Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is a 17th century convent church at Via Vittorio Veneto 27 in the modern rione Ludovisi (part of the historic Rione Colonna). Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
PLEASE IGNORE ALL GUIDEBOOK AND ONLINE INFORMATION ON ACCESS WHICH DATES FROM BEFORE 2012. IT IS WRONG. THE OSSUARY CAN ONLY NOW BE VISITED BY BUYING A MUSEUM TICKET.
The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her aspect of the Immaculate Conception. This is the first church in Rome with this particular dedication, for the Franciscan Friars Minor Capuchin (for whom it was built) were fervent proponents of the doctrine before it became a dogma.
The name as given is the familiar historical one. The church has also been known as Santa Maria Immacolata ("St Mary the Immaculate"), and Chiesa dei Cappuccini ("Church of the Capuchins"). The former is preferred by the Diocese, and the official name is now Santa Maria Immacolata in Via Veneto. The latter is a nickname which has been commonly used in guidebooks and other writings.
The church should not be confused with Santa Maria della Concezione in Campo Marzio, nor with Santa Maria della Concezione delle Farnesiane which once stood where the Via Cavour is now before it was demolished.
Since the early 20th century, there have been three Franciscan orders claiming descent from the original charism of St Francis -the Franciscan Conventuals, the Franciscan Friars Minor, and the Capuchins. This in turn was a tidying-up of a situation where several congregations had resulted from efforts in various countries to reform the Franciscans.
The original charism of St Francis was extremely demanding, and his followers have found it hard to maintain throughout the centuries. The three aspects perhaps most challenging have been the requirement of absolute poverty, individual and communal; the lack of any social status or secular prestige; and the maintenance of a penitential yet joyful lifestyle in solidarity with the crucified Christ. How to interpret these charismata was a divisive issue even before the death of the founder, and the attractions of a comfortable and respectable life have always been hard to resist. (A cynic might note that the charisms of the present-day three Franciscan orders are not easy to distinguish as a result, apart from trivial details in dress symbolism such as footwear and colour of habits. However, this is probably more to do with the pernicious influence of secular clericalism in the last two centuries.)
Matteo da Bascio became the first Capuchin in 1525, when he set out to return the Franciscans of the Italian Marches to an exact interpretation of the Rule of St Francis. He suffered much opposition from establishment interests, and also serious problems with lunatic and heretic followers. However, his followers gained credibility even though he himself did not persevere in the project.
A determined commitment to poverty made them popular among ordinary people -the early Capuchin friars begged their food each day, wore a simple rough tunic made of cheap cloth and always went barefoot (no sandals). The distinguishing characteristics of beards (which were not allowed to be trimmed) and a the wearing of a separate little hood called the capuce (hence the name) derived from the Camaldolese monks, who helped to defend the infant reform movement against its enemies.
San Niccolò de PortiisEdit
In the second half of the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII granted the church of San Niccolò di Portiis, the present Santa Croce e San Bonaventura dei Lucchesi, to the nascent Capuchins, and they erected their first purpose-built friary in Rome here. A new church was constructed in 1575 just to the west of the old one, with the apse abutting onto its former façade. This arrangement looks as if the friars used the old church as their choir chapel, as an identical arrangement occurs in many other Roman convents including their future church of Santa Maria della Concezione.
This new church was dedicated to St Bonaventure.
St Felix of Cantalice spent a great part of his life at this friary. Born in 1515, he became a Capuchin early in that order's history and was sent to Rome in 1547 as a quaestor. This Latin term means "seeker", and it was his job to tour the streets begging for the friars' daily sustenance (they were not allowed to possess property, or the means to earn a cash income). He did this for forty years, becoming a famous religious personality in his own right before his death at the convent in 1587.
