The Times-Picayune
June 4, 2000

 I’ve always been fascinated with cemeteries.

As a child growing up in New Jersey, when I was too young to be afraid, my friends and I used to play hide-and-seek among the tombstones. By grade school, I’d learned about fear, and that you couldn’t talk or breathe when you drove past a graveyard, because if you did you could suck in a waiting ghost. On more than one car trip, my parents became angry with me when I wouldn’t respond to them. They didn’t realize we were passing a cemetery at the time, and my soul was on the line.

I’ve dropped the superstitions, but I am still drawn to cemeteries. Moving to New Orleans was a macabre dream come true. I love walking through the aisles of crypts and reading the names and dates, making up stories about the families locked together forever and seeing who shares my birthday. (It’s a little creepier when I find someone who died on the day I was born, but I still keep looking.)

I know others share this fascination. So for the European traveler, I offer “The Death Tour of Italy.” Go to the museums, drink the wine, but take some time for these excursions. If you think New Orleans has the market cornered on unique final resting places, you’ll see it isn’t the case at all.

*** The Crypt of the Capuchins ***

Don’t think “Cities of the Dead.” Think “Apartments of the Morbid.”

One of my all-time favorite cemeteries is inside a plain brick church on a busy street in the Italian capital. The Church of the Immaculate Conception on Via Vittorio Veneto in Rome houses the remains of more than 4,000 Capuchin monks.

But these friars aren’t neatly buried in the ground or sealed in a crypt. Instead, their bones — their fingers, vertebrae, skulls, shoulder blades, you name it — are used to decorate five rooms linked by a 20-foot corridor. The bodies aren’t intact: A monk’s ribs might be in the first room, the crypt of the resurrection; his pelvis in the aptly named crypt of the pelvises; and parts of his legs in the crypt of the leg bones and thigh bones. His vertebrae could be evenly spread throughout all the crypts.

Is it sick? Let’s put it this way: The Marquis de Sade liked this place.

The Capuchins began work on their cemetery in the late 1700s, and finished it about 100 years later. The purpose, they said, was to produce an artistic impression of “our sister bodily death,” as St. Francis called it. Some of the original crypt creators are preserved whole, complete with their brown hoods, in niches they designed along the walls.

There are lamps made of jaws, rosettes made of shoulder blades and a clock crafted from vertebrae, fingers and foot bones. The crypt of the skulls is just what it sounds like, row on top of row of skulls. In this room, it’s important to remember that these aren’t family crypts. These monks are forever tied to what we may consider their co-workers. So imagine your boss and five people in your office whom you dislike. Now imagine your skull on a shelf next to theirs for 200 years.

The most worthwhile purchase in the gift shop is a little guidebook, available in English, that describes the rooms. Read it deadpan: “The vault is lined by two broad friezes of leg and arm bones, with vertebrae on the outside and sacral bones on the inside. In the middle are three striking decorative elements in which circles of flowers and ribs predominate, with vertebrae and foot bones in the central section.”

In the last room, the crypt of the three skeletons, a plaque on the floor begs respect for the dearly departed: “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.”

I don’t think so. The first person to use my finger bones for a lamp is in for a first class haunting.

The Crypt of the Capuchins, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Via Vittorio Veneto 27. Hours: 9 a.m. to noon; 3 to 6 p.m., closed Thursdays. Admission is by donation.

*** The Catacombs ***

At one time, it wasn’t cool to be a Christian in Rome. When Emperor Nero ruled in the first century, he called Christianity “a strange and illegal superstition.” In the second century, Christians began burying their dead underground, but not in the style we know today.

Instead, they created miles of subterranean tunnels on four levels. Recesses were cut into the walls, one atop the other, to house one to four bodies. Stone coffins or statues marked the graves of prominent Christians. The church’s early martyrs were placed in separate chambers, their tombs used as altars.

In the beginning, the catacombs were only burial places. During times of Christian persecution, they became safe havens, places to worship, and, some say, to hide. In modern times, the catacombs are a common stop for those on pilgrimages.

The catacombs are unique, and a worthwhile trip. A guided tour will cost a little more, but is worth the money. Carved statues of St. Sebastian and St. Cecilia mark their holy remains. There are no longer bodies lying in niches, but visitors can read the walls, rich in paintings and symbols. An anchor, the symbol of salvation, represents a soul that has reached its final port. A fish, the common symbol of Jesus Christ, appears often. Some walls bear writings about Sts. Peter and Paul, who at one time may have been buried here.

And, as a bonus, wandering the underground tunnels is a great way to get out of the sun. On a hot day, it’s nice to lean your cheek against the cool stone of a sarcophagus.

The Catacombs, Via Appia Antica 110. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to noon; 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., Thursday through Tuesday. Paid admission.

*** Florence: Santa Croce ***

Although this is a Franciscan church and the members of its order swore to live in poverty, this ornate, gothic structure contains the tombs of some of the city’s most notable past residents: Michelangelo, Galileo and Niccolo Machiavelli, to name a few.

Each grave is marked with elaborate sculptures and long tributes to those who lie within. There are stories behind each grave: For example, Michelangelo died in Rome, but a group of Florentines stole his body, and he lay in state in Santa Croce before being put to rest behind Vasari’s sculpture.

Although Dante isn’t buried here, his unsmiling statue greets visitors out front, and a smaller monument is inside. A native Florentine, the author of “The Divine Comedy” was exiled from the city in 1302 after taking the losing side in a political uprising. The city invited Dante back in 1316, but he refused and spent the rest of his days in Ravenna, where he died in 1321. He was buried there, despite repeated pleas from the Florentines that he be returned. The memorial in Santa Croce is the city’s way of making up for its mistakes, and staking a claim to the famous writer.

