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A city as multi-layered, ancient, and chaotically alive as Rome is bound to contain many mysterious corners.

One of these mysteries lies on Aventino, one of Rome’s seven hills, home to a leafy and tranquil residential district with some of the city’s most desirable housing. The Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, designed by the Italian artist Piranesi in the 18th Century, is decked with enigmatic symbols, the overall effect being of a Piranesi engraving that has sprung to life. To one side is a great closed door, which leads to the Priory of the Knights of Malta. Come up here at any time, day or night, and there is likely to be a few people peering through a hole in the door. Peek through yourself and you will see a surreally perfect view of St Peter’s, framed by an avenue of trees.

Second on a list of Rome’s remarkably strange places is the Mithraic temple that lies deep beneath the 12th Century church of St Clemente on Via San Giovanni in Laterano. Beneath the uppermost church lies a 4th-century church, and beneath this lies the dark, dank temple, with its altar bearing a carving of the god Mithras slaying a bull. Descending here is like descending into the underworld.

If that is not enough to send a shiver down the spine, try what must be one of the world’s more bizarre museums, the Museo delle Anime dei Defunti (Lungotevere Prati 12). This is a museum of lost souls, attached to the church of Sacro Cuore di Gesù. It contains the handprints and fingerprints of lost souls in purgatory, left on prayer books and clothing of the living in order to request masses to release them from purgatory. One exhibit consists of some scorched banknotes, apparently left outside a church as a message from beyond the grave.

The next stop on this magical mystery tour is the Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, the final resting place of Santa Cecilia. When her body was recovered from the Catacomb di San Callisto in 1599, it was apparently found to be miraculously preserved. Thus she is represented within the church, in a delicate sculpture by Stefano Moderno. This shows exactly how the body was when it was discovered, reclining as if she had merely slept since her death, sometime in the 2nd Century.

Yet another after-life anomaly is the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on Via Vittorio Veneto. This has been lavishly decorated in the ultimate of recycled decoration: human bones. The underground chapel contains the remains of around 4,000 friars buried between 1500 and 1870. These memento mori (reminders of mortality) have been almost playfully fashioned into all sorts of decorative devices, from altars to lampshades, and a sign reads: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” Perhaps a wise point to quit the pursuit of the mysterious, and seek out some of the world’s best gelato and coffee instead.

 

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Rome’s most mysterious places’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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