The convent of St Bonaventure was cramped, and hence was found unsatisfactory as the new order grew. A solution was arranged by the first cardinal of the Capuchins, Antonio Marcello Barberini. He was one of the noble Florentine Barberini family, but was genuinely pious and rejected his privileged status by joining the Capuchins in Florence in 1585. However, his brother was elected as Pope Urban VIII in 1623 and Antonio was made a cardinal in the following year. He went on to hold high office in the Roman Curia.
One of his first projects was to found a new, large convent for his Capuchin brethren on a suburban site then occupied by vineyards and owned by his brother the pope. The latter laid the foundation stone in 1626, and the church was consecrated in 1630.
The church was designed by Antonio Casoni, and the work supervised by the order's own architect who was Michael of Bergamo. The commitment to poverty of the order meant that the architectural detailing was very simple, but Cardinal Antonio specified top-quality artists for the altarpieces. This church differs from other major friary churches in the city in that the chapel artworks were mostly the result of one benefaction, and not of those of many noble families.
The friars allegedly brought several wagon-loads of bones of their dead brethren from their former convent when they moved, and these went to make up the famous ossuary under the church. They also brought the relics of St Felix, and enshrined him under a side altar.
This was one of the biggest convents in Rome, and had a high reputation for sanctity. It was also the headquarters of the Capuchin order. One of the most famous friars resident here was St Crispin of Viterbo, who died at the convent in 1750 and was famous in the city. His relics used to be enshrined in the church, but they have been transferred to the Capuchin friary at Orvieto.
The famous ossuary was laid out in the 18th century, although the date and the names of those responsible are unknown. It immediately became a tourist attraction, and many literary folk visited and wrote about it from this century on.
The convent was then on the edge of the built-up area, although it formed a single cultural statement with the nearby Palazzo Barberini which was built by Pope Urban at the same time as the convent. This is a very late example of the "castle and abbey" power ensemble familiar in early mediaeval northern Europe.
The male community here had two sister communities at Rome -the Capuchinesses. One was at Santa Chiara al Quirinale, and the other at Sant’Urbano ai Pantani. (It may be noted here that the nuns at Santa Maria della Concezione delle Farnesiane were not Capuchinesses, despite popular belief.)
The convent had a trapezoidal piazza of its own, off the present Via di San Basilio which was then a country lane leading to the Porta Salaria. The east side of this former piazza, on which the church faced, is now built on. At the far, narrow northern end of the piazza was a convent block surrounding a small trapezoidal court, and the church campanile was at the south-west corner of this. By the right hand side of the campanile a flight of steps went up, turned right and ended at the convent's main entrance to the left of the church façade.
There were three arcaded cloisters, one north of the church and two to the east -the sites of the latter are now occupied by the buildings of the Via Molise. A service court was to the south of the church, and between this and the Via di San Basilio was the Palazzo Lucatelli (now demolished).
From the left hand side of the campanile a country lane led up the slope to Sant'Isidoro a Capo le Case, but no further.
Before the 19th century, the ground level in front of the church was much higher. Access to the raised terrace in front of the church entrance was by means of two curved staircases together forming a semi-circular arc in front.
The campanile (now demolished) was a tower, on a rectangular plan with chamfered corners. There were three storeys, the first on the piazza side having two large blank square framed panels arranged vertically and the second a large rectangular panel with a fresco. The third storey contained a clock, the face of which was proteced by a projecting archivolt cornice. The single bell was in a metal cage on top of this.
The friars had a preaching cross set up in the piazza for open-air sermons, which had at its base the stub of a broken ancient column in cipollino marble. This survives, although the present cross on it is modern.
The ceiling vault was renewed in 1796, when it was frescoed.
In 1813 there was a fire in the sanctuary of the church, which destroyed the altarpiece by Giovanni Lanfranco. In the subsequent restoration the interior was embellished with gilded stucco work.
The convent was sequestered by the Italian government in 1873. Then, in 1885, the extensive grounds of the Villa Ludovisi were sold and subdivided to be developed as a high-class residential neighbourhood. The main access road for this, the present Via Vittorio Veneto, was laid out in a sweeping curve up the side of the hill from the piazza, and this required the demolition of the campanile block and the north cloister. The other two cloisters were then demolished to create the Via Molise, leaving only a small fragment of the original convent which the Capuchins in charge of the church were allowed to occupy.
