance? It was critical to have Andrea there to explain the symbolism of the motifs – I won’t take away all of his thunder, but I will put a little meat on the bone for you – Christianity, the cycle of life, and rebirth.
THE CATACOMBS OF PRISCILLA
The second part of the tour required us to take a shuttle bus outside of the city walls to the Catacombs di Priscilla. The site comprises nearly 7 miles of underground tunnels, and my kids were glad we didn’t have to hike through all of them. The parts we did walk through, carved out of the soft volcanic tufa stone that provides the foundation for Rome, were well lit to highlight the thousands of shelves where bodies of early Christians were laid to rest. No bones remain because at some point the tunnels were looted, and the bones were either returned to their families to be interred on more sacred grounds (for example, in a cemetery next to a church) or sold as souvenirs. Though, Andrea did show us one femur bone that had been left behind.
What struck me from Andrea’s dialogue during this part of the tour was his contrast of Christianity as a lower cost alternative to paganism. He also drew parallels between the two from imagery in the several frescoes that have survived from the early days of the complex. It was fascinating to hear, but much deeper than either of my kids cared to delve. They were more interesting in exploring the maze of hallways – some of the corridors run off into infinite darkness. It was easy to imagine how dank, dark and scary a place this must have been when it was full of bodies, and how easy it would be for the current curator to freak everybody out by pulling the plug on the lights for 30 seconds!
There were two other interesting points for me to this leg of the tour. First, it required a journey outside the city walls. Because our accommodations were in the city center, this was our one and only foray outside the walls of the ancient city into modern Rome. It was interesting to get this perspective on the city. Second, Andrea showed us some graffiti done by U.S. soldiers who were obviously in a celebratory mood a few days after the liberation of Rome from the Nazis in 1944. We wondered if they had ever been back.
After another bus ride, we made the final stop of the tour – back in the city center at the 12th century Basilica di San Nicola in Carcere. The purpose of our visit here was, again, a visit to the underground. This time to the basement to see the original columns of the pagan temple that the church was built over. But the highlight was about fifty feet worth of an original Roman pedestrian market, with recesses where the merchant stalls would be in the walls on either side of the sidewalk. Even the kids perked at this – to realize that this was the original level where the hustle and bustle of ancient Rome took place; far removed from the bustle going on above our heads. It reminded us of what Andrea had said when introducing the tour – Rome is like a lasagna. It has many layers – and by going into its crypts and catacombs we had gotten a taste of the religious foundation on which it was built.
The Crypts, Bones & Catacombs tour cost 160 Euros and lasted about three hours – with about 30 minutes of that spent in a bus going to the different sites. It is a group tour, but due to the small spaces of the sites visited, groups are kept to a maximum of 15 persons. We never had a problem hearing Andrea through our headsets, and he added a lot of depth and history to the sites in good English and with humor. It was because of Andrea that my wife and I learned a lot. But this tour is not tailored for kids nor is it advertised as such. Our kids were more interested in the novelty of the bones and wandering in the underground spaces than listening to what the guide said, so although they liked the tour overall because it was spooky, they got bored.
There were two other children on our tour. One, a 12-year old boy, felt the same way as our kids. The other boy on the tour was 16 and a self-proclaimed history geek. He loved the tour but recognized that not every 16-year old would feel the same. If you think you have a child or children who would be interested in listening to a lot of history and interpretation of art and its meaning, you won’t be disappointed with what you see and learn on this tour. However, if you think this tour is not for you and your family, it is obvious to us from our experience that Walks of Italy is a reputable company that employs high-quality guides. You can find information about other tours offered by Walks of Italy in Rome and throughout Italy at www.walksofitaly.com.
- Walks of Italy
- From the US (toll-free): +1-888-683-8670