The Bare Bones of Rome

One of Rome's most unusual attractions is right on the tourist route yet is seen by very few visitors. The drab exterior and long set of steps up to the front door of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione discourage anyone who hasn't already heard about the church's amazing crypt.

Still, despite its unattractive facade it's hard to fault the address. Located on Via Vittorio Veneto the church is in the heartland of La Dolce Vita, Fellini's 1960 cinematographic ode to Rome's high society. The sidewalk cafes, restaurants and fashion shops are still there but some of the gloss has rubbed off since Marcello Mastroianni's day.

On the other hand, the neighbourhood church is famous because a lot of the old timers are still there. Well, their bones are anyway - many tastefully organised into lamps, feature walls and occasional furniture.

The crypt of the church has five chambers containing the remains of 4000 Capuchin monks. Although it is called a "cimitero", this lot aren't stuck out of sight in the cold soil. Rather they have been arranged in a series of tableaux and pleasing motifs and visitors are welcome to view the nearly-departed previous residents.

Ceilings decorated with vertebrae, lamps suspended on fibulae and skulls grinning from every nook and cranny certainly capture one's attention. The complete skeleton on the ceiling holding a scythe of bones is an overstatement but most of the arrangements are as tasteful as possible.

I wonder if monasteries of an earlier age used to run courses in "Taxidermy as Home Decoration", "Creations in Calcium" or perhaps "Skulls: Cleaning and Care of" - or even "1001 Pleasing Patterns with Knee Caps"?

If I'd been a Capuchin monk back then I would have been decidedly nervous about falling ill when another chamber was due for decoration.

The bare bones of the facts behind the crypt reveal little. The church was built for a Cardinal Barberini around 1626 and there's a painting by Caravaggio in the chapel. The skeletal decor downstairs (that one guide refers to as "la macabra composizione") was created in the Baroque age of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Decorating in bones isn't a current practice so Capuchin monks signing up today can breathe easy. They don't have to worry about the exact nature of their long term employment if the church ever considers adding a new wing.

I wonder what the previous owners of the skeletons thought about their ultimate disposal. Several skeletons watching over the crypts are clothed in monks robes. One carries the distinctly non-reassuring message "what you are now, I once was; what I am now, you will be".

True enough, but I doubt that people of the future will be making a donation to see me encrypted with 3999 other travel writers.

When I visited the crypts recently, the ancient monk collecting our contributions seemed long overdue to join his forebears. He spoke no English - a useful attribute at an attraction that creates many doubts and questions in every visitor's mind.

Nor did he have to work hard to enforce a mood of quiet and sombre reflection: we were all stunned into silence. I'd been here before and now know that familiarity doesn't breed contempt or complacency.

The first time I chanced upon these bizarre chambers of horror was in 1977. My visit coincided with a group of fresh-faced young Mormons from America's Salt Lake City.

After we completed the tour and staggered back out into the sunlight each of us was struggling to find words that would put the experience in perspective.

Finally, the girl I was standing alongside spoke for all of us: "Lordy, that's going to be an awfully confusing place on Judgement Day."

* The crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione is at 27 Via Vittorio Veneto, Rome, tel 06/462850. It is open 9am to noon and 3pm-6pm from May to October. Admission is free but a donation is strongly encouraged.

* For information about Italy, contact CIT Australia at 422 Collins St, Tel. (03) 670 1322, Fax (03) 670 8166. CIT specialises in Italy and produces an annual brochure with a comprehensive range of hotels, rail passes, car hire and tours for independent visitors.

* Cathay Pacific flies to Rome from Melbourne via Hong Kong four times a week. For fare details call Cathay Pacific on 131 747.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd