Great Caesar's Ghost: Dery on Rome's Cemetery of the Capuchins

Crypt Of The Capuchins 4

Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

In the dream life of 18th and 19th Europe, Italy and the Gothic were conjoined twins.

The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764)—a spookhouse ride whose oubliettes, subterranean passageways, and doors that slam shut by themselves still stock the Gothic prop room—is set in Italy. In fact, the first edition purported to be a translation of a 16th-century manuscript by an Italian cleric named "Onuphrio Muralto," rediscovered in the library of "an ancient Catholic family in the north of England." Ann Radcliffe's hugely influential Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which provided seed DNA for all Gothic romances to come, takes place partly in Italy, in a gloomy medieval pile in the Apennines where Our Heroine is menaced by the sinister Count Montoni. (Radcliffe had used Italy as a backdrop before, in A Sicilian Romance (1790), and would again, in The Italian (1796), where a diabolical monk named Schedoni puts a twisted face on the terrors of the Inquisition.) To Northern Europeans, especially the English, Italy reeked of cultural atavism—the inbred depravity of a decaying aristocracy and the perversions of Papism (paganism in a reversed collar, as far as protestants were concerned).

It's as if the sheer antiquity of the place—all those Roman ruins, haunted by the godless shades of all those parricidal, pedophilic Caesars Gibbon described in such scandalous detail in the Decline and Fall (1776-1788)—deformed the Italian psyche, warping it under the accumulated weight of a thousand years of perversion and profanation, scheming and throat-slitting.

Crypt Of The Capuchins 3-1

To the Enlightenment mind, Ancient Rome was undeniably the embodiment of classical virtues in philosophy and culture. But the brilliance of Seneca, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil had to be weighed against the horrors of Nero, Domitian, and Caligula. True, the Apollonian perfection of a Roman column was an inspiring sight, even in ruins. But it was also a melancholy reminder that even Rome, the sunburst of Western civilization, had succumbed to an epic fail. By the Middle Ages, the Eternal City had decayed into a necropolis of 10,000, abandoned by the popes. By day, the Forum was a pasture for grazing cows; after dark, wolves hunted the streets of the Vatican.

The Grand Tour of the continent impressed these lessons on England's upper class. Intended to certify the scions of the powerful as worldly wise and culturally literate, worthy of their perch high up the social pyramid, the Grand Tour was by 1700 "part of an English gentleman's preparation for life," as Richard Davenport-Hines notes in Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin. Italy, more than any other country, was seen as indispensable in sanding the rough edges off entitled party animals, turning them into well-rounded gentlemen. (The term "Grand Tour" was first used in Richard Lassels's Voyage of Italy (1670).) The more studious Grand Tourists studied Italian and acquired a fashionable taste for Italian art and architecture: Charles Talbot, Duke of Shrewsbury, remodeled his Oxfordshire home on the Villa Borghese in Rome.

But English Italophilia was darkened by the shadow of the gothic. "The broken magnificence which was to become integral to the gothic imagination fascinated the English in Italy," writes Davenport-Hines. "The morbidness in their approach was exemplified by two young gentlemen…whose grand tour in 1707 took them to Rome, where they were 'assiduous…in visiting…the remains of the superb Monuments of the Grandeur and of the Magnificence of the Ancient Romans.' The Catacombs held a horrible fascination for the English brothers, [which] 'is not very surprising for young Men who had heard it said that a Company of four German Gentlemen were lost there for some time, previously, with their Guide, [and] would not have appeared again, had it not been that Trumpeters and Drummers were led there several times to see if the sound of these instruments of war would enable them to find the right way again…' Dark and gloomy caves, subterranean labyrinths, the despair of incarceration—all these are staples of the gothic imagination."

If classical Rome's reason and rectitude made it a beacon for the Enlightenment, the eeriness of Italy's decrepit castles, the blasphemy of its Popish heresies and macabre relics and incorruptible saints, and the Medici murders and pagan depravities buried in its cultural basement proved useful to 19th century Romantics. Brandishing the Gothic like an upside-down crucifix against neoclassicism, the Romantics championed imagination over reason, excess over economy, a morbid obsession with the past over a utopian faith in progress.

The momentous discovery, in the late 14th century, of mysterious grotte, or underground chambers, in Rome's Aventine hillside had exhumed the Gothic's close cousin, the Grotesque. The caverns turned out to be Nero's Playboy Mansion, a party villa called the Domus Aurea ("Golden House") whose droll mosaics and frescoes captivated Renaissance artists: writhing vines; chimerical beings, gene-spliced from humans and animals; surreal landscapes. Inspired by these grotteschi, as the decorative elements in Nero's "grottos" were called, Renaissance artists such as Raphael borrowed the creative license of the pre-Christian Romans—"the capricious and bizarre designs of pagan painters who were given freedom to invent whatever they pleased" (Frances Barasch)—and decorated their friezes with wriggling tendrils and fantastic humanimals. In time, the style became known as grottesco, or Grotesque.