Be careful where you step in Santa Croce, because the floor is covered with old tombstones. Some are ornate reliefs and make for uneven footing. (Plus, it’s disconcerting to look down and see that you’re stepping on a carved figure in eternal repose.) But take time to admire the stones and follow the family ties.

Many of the markers are adorned with family crests, and it’s fun to play mix-and-match with members of the Peruzzi family, whose crest contains pears, or the Medici family, whose tombs are marked by a shield with six balls. These families, along with others, built their own chapels within the church. Artists such as Donatello and Giotto decorated these once-private, now public, prayer spaces, making Santa Croce worth the price of admission.

Added bonuses: a piece of St. Francis’ robe is in one of the church’s rear rooms. Even farther back is a leather workshop maintained by the Franciscan brothers who live here. Visitors can watch belts and wallets being hammered out or have a coat or purse custom made. But be warned: Prices here are fairly high. Better bargains can be found in the market near the church of San Lorenzo.

Santa Croce, Piazza di Santa Croce. Hours: April to October, 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., daily; November to March, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., 3 to 6:30 p.m., daily. Admission is free.

*** The Medici Tombs ***

The Medici family ruled Florence off and on for almost three centuries. This family spawned two queens of France and three popes and was tied by marriage to many of Europe’s royal houses. They were rich, they were powerful, and, luckily for the generations that have followed, they loved art. Michelangelo, Botticelli and Donatello were a few of the artists who enjoyed their patronage.

The family’s tombs are attached to the rear of San Lorenzo, a plain church that sits in the middle of a bustling marketplace. The simple exterior belies what is inside. Visitors first enter the Chapel of the Princes, which is literally breathtaking. The room is constructed of pietra dura mosaics, intricate patterns and pictures made from tiny pieces of hard, often precious stones, such as amethyst and agate. The fleur-de-lis, the city’s symbol, which the Florentines borrowed from France, and the Medici coat of arms are two of the repeated images. It took more than 300 years to complete the chapel’s stonework. Along the walls are the tombs of the six Medici grand dukes.

From this room, visitors should head toward the new sacristy to see Michelangelo’s allegorical figures of Dusk, Dawn, Night and Day. Despite the beauty of the statues, there is a sense of melancholy in the room. During one of the city’s many upheavals, Michelangelo went into hiding here, and was so bored he started drawing on the walls. His sketches of the human body, some of which resemble his sculpture of David, as well as a series of lines he used to mark his time in hiding, are still visible.

Added bonus: In various side rooms, there are rows of saintly artifacts, some in elaborate reliquaries. Early Christians thought that the more saintly body parts they had in their city, the greater their chances of getting into heaven. Judging from the collection on display here, the Medicis could afford an express trip through St. Peter’s Gate.

Cappelle Medici, San Lorenzo, Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 8:30 a.m. to 1:20 p.m., Sunday and Monday. Last admission 30 minutes before closing. Paid admission.

*** Pompeii: The Ancient City ***

Ancient Pompeii was a resort town for wealthy Romans. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, the entire town was covered in volcanic ash. It stayed that way, safe from outside harm, for more than 1,600 years.

When excavations began in the mid-1700s, archaeologists found a city frozen in time. Fleeing residents carried off smaller household items, but much of what archaeologists know of Roman life in the first century comes from discoveries made here. The roads have carriage ruts. The walls have graffiti. Follow the penis-shaped arrows on the road to the local whorehouses. (It was an international city, and the arrows were designed to lead non-Latin speaking sailors to their favorite ports of call.) One of the houses still has a “beware of dog” sign out front. (In Latin, of course.)

Other homes still have elaborate tile designs on the floor and frescoes painted on the walls. One worthwhile purchase I made before going to Pompeii was one of those “Then and Now” books, in which one page features an area in modern times and another depicts the city in its prime.

The cemetery tie here? Besides the fact that Pompeii is a first class ghost town, the remains of some of the volcano’s 2,000 victims are still preserved. Ashes mixed with rain settled around the bodies, forming casts that lasted long after the human remains were gone. You can see the cast of a mother, stretched out, with her child curled up beside her. In another section of the city, chained prisoners are forever captive. As one guidebook says, “the ghosts of the distant past are almost tangible on the site.” It’s eerily true.

To get to Pompeii from Naples, take the Circumvesuviana train from Piazza Gariboldi. The excavation site is open 9 a.m. to one hour before sunset, daily. Paid admission.

*** WWII American Cemetery ***

The cemetery occupies 77 acres on the north edge of the town of Nettuno, about 30 miles from Rome. In some ways, it looks like any American war cemetery, with rows of even headstones and lush green grass. In others, it is uniquely Italian, with Roman pine and cypress trees flanking the graves. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, with gentle slopes and a large pool on the grounds.

Many of those remembered here died in the liberation of Sicily in 1943, the landing at Anzio Beach and the expansion of the Allied beachhead in 1944. Many say the Anzio landing paved the way for the D-Day invasion on June 6.

Among the Americans who survived this campaign were former U.S. Sens. Bob Dole and Claiborne Pell and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. In 1994, President Clinton visited the cemetery to commemorate 50 years of liberation. Clinton’s biological father served in Italy during World War II.

Besides the 7,862 American fighters who are buried here, the names of 3,095 missing soldiers are inscribed on the white marble walls of the cemetery’s chapel. In the same building, a room contains a bronze relief map and four frescoes depicting the military operations in Sicily and Italy.

World War II Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, Nettuno. Open daily. Summer, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; winter, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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