Bodies on display. An alternative Roman Tour

By Leonardo Rossi

Rome, bodies, (aspiration to) eternity. If these keywords arouse your interest, then you are reading the right post. Whether you are travelling with your imagination sitting on a cosy sofa or walking on the centuries-old cobblestones of Rome, this alternative tour throws you into popular Roman devotion, showing you stages unfamiliar to tourists but well known to the Catholic faithful, based on the displayed bodies of saints and blessed people.

The veneration of corpses (both religious and secular) is certainly not a new aspect in Rome, but the mortal remains of illustrious personalities have attracted the attention of local citizens and foreign visitors for millennia. Here in ancient Rome, rituals for the dead and the celebration of their memory were once elaborate practices. Accordingly, the emperors received public funerals that included people’s participation and burial in sumptuous mausoleums (such as those of Augustus and Hadrian). Then, with the advent of Christianity, the places of torture of the first martyrs (e.g., Peter and Paul) became significant places of worship. Starting from the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, the first archaeological excavations brought to light paleochristian underground cemeteries and thousands of bodies contained therein, so that between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, visiting the narrow cuniculi of the catacombs became a must for Grand Tour travellers, as well as commemorating the tombs of celebrities. Even today, you can pay homage to Raffaello Sanzio and King Vittorio Emanuele II in the Pantheon, as well as Antonio Gramsci and Percy Bysshe Shelley in the non-Catholic Cemetery. On the latter’s epitaph, his wife and writer, Mary Shelley, had the moving words Cor cordium (heart of hearts) engraved, in the hope of crystallising their love for all eternity, hence making it one of the most romantic places in the city.

The curiosity towards death and corpses has recently given rise to several commercial initiatives, such as setting up exhibitions or creating thematic itineraries. With this, the German anatomopathologist, Gunther von Hagens, brought to Rome, not without criticism and perplexity, the exhibition on ‘plasticised’ bodies entitled Body worlds: The real world of the human body, from 14th September, 2011 to 31stMarch, 2012. Every year here, during the day of the catacombs, catacombs and archaeological mortuary sites, usually closed to the public, are open for free (this year, the fourth edition took place on 16th October). In addition, numerous tourist guides offer visits to monumental cemeteries (such as the Verano), Vatican Grottoes (the place that contains the bodies of the Popes), reliquaries and ossuaries of many churches (one of the most characteristic is probably Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini).

Anna Maria Taigi (1769-1837)

Despite the competitive offer and the many attractions, the tour I propose has the ambition of being an alternative and a standout from these routes for several reasons. First of all, it does not lead you to discover tombs, cemeteries or reliquaries, but shows you the human remains of heroes of the Catholic faith whose bodies have behaved out of the ordinary in the afterlife. Among these phenomena considered prodigious by the faithful (and not by the Catholic Church, which does not recognise these signs as proof of holiness) can include incorruption of the flesh, flexibility of the limbs, emanation of perfumes and fragrances, and emission of ‘fresh’ blood days – or even years – after death. These wonders could be attested when the saint-to-be has passed away or, after a while, during a formal procedure called ‘ricognitio’ in canon law (i.e., the exhumation and examination of the body). The corpses you will see belong to people who lived between 1750 and 1950 approximately. After their process of beatification or canonisation, they would be put on display in crystal cases, in churches or sanctuaries in Rome and its province. In this regard, the dead remains have usually undergone treatment to create an image that was not scary or disturbing to the believers, but that communicates the peaceful rest of the saints and their victory over death. The practice of showing bodies here is not just typical of Rome or the period considered; however, in Rome and in this time, we can count a number that – at the current state of research – have no equal in other geographical and chronological contexts.

Pius IX (1792-1878)

What are we going to see by clicking on the different pins? Well, we’re going to learn about the facts and curiosities of twelve bodies exhibited in Rome and its province. They are stories of popes (Pius IX, Pius X and John XXIII), charismatic mothers and wives (Anna Maria Taigi), martyrs (Maria Goretti and Giovanni Lantrua), priests (Stefano Bellesini and Bernardo Silvestrelli), foundresses (Paola Frassinetti and Maria Crocifissa Curcio) and founders (Vincenzo Pallotti and Giacomo Alberione). We will see how their bodies have been put on display and what techniques have been used. In certain cases, their remains (after being found in an exceptional state of conservation) have only been treated with chemicals, for safety reasons (civil law imposes rules on the treatment of human corpses), while aesthetic interventions have been made in others as well, such as the application of masks in different materials (for example, wax, silver, plastic and silicone). Finally, we will learn more about particular religious practices, such as the recognition of the bodies and popular devotions towards them.

Bernardo Silvestrelli (1831-1911)

Before letting you explore the tour virtually, via the link you will find below, I would like to draw your attention to a fundamental aspect; that the goal of this tour is not to judge the preservation of a corpse or the miraculous nature of the incorruption, but to look at these bodies from the faithful’s perspective. For them, these cadavers embodied religious meanings, since they belonged to charismatic and trustworthy figures and because, after death, they behaved prodigiously. In this respect, they were considered miraculous, as proof of the divine election of the saints and their entry into heaven, endowed with thaumaturgical powers and the ability to work graces. For these reasons, these bodies were – and still are today – worshipped by believers and at the centre of religious practices and the life of the local community.

Enjoy the tour!


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