Rome is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, crammed with architectural splendor, loaded with artistic virtuosity and steeped in ancient history. You can feel it as you walk through the city’s narrowed, cobbled streets; there’s something in the air in the Italian capital, and all that ancient history feels extremely present, thanks to Rome’s gorgeous grandeur. However, not all things are bright and beautiful, and like any good capital city, Rome has its dark side, too. Exploring this dark side can make for great fun, and stands in stark contrast to the usual must-see museum and Pantheon trips.
Life is all about balance, and so it is with any decent bucket list trip; if you’ve got the stomach for it, Rome has a whole host of dark secrets just waiting to be explored. As it happens, a lot of the city is pretty grim anyway; the Colosseum, for example, was the sight of countless deaths and maulings. But for the really fun stuff, you have to look a little harder.
Log on to BUCKiTDREAM to discover if any other ‘DREAMERS have turned to the dark side, then keep that BUCKiTDREAM planner within reach as we guide you through the fascinating (yet terrifying) dark secrets of Rome!
Go Face to Face with the Head of St. John the Baptist A few Christian strongholds around the world are vying for the honor of containing the ‘true head of John the Baptist’, but the San Silvestro church in the center of Rome makes a pretty strong claim. Interestingly, this church was built to house relics recovered from nearby catacombs, though most of them are stored out of view under the altar. Not the head of our boy though; that’s proudly on display in a small chapel to the left of the main church entrance.
Obviously, what was once a head is just a skull now, though the stained glass windows depicting John’s grisly end help invoke a sacred atmosphere. The church is located just off the main drag of Via Del Corso and makes a handy stop off during a relaxed city ramble.
Address: Piazza di S.Silvestro, 17A, 00187 Roma RM
Descend into the Vatican Necropolis Everyone knows what a stunning feat of architecture St. Peter’s Basilica is, and it’s rightly mobbed with tourists and Christians all year ’round. However, few people know that underneath the main church, five stories down, lie ruins that date all the way back to the pagan days of the Roman Empire. Directly under the main altar in the basilica lies the bones of St. Peter, and the rock with which the first church was built on, echoing Jesus’ biblical edict that Peter was the rock on which he would build his church.
There are traces of Constantine and Caligula, as well as a whole load of buried Christians, mausoleums and artifacts. Tours need to be booked through the Vatican website and be prepared to be flexible, as they seem to operate on a fairly improvised basis.
Address: Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano, Vatican City
Witness the Martyr Murals at Santo Stefano Rotondo A uniquely designed church with some very grisly subject matter, Santo Stefano Rotondo is located in the South East of the city, just down from the Colosseum. While most Catholic churches are shaped like a cross, this one is circular, which makes it all the better for displaying its bloody frescoes. Spiraling around the walls are paintings depicting the finales of 34 different martyrs; most of whom did not go gentle into that good night.
You’ve got folks being boiled alive, suffering a ham-fisted mastectomy, swallowing molten lead and all other kinds of horrors, including knives, hatchets and wild animals. It’s certainly a lot to take in, and isn’t a stop for the weak of heart; while the Christian faith, in general, is pretty blood-splattered, the martyr murals are an ancient horror film projected on the walls of a church. In other words, a must-see.
Address: Via Santo Stefano Rotondo, 7, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
Confront Your Own Mortality at the Capuchin Crypt Easily one of the most memorable things you can do in Rome, a trip to the Capuchin Crypt on Piazza Barberini is despairingly chilling and wonderfully life-affirming simultaneously. The Capuchins are a branch of Catholic friars who live by a very strict code and seemingly died by one as well. The bones of around 4,000 monks who died between 1528 and 1870 are now adorning the four rooms of the crypt in various forms; clocks, lampshades, butterflies, scythes and symmetrical patterns all unite to form one of the most bizarre crypts ever created.
It truly has to be seen to be believed, but once you lay eyes on it, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life. The monks are intent on making you remember it too; a plaque at the entrance reads, ‘What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you will be’. Never will you be so pleased to reemerge under the gorgeous Rome sun, and immediately go and reaffirm your existence with a creamy gelato.
Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
So, there’s the best of Rome’s dark side, but with a city as old as Rome, grim and bizarre discoveries are waiting around every corner; it’s up to you to seek them out! For more ideas about one of Europe’s most fascinating cities, check out 5 Mouthwatering Pasta Dishes and Where to Find 5 Caravaggio Masterpieces in Rome, and start cramming your BUCKiTDREAM planner with ideas and adventures for your perfect Roman bucket list!