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
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
The article 'Rome’s most mysterious places' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.