The present access staircases in front of the church were added when the road was built, in 1890.
The Capuchins needed a new Generalate or headquarters for their order, so in 1912 they built the convent of San Lorenzo da Brindisi in the new Ludovisi quarter. The friars also founded a college here as well as their Generalate, and built an impressive and very expensive church.
The Capuchiness nuns of Santa Chiara al Quirinale had been ejected from their own convent in 1886, and built their own replacement home near the friars which they called Corpus Christi (now Santa Maria Regina dei Minori). Then they decided to move again in the early 1950's, to Corpus Christi alla Garbatella. In 1968 the friars simply abandoned their own complex and moved their Generalate to the former nuns' convent. The church of San Lorenzo was deconsecrated, gutted and turned into a conference centre.
Meanwhile, the little convent at Santa Maria della Concezione was given the status of the headquarters of the Roman province of the order. The available accommodation was re-ordered from 1928 to 1933, in order to make it more suitable.
At the start of the 21st century, the church and convent were subject to a major restoration. Part of the work involved the creation of a new museum which also includes the ossuary, and which was opened in 2012. The church was still closed for restoration work in 2013, but this should be finished soon (2014).
Part of the project involved the building of a small hotel, called I Cappuccini, which was opened in 2013. See its website in the "External links" section below.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church has a simple rectangular plan. Structurally it is a central nave of five bays with side aisles, but the aisles are divided by blocking walls to create side-chapels. The sanctuary is a rectangular apse, which is flanked by a pair of sacristies. Beyond the sanctuary is the conventual choir, which is very large
The nave is under one pitched and tiled roof, and the sanctuary and choir under a separate, slightly lower one.
The fabric is in red brick. By the 17th century brick-makers were able to fire their bricks at a high enough temperature to make them impervious to damp, so the church has exterior brick walls which have never been plastered.
The façade is deliberately very simple, in naked red brick with architectural details in travertine. The entrance is quite high above the street, and is accessed via a pair of double transverse staircases. These, and the entrance terrace, have solid balustrade walls. The revetment wall below the terrace has a relief carving of the Immaculate Conception over a shield bearing the emblem of the Franciscans -two crossed arms with nail-holes in their palms, one belonging to Christ and the other to St Francis. All this work is of 1890.
The actual church façade is of two storeys. The first storey has six pilasters in a simplified Doric style, the second on each side being doubletted because they mark the corners of the central nave. These pilasters support an entablature which has its architrave, frieze and cornice as three identical courses of brick. The single entrance has a molded Baroque doorcase with a triangular pediment containing a winged putto's head, raised over a rectangular tablet flanked by curlicues.
The second storey has four blind (capital-less) pilasters supporting a simple entablature, this time in stone not brick with a narrow cornice. Above this is a triangular pediment, containing an aperture lighting the roofspace above the ceiling vault which is in the shape of a capsule. In the centre of this storey is a large round-headed window with a floating curved cornice.
The church has a single nave, and ten side chapels. The latter are entered through large arches, which form two arcades and are separated by ribbed Doric pilasters. These pilasters support two entablatures, on which the semi-cylindrical barrel-vaulted ceiling sits. Above each arcade arch is a window inserted into the ceiling vault, without a lunette.
The chapel arches themselves have simply molded archivolts, springing from block imposts.
The original decor was in white, very simple. The present gilded stucco embellishments are 19th century. The ceiling has stucco ornaments over the windows, alternatively the emblem of the order (the crossed arms) supported by a pair of putti, and a scallop shell with curlicues. There are three large central coffers, the two at the ends showing scenes from the life of Our Lady in monochrome -the Assumption and the Apotheosis. The larger middle one having a fresco of The Assumption of Our Lady by Liborio Coccetti, 1796.