The Grotesque rejoices in excess, exhibiting a horror vacui reminiscent of the obsessive figuration of schizophrenic art. It delights in the subversion of the social and even the natural order, symbolized by misbegotten creatures whose bodies hybridized man and beast. In its playful perversities, it hints, with an absurdist wit its close kin the Gothic lacks, at unsettling truths behind the world we think we know. (The Grotesque is what the Gothic looks like after augmentation humor-plasty. Poe's Tell-Tale Heart and Fall of the House of Usher are Gothic; his Cask of Amontillado and Hop-Frog are Grotesque. Nick Cave? Gothic. The Tiger Lillies? Grotesque. Frank Miller? Gothic. Basil Wolverton? Grotesque. Stephen King's It? Gothic. Shakes the Clown? Grotesque.) The Gothic is here to tell us that the past is never really dead and buried, that it may rise again from its shallow grave in the cultural unconscious—or the individual psyche, for that matter. In that sense, the Gothic is reactionary—crypto-conservative, almost. The Grotesque, by contrast, is deeply subversive—carnivalesque, in the Bakhtinian sense. It mocks our insistence on lives that have purpose and a cosmos that makes sense, knocking received truths and established hierarchies ass over teakettle.

Crypt Of The Capuchins 1

Think of these things as you make your way through the crypt of the Capuchin monks in Rome. From 1631 until 1870, the monks buried their dead here—some four thousand of them, reportedly. The musty, mineral smell of the hard-packed dirt floor mingles with the sweaty tang of your fellow Grand Tourists pressing close, their body heat turning the cramped corridor muggy. The corridor gives on six roped-off antechambers, or chapels. First up: the Crypt of the Resurrection, informs my helpful guidebook, Rinaldo Cordovani's Capuchin Cemetery (purchased in the Crypt's giftshop, naturally; we live in an age when even dust-mossed ossuaries have giftshops. I looked for the Capuchin Mummy Bendable Action Figure®, but was disappointed. With luck, some intrepid young monk with a knack for branding and marketing will read this post and take my hint…) Skulls and bones form an arch over a painting—Lazarus raised from the dead, fittingly. On the ceiling, skulls and what look like femurs, arranged in geometric shapes, simulate the effect of a coffered vault. Others explode in starburst patterns or tinkertoy themselves into trellises. Flanking the painting are two niches formed by arches of stacked skulls and leg- and thigh-bones; a skeleton, with just enough parchment skin still clingwrapping its skull to pass as a mummy, reposes in each, wearing the characteristic brown habit of the order. (Hence the term cappuccino.) In the second room, what might be scapulae and vertebrae describe crazy arcs across the ceiling; skeletons in habits, their empty-eyed skulls peering lugubriously out of the shadows of their cowls, stand propped against a wall of neatly stacked skulls. The third room, the Crypt of Skulls, features scapulae cascading down one wall, overlapping like scales on a suit of armor. In the fourth, the Crypt of the Pelvises, scapulae, pelvises, and assorted small bones form mescaline mandalas, turning the ceiling into a macabre kaleidoscope of fleurs-de-lis and rosettes (the central rosette being "formed by seven shoulder blades with appendages made of vertebrae, in a frame of sacral bones, vertebrae, and foot bones," notes my guidebook, in its anatomically exhausting way). The sixth and last chapel, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, stars the skeletons of three children. (The guidebook strikes a philosophical note: "Death has no favorite age.") One, the skeleton of a Barberini princess, holds a scythe and the scales of judgment, a minikin Grim Reaper.

The Marquis de Sade came here, appropriately enough, in 1775; in his Viaggio in Italia, he describes "well-preserved" skeletons "in varying attitudes, some reclining, others in the act of preaching, others at prayer," all clad in the Capuchin habit, some still wearing their beards. "Never have I seen anything so impressive," the Divine Marquis enthuses, advising the Grand Tourist who wants to experience the crypt's jolt at full voltage to visit in the suitably sepulchral gloom of the evening, rather than during the day, when the sunlight "abates the horror." In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne thrilled with horror at the ossified monks:

Crypt Of The Capuchins, 2The arrangement of the unearthed skeletons is what makes the special interest of the cemetery. […] There is no possibility of describing how ugly and grotesque is the effect, combined with a certain artistic merit, nor how much perverted ingenuity has been shown in this queer way… In the side walls of the vaults are niches where skeleton monks sit or stand, clad in the brown habits that they wore in life… Their skulls (some quite bare, and others still covered with yellow skin, and hair that has known the earth-damps) look out from beneath their hoods, grinning hideously repulsive. One reverend father has his mouth wide open, as if he had died in the midst of a howl of terror and remorse, which perhaps is even now screeching through eternity.

By the last chamber, the brain is reeling. The claustrophobic confines of the crypt, the dizzy geometry of the anatomical arrangements, a Baroque delirium of rosettes and florettes and eight-pointed stars, all made of bones, bones, bones: it begins to feel like a bad-acid flashback, brought to you by Pol Pot. And then you come to appreciate the Spirograph rhythms of it all, the—gothic? grotesque?—aesthetic of the repeating visual melodies of capitals and crosses and cornices outlined in bones, and you remember something Francis Bacon said—"There is no excellent Beauty, that hath not some Strangeness in the Proportion"—and it makes a certain mad sense, after all.

Cimitero Monumentale dei Padri Cappucchini, Chiesa Immacolata Concezione ("Santa Maria della Concezione"), at the intersection of via Veneto 27 and via Cappuccini. Open Friday-Wednesday, 9-noon and 3-6 P.M. Tel. 06-4871185. Metro: Barberini. Admission: voluntary donation. Note: The crypt is hallowed ground; appropriate attire required. Women in short shorts or plunging décolletage will be turned away. Church website

Images: Cemetery of the Capuchins, Rome, Italy. Postcard. Reproduced under Fair Use clause of copyright law.