on bones and birds

Our day began with an excursion to the Cappucian Crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The crypt itself was the final resting place for over 4,000 Capushin monks and friars who died between the years 1528-1870. They say that the soil in the crypt was brought all the way from Jerusalem, and if that were all, then I might be able to call the crypt a holly place. But the dead monks were not buried beneath the dirt in that crypt.

They were “deconstructed”. Skulls were piled high along the walls in each of the six rooms of the crypt and the rest on the human bones were used to decorate the walls and ceilings of the crypt. Intricate patterns wove their way in swirls and shapes around the low plaster ceiling. Pieces of vertebrae, jawbones, and ribs formed the different shapes to complete the designs. It was all bones. Bones nailed to the walls. Even the lamps hanging from each doorway were femurs and tibias strung together with wire and cemented with wax. One may call it creativity, but I found no beauty in the crypt. I was disgusted and cast my eyes down at my feet. More recent skeletons were still whole and stood draped in brown robes holding crucifixes and staring at us as we walked past. Brown skin still stretch across their patchy faces and along their fingers ligaments still stretched to hold the metal cross in place. 

All was rotten carnage and I saw no beauty in the desecration on the monks bodies…there was nothing holy or worshipful about it. 

Shivering from cold and crypt, we next made our way to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which is one of the four major papal Basilicas in Rome. I paused to photograph the exterior of the building, and stepping back in an attempt to fit the height of the towers within the frame of my lens, I stumbled upon an old man feeding pigeons in the square. Basilica forgotten, I snapped several photos of this man sitting on the steps near a fountain. His skin was brown and leathery, his eyes squinted in the sunlight and his camel coloured overcoats hung covered a bright red sweater vest. Smiling, he beckoned my closer and reaching out his hand filled my palm with white seeds. Gingerly I sat beside him on the cold marble steps and together we fed the birds.

I cannot quite recall if he ever spoke to me. I do not know if any words ever came out of his mouth. But in the classic old-man language of grunts, he showed me how to keep my palm flat and keep still so that the birds would eat directly out of my hands. All in a flutter, the mass of pigeons at our feet pecked wildly for seeds, their beaks beating into the cobblestones like mini jackhammers. They eventually ate straight from my hand. One even stood on my arm.

Feeding the pigeons was great fun and I was enjoying the experience immensely, when a little red flag began to wave on the horizon of my mind, and I began to wonder…Was this a tourist scam? Was he going to charge me outrageous sums of money for allowing me to assist him in feeding a few pigeons? My thoughts raced and I saw him carefully reach into him pocket for change. Quickly and gracefully, I stood and handing him back the remaining seeds in my hand, thanked him profusely and turning my back, I walked away. 

He followed. Perhaps he spoke to me then, I don’t know. I do know that he wanted me to pay him 3 eruos and I refused. I showed him my empty hands, thanked him again, wished him a good day, pretended to be blond and ignorant and in the end he gave up on me. Honestly, I was a little upset. What did you have to ruin such a charming story, oh red-sweater vest man? You could have been the hero to my tale…you could have been such a loveable character…

The Basilica itself was another example of high Renaissance art, loft gold ceilings and ornate pillars. Yet I was somehow unimpressed with the ancient worship center because the nave of the Basilica itself was filled not with normal wooden benches, but with red plastic chairs. Red plastic chair and rest-vested men…they each took some of the charm out of when was meant to be beautiful.


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