The conterfaçade has the church organ on a wooden gallery with a bowed front, in turn sitting on the wooden entrance lobby. Above the organ is a faded decorative fresco of a pedimented temple, either side of the large window.
The marble floor is original, and has tomb slabs. The material for this and the polychrome stonework of the altar was apparently salvage from Old St Peter's.
The holy water recepticles at the entrance have a bee motif, which alludes to the coat-of-arms of the Barberini family.
At the counterfaçade are monuments to Welmina Ciakowsky, 1840 to the right and Caterina Guidotti, 1855 to the left.
Flanking the triumphal arch are two more monuments. To the right is one to Cardinal Johannes van Goes, 1823 by Francesco Massimiliano Laboureur (the cardinal had died in 1696), and to the left is one to Aleksander Sobiesky , 1714 by Camillo Rusconi. Sobiesky was of the Polish royal family, but emigrated to Rome and became a Capuchin there just before his death. His is the only standing monument in the church that dates from before the 19th century.
The shallow rectangular sanctuary is entered through a triumphal arch the archivolt of which springs from the nave entablatures. It has its own barrel vault.
The high altar is against the far wall. It has a pair of ribbed Corinthian columns supporting a segmental pediment with the central section deeply recessed and containing a winged putto's head. The altarpiece is a copy by Gioacchino Bombelli, 1813 which replaced The Immaculate Conception by Giovanni Lanfranco when it perished in a fire.
Flanking the altar is a pair of doors which lead into the choir. Above these are two cupboards containing relics on display, and in between cupboards and doors are two tondi with frescoes. The right hand one is St Mary Magdalen, and the left hand one is St Lawrence of Brindisi the Capuchin Doctor of the Church who helped promote the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
The altar pro popolo (for Mass facing the congregation) is of good quality, with an alabaster frontal. This looks like a re-used Baroque piece.
SS Francis and Clare feature in the two pictures flanking the triumphal arch. They are by Brother Cosimo da Castelfranco Veneto (baptized as Paolo Piazza) who died in 1620 -in other words, the works were executed for the old convent at San Bonaventura.
Cardinal Antonio Barberini, the founder of the church, was buried in front of the altar in 1646. The inscription on his simple marble tomb-slab reads: Hic iacet pulvis, cinis et nihil which translates as: "Here lies dust, ashes, and nothing". There is no name or date.
This superb exercise in anti-fashion has earned the admiration of posterity.
The choir behind the high altar, invisible to those in the church, is a long, large rectangular room with stalls running down each side. It gives an idea of how many friars were in residence in the convent's heyday. A large collection of paintings from the 16th onwards were hanging here, many brought from other parts of the demolished convent, but a lot of these will be re-hung in the new museum. Some have been put in the new hotel.
The woodwork of the stalls dates from 1739. The altar contains alleged relics of St Justin Martyr.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
They are guarded by fine original wooden screens (those in other Roman churches tend to be of wrought iron). Most of the chapel altar aedicules are also of carved wood, rather than the usual polychrome marble work.
Several of them contain paintings which do not advert to the dedications, and seem to have been brought from elsewhere. These include depictions of Franciscan saints. Many of the paintings in the church were executed by friars resident at the convent, some of whom had genuine talent.
Chapel of St MichaelEdit
The first chapel on the right has two famous paintings: St Michael the Archangel Conquers Satan by Guido Reni, painted in 1630 as the altarpiece, and the Mockery of Christ by Gerard van Honthorst (whose Italian nickname is Gherardo delle Notti), which is to the left.
The former painting is very well-known on prayer cards, and has several copies in other Roman churches. Especially, there is a copy in mosaic in St Peter's. An old story is that the artist based the appearance of the devil on that of Pope Innocent X, whom he hated. A blog-page on the legend is here.
Under the van Honthorst painting is the green marble wall monument to Padre Mariano da Torino, 1972. He was a religious broadcaster for many years, is a candidate for beatification and is much admired (witness the suffering pot plants). See the room dedicated to him at the museum.
