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Chills and Thrills in the Eternal City


They have gazed at the Sistine's ceiling, envisioned spectacular battles in the Colosseum and thrown their coins into the Trevi Fountain. Now, are your children looking for some chills that gelato just won't give them? Rome is full of treasures for the history and art buffs, but a visit to some of the following sights may be the most memorable part of a kid's visit to Rome.

Incorruptible Bodies and Skeletons

Rome's numerous churches contain masterpieces of art and architecture. But if your children are tired of looking at frescoes and start whining "not another church", bring them into one of these and have them hunt for the body.

St. Peter's Basilica
The body of Pope John XXIII is in an ornate glass case in the right aisle. Also of note, the tombs of many Popes are contained in the Vatican grottoes, underneath the Basilica. For children age 15 and older, you can make an advance reservation to tour the Necropolis, otherwise known as a "Scavi Tour," which takes you through an ancient Roman cemetery to the tomb of St. Peter.

Santa Maria Concezione, Via Veneto 27
The crypt underneath this church just up from Piazza Barberini contains the skeletons of over 4000 capuchin monks. Some of the bones have been "artfully" arranged into designs. Can be very frightening to young children.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Piazza della Minerva 42.
Located behind the Pantheon, the Piazza in front of the church has a very cute elephant sculpted by Bernini that holds up an obelisk. Inside, Rome's only Gothic church has a chapel frescoed by Lippi, Michelangelo's sculpture of Christ and the tombs of St. Catherine of Siena (her image is sculpted in wood on her coffin) and the artist, Fra Angelico. Kids will remember the body of Santa Wittoria, dressed in white and slightly propped up in her glass reliquary, she looks out at her observers.

San Crisogno, Viale Trastevere at Piazza Sonnino.
Body (face and hands lightly covered with a wax coating) of the Blessed Annamaria Taigi, a Roman housewife who devoted her life to helping the poor and sick; she died in 1837.

Santa Maria Nuova (aka Santa Francesca Romana), in the Forum, near the Colosseum.
Go down into the crypt and you will find the saint for whom the church is named, St. Francesca Romana. Her skeleton, clad in the white habit of the Oblate Sisters, rests in a glass reliquary.

Chiesa Nuova (aka Santa Maria in Vallicella), Via Vittorio Emanule II and Piazza Chiesa Nuova.
In a chapel in the left transept is the tomb of St. Philip Neri who died in 1595. Although his body was embalmed after his death, his face is not well preserved and is covered with a silver mask of his likeness.

San Salvatore in Onda, Via dei Pettinari, between Campo di Fiori and Ponte Sisto.
The body of St. Vincent Pallotti lies underneath the high altar.

Il Gesu, Via d. Plebiscito and Piazza de Gesu.
Rome's largest Jesuit church, the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola is here although his remains cannot be seen. However, opposite the Saint's tomb, there is a silver reliquary containing the arm of St. Francis Xavier.

San Silvestro in Capite, Piazza San Silvestro
In a small room to the left of the entrance, a reliquary holds the head of St. John the Baptist.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Via Carlo Felice and Via di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
St. Helen was the mother of Rome's first Christian emperor, Constantine. St. Helen made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and returned with many relics of the Passion, now housed in a chapel in the lower level of the church. Among these relics are the cross of the "Good Thief", nails from Christ's Passion, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, the "INRI" sign from Christ's cross, pieces of the Cross, and the finger of St. Thomas, or "Doubting Thomas."

Creepy Places

San Clemente, Via San Giovanni Laterano and Via Querceti.
A fascinating church built on three levels. The street level has beautiful mosaics; on the level below are frescoes from the Carolingian period and finally, in the lowest, moldiest, darkest level you will find a small chamber in which a Mithraic altar stands. It was here that bulls were sacrificed during the 2nd to 4th centuries.

Santo Stefano Rotundo, Via Santo Stefano Rotundo 7.
Not far from San Clemente, up the steep Celian Hill, is the round church of Santo Stefano Rotundo. Decorated with frescoes from the 16th century depicting various means of torture and martyrdom.

Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte, Via Giulia.
Only open on Sundays and public holidays. This was the headquarters of the Society of a Good Death, which was dedicated to the burial of the poor. The interior was formerly a storage hall for corpses and the church has easy access to the Tiber where floating bodies were retrieved from each morning. The facade of the church is especially morbid. Be sure to see the plaque near the door where a skeleton announces "Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi" or, "you are next."

Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio, Church of Sacro Cuore del Suffragio, Lungotevere Prati 12.
In a small hallway off the sacristy, this little "museum" consists of a glass case that contains objects to make you wonder if purgatory does, indeed, exsist. There is a description, written in several languages including English, of the items in the case. The items have been marked by the deceased in order to urge their relatives to pray for the deceased's souls and release them from purgatory. Lots of eerie burned finger and handprints on books, nightcaps and clothing.

Museo Sanitario, Santo Spirito Hospital, Lugotevere in Sassia 3. Open only Monday, Wednesday and Fridays from 10-12, but call ahead (06-68352353).
Not for very young children. Housed in a working hospital, enter the Sala Alessandrina and wait for the custodian to take you up to the museum. Dr. Lenci, a retired OB/GYN, who speaks several languages, will show you the collection of wax models of organs, early surgical instruments, and finally embryos, fetuses and skeletons depicting various gruesome birth defects. Also of note, on a wall outside the hospital, you can still see a revolving chamber or "rota" in which mothers could place babies for which they could no longer care.

Museo Criminologico di Roma, Via Gonfalone 29.
Housed in one of Rome's old prisons, this museum traces the history of the prison system in Italy, the way crimes are solved, and the various means of punishment used throughout European history. Many instruments of torture, weapons and execution are on display. There is also a cage containing the skeleton of an unfortunate Sicilian prisoner.

San Callisto, Via Appia Antica 110,
San Sebastiano, Via Appia Antica 136.
They don't contain skeletons anymore, at least not the portions that are on the tour, but you will be able to see the wall niches that contained the bodies and, at San Sebastiano, there are mausoleums that are excellent examples of Ancient Roman burial architecture. Be sure to stay with the guide as the catacombs are vast and there are many dark and narrow passageways.

Mamertine Prison, Clivio Argentario 1, located in the Forum under the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami.
This is where both St. Peter and St. Paul were imprisoned and was originally a cistern. An underground spring still exists here and many pilgrims pause to dip their finger into it and make the Sign of the Cross. Prisoners were thrown into this dungeon from a hole in the ceiling, but now you enter by a set of narrow and winding stone stairs.

General Information

Unless otherwise noted, most churches are open two times during the day, usually from 7 or 8 in the morning until noon or 1 in the afternoon. They close for a few hours and then reopen at 4 or 5 p.m. until about 7 p.m. St. Peter's Basilica is open daily from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., however, between October and March, it closes at 6 p.m.

When visiting churches, catacombs and other holy places, remember that shorts are not allowed to be worn by men, women and older children. Also, no very short skirts, bare shoulders, midriffs or low cut shirts are permitted. If mass is being conducted when you arrive at a church, do not wander around the church until it concludes. While entrance into churches is free, it is thoughtful to leave a small donation. Have a supply of coins with you in order to operate the lights in some of the chapels of the darker churches.

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