The crypt of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is decorated with the skulls and bones of thousands of Capuchin monks who died between 1528 and 1870.
The bodies (up to 4,000) were initially buried in the crypt, without coffins, in soil said to have been brought to Rome from the Holy Land. When the bodies had decayed the bones were added to the decorative displays.
The church, itself, was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44), whose brother, Antonio Barberini, was a Capuchin friar. It was designed by Antonio Casoni and built between 1626 and 1631.
The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin was founded by Matteo da Bascio (1495-1552) in 1528. The origin of the ossuary, however, is shrouded in mystery.
When the Capuchins moved into the church in 1631 they brought with them 300 cartloads full of the bones of fellow friars, which had been stored in a nearby convent. When, and why, they started to transform the bones into the displays we see today remains unknown.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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