Chapel of the TransfigurationEdit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ, and has an altarpiece depicting the event by Mario Balassi. This is based on a work by Raphael. One side wall has a Nativity of the school of Lanfranco, which used to be the altarpiece of the chapel now dedicated to Our Lady, Queen and Mother.
Chapel of St FrancisEdit
The shrine of St Crispin of Viterbo was here, but when he was canonized his relics were moved to the friary at Orvieto. He is depicted giving spiritual advice in the painting on the right, and in ecstasy in the fresco on the left.
Chapel of GethsemaneEdit
Chapel of St Anthony of PaduaEdit
Chapel of Our Lady, Queen and MotherEdit
The fourth chapel on the left now has a venerated portrait of Our Lady as Regina Madre as the altarpiece. As you can see, this is not the original altarpiece since it is too small for the frame and what used to be here was the Nativity of the school of Lanfranco now in the Chapel of the Transfiguration. The present work looks 19th century, and is poor artistically.
This chapel altar is unusual in having a stone aedicule, with a pair of Corinthian columns in mottled red and white marble.
Chapel of the RedeemerEdit
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, and has an altarpiece depicting Christ in Death by Andrea Camassei. This artist was a special recipient of the patronage of the Barberini family.
On the left hand wall is depicted St Francis Receives the Stigmata, and on the right hand wall is a monument to Cardinal Gabriele Ferretti, 1860.
Chapel of St Felix of CantaliceEdit
In the second chapel on the left side, beneath the altar, is enshrined the body of St Felix of Cantalice. The altarpiece depicting him having a vision of the Madonna and Child is by Alessandro Turchi. The side walls have scenes from his life.
Chapel of St PaulEdit
This chapel has a frescoed vault. The little central fresco is of The Apotheosis of St Paul.
The new museum first opened in 2012.
It is open daily from 9:00 to 19:00, with the last ticket sold at 18:30, and the cost is six euros. This includes access to the Ossuary.
The rooms feature:
1) History of the Convent.
2) History of the Capuchin Order.
3) Capuchin saints.
4) Capuchin culture and spirituality. Includes displays of vestments and liturgical objects.
5) The famous painting St Francis at Prayer, now generally attributed (after long controversy) to Caravaggio. This work used to be kept in the convent away from public view, and the cost of entry is worthwhile for the viewing of this work alone.
6) The Capuchins in the 20th century, with material on Padre Mariano da Torino.
7) The Capuchins in the World.
8) An Introduction to the Ossuary, which you can then enter.
The ossuary has its own English Wikipedia page: .
You need to buy a museum ticket to visit. The new entrance is at the far end of the museum, with the old outside entrance now closed.
No photography by visitors is now allowed -if you remember being able to take pictures before the museum opened, you have to be aware that this is a new rule. Visitors to the ossuary are on CCTV, and the staff may intervene to enforce this prohibition.
When the new church was built, Pope Urban donated several cartloads of earth from the Holy Land, so that the deceased brethren could be buried in it. This was a seriously attractive privilege, linking to the legend that the Resurrection of the Dead would begin at Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, when the brethren moved from their old convent at San Bonaventura they brought the bones of their dead with them. According to the legend the quantity amounted to three hundred cartloads, which is an absolutely impossible number. Three hundred skeletons would be pushing it, since the brethen had only been there for about fifty years. However, the brethen had probably already been accepting bodies of laypeople in exchange for a payment.
It is unknown as to how or why the available bones were used to decorate the rooms of the church crypt. The first datable evidence for the complex is the heart-burial of Maria Felice Peretti in the chapel, dated 1656 and which was allowed because she was a great benefactor of the Capuchins. The next reliable evidence is the visit of the Marquis de Sade in 1775, who wrote about his experience so and put the place firmly on the Rome tourist map. The bone decorations were already extant in his time, and have not changed much since.
