If love, art and spirituality are the words of Florence, there is really only one word for Rome:
The Renaissance artists of Florence revered something greater than their bodies could contain. The giants of Rome, convinced of their glory and wanting to hold onto their greatness, continued creating new and larger ways to express its magnitude in architecture and sculpture. Nothing is miniature in Rome; life is big here.
The monuments of Constantine, Hadrian, and Caesar each vie for the last word. Taller. Bolder. More ornate. The Spanish Steps, the Vittorio Emmanuel, the Bernini sculptures, the Fontana di Trevi. The Colosseum. The Palatine. Even in ruin, life feels larger than life. These are the Gods that men imagined themselves to be. And in imagining, so they became.
And then there is the tiny, hidden Crypt of the Capuchins.
We are settled in at the Hotel Boscolo on the Via Veneto, the epicenter of La Dolce Vita, surrounded by the modern day giants Gucci and Mario Testino. LIfe is magnanimous here. Doormen open our way to Rome each morning and welcome us back each evening. Concierge and wait staff anxiously compete to anticipate our every need. Delicate appetizers and bottled Perugino wait to please us in our room each night (although Carly doesn’t understand why they place food on the table where she throws her clothes…yeah, we belong here).
But just a few steps down the Via Veneto we find an underground message that seems to unveil the grand folly of all the Roman emperors and empires, ancient and present day. Here lies a buried treasure trove of the grander secrets of life and death.
Here lies the cryptic message of the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception.
The Capuchins are a simple order of monks dating back hundreds of years. Their reverence for life lies not in their enshrinement of saints and friars; no marble Medici tombs, no Papal precious displays of holy relics.
Their writing on the walls lies underneath it all, in the crypt beneath their church.
The Capuchin crypt has no brightly painted frescoes covered in gold leaf, no artist’s depiction of the rewards of heaven or the perils of hell. The Capuchin crypt is a dead-on look at mortality. It is a comic book joke on all those who had lasting ideas about their greatness, from Romulus and Remus, to Bulgari.
That’s all, folks.
Here in these crypt compartments, the simple, quiet followers of St. Francis of Assisi literally decorate the walls: these tombs are adorned with the actual bones of hundreds of Capuchin brothers who lived and died here.
Death here is an art form.
And it as startling as any Byzantine mosaic of heavenly saints and gods and prophets. Only the medium here is not brightly colored bits of glass; it is the bleached bones of human beings.
Let’s face it, say all the skulls on the walls: decay does not produce golden halos. and it is not energized with contrapposto; it is dusty and frozen and still. Just look at the shrouded Monks who embody death with their heads bowed, their decaying bodies slouching and shriveling visibly beneath thick burlap robes.
Then there are those who went to pieces for the cause.
Entire crypt chambers are decorated with spinal column ceiling spandrels. Femur bones frame the walls. A frieze of skulls stare blankly from eyeless holes. Pelvic bones form florals. Tailbones take on treelike formations. Ribcages poke fun as candleholders. Sacral bones as sacred lantern covers. Jawbones jut out of nooks and crevices. Shoulder blades support this silent story of the Capuchins.
They are living illuminated manuscripts. It is a most deadly serious story, far outweighing all those massive monumental tributes.
Were these little Capuchin monks of the 1600s laughing silently at the large egos of all those great leaders who imagined they would continue if they could just create something large enough to live forever?
I don’t think so.
The humble Capuchin monks do not mean to ridicule or to begrudge anyone his or her moment of glory; they just have a different idea of a truly lasting last thought:
” As you are now, I once was. As I am now, so you too will become.” That’s the simple message carved on a plaque in the final room of this meandering crypt.
Everything has its moment, and everything moves on.
And so I as wander about, awestruck by the glory of Rome, it is the whispered message of the Capuchin crypt I hear beneath every gasp.
It is actually comforting, this reminder that everyone and everything comes home. And home can be a beautiful place from which to start and end.
That is good for me to remember, as my days here come down to three. I find myself lying awake nights now, wondering what those mornings back at home will feel like. Will all the worries of the worn-out life that brought me so far away come home to roost? Or can I recreate my life from the old ashes and have the life I want, as I have done here in Italy?
Homes change. People transform. It can be scary to let go and start a transformation, but it is preferable to holding on in vain to something that was never meant to stay still.
Life is an art form. But it is not a still life.
There are no final answers. Everything is constantly decaying and transforming in that bottomless tar pit deep inside myself.
Decay is only the first sign that something new is taking shape. It’s too late to turn away from the truth of a new story.
And how will that new story turn out?
It’s too soon to tell.