The existence of this way of disposing of bodies explains why there are so few funerary monuments in the church. The Capuchins certainly continued to accept bodies of laypeople as a special privilege, because there are bones of children in the ossuary.
Burial here, as anywhere within the city walls, was made illegal in the early 19th century but interred corpses were still producing bones allegedly until the convent was suppressed in 1873.
How it workedEdit
Those who know anything about dead bodies in quantity might wish that more is available on how the Capuchins managed the process of turning the bodies of their brethren into loose bones. According to the sources, they buried the corpses in the Holy Land soil in a separate chamber of the crypt, and left them there for thirty years before exhuming the bones.
This is not as easy as it sounds. The original load of earth was most likely primed with a quantity of worms from a graveyard, but as bodies were added the buildup of sulphur compounds in the soil would kill them off and lead to a horrible mess dominated by bacteria. The soil must have been renewed regularly, and the bodies might have been allowed to rot a bit before being interred. The Minim friars did this at Sant'Andrea delle Fratte.
Estimates on the number of skeletons in here range from 3500 to 4000.
The original (now closed) public entrance was halfway up the stairs to the church, on the right hand side, where you will find the epigraph Coemiterium below an olive branch executed in green and white marble pietra dura work.
The ossuary comprises six crypt chambers, which run under the right hand side of the church and are connected by a corridor off which they lead. The second (or fifth, depending on direction) is a chapel, and is not decorated with bones.
The decoration of the corridor various chambers is basically Baroque, using bones instead of stucco. Some of it is figurative, and is really well done. Different chambers are dominated by different types of bone, hence the names.
The chandeliers are also made up of bones.
Crypt of the ResurrectionEdit
The first crypt chamber contains a depiction of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead.
The chapel has an altarpiece of The Souls in Purgatory, which features Christ and Our Lady with SS Felix of Cantalice, Francis and Anthony of Padua.
The heart of Maria Felice Peretti, already referred to, is behind a plaque bearing the epigraph DOM for Deo Optimo Maximo.
Here also is a memoral to the nineteen Papal Zouaves who were killed in the skirmish when the army of the Kingdom of Italy broke into the city at the Porta Pia on 20 September 1870. This led to the annexation of Rome, and the final unification of Italy under one government.
Crypt of the SkullsEdit
In here, the far niche contains a winged hour-glass with the wings made of shoulder blades. This is in the central, larger tympanum of three delineated by archivolts made up of skulls. The wall beneath these is panelled with skulls, in front of which are three standing skeletons in Capuchin habits.
Two further skeletons in habits recline in the side niches. The barrel-vaulted roof has Baroque decoration made up of small bones.
Crypt of the PelvisesEdit
This has a similar layout as the above, with five skeletons in the same poses. The three standing skeletons are under a large archivolt made of pelvises.
Crypt of the Leg BonesEdit
This crypt has four skeletal friars in niches on each side wall. The central motif on the far wall is the Franciscan emblem, the two crossed arms. The ceiling vault roundel is made out of jawbones.
Crypt of the Three SkeletonsEdit
Two of the three child's skeletons are on the far wall, holding a winged skull and flanked by two more dead friars. The third, famous one is inset into the ceiling. It holds a scythe and hour glass.
The church is open (church website, June 2018):
Weekdays 7:00 to 13:00, 15:00 to 18:00;
Sundays and Solemnities 9:30 to 12:00, 15:00 to 18:00 (the website advises that the afternoon opening depends on a custodian being available).
The museum and ossuary are open:
9:00 to 19:00 (last admission 18:30).
PLEASE IGNORE ALL GUIDEBOOK AND ONLINE INFORMATION ON ACCESS WHICH DATES FROM BEFORE 2012. IT IS WRONG. THE OSSUARY CAN ONLY NOW BE VISITED BY BUYING A MUSEUM TICKET. PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT ALLOWED.
Mass is celebrated (church website, June 2018):
Sundays and Solemnities 11:00.
In other words, nowadays there is one Mass a day.