Rome is home to plenty of instantly recognisable attractions such as the Colosseum, Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon, but the city also has many weird and wonderful aspects located off the well-trodden tourist path. Here is our guide to some of the more surprising sights of the Italian capital.
The Crypt of the Capuchin Monks
Unassumingly nestled beneath the the church of Santa Maria della Concezione, situated by the bustling Piazza Barberini, is the Crypt of the Capuchin Monks where six small chapels house the remains of almost 4,000 monks of the Capuchin order. The monks arrived at the church in 1631 bearing the skeletons of deceased friars that were arranged in the crypt. Over more than 200 years, each time a friar died one was exhumed to add to the display, with everything from chandeliers to decorations being formed with the bones. The macabre chapels serve as a reminder of mortality and there is even a sign stating ‘What you are we once were, what we are you will be’.
Largo Argentina Cat Sanctuary
The historical ruins of Largo Argentina were first discovered in 1927 when the area was marked for redevelopment. The discovery of the remains of four Republican temples dating back to 300-400 BC opened the area as an archaeological site which also comprises the entrance of the ancient Theatre of Pompey where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC. Since 1993, the area has been home to a cat sanctuary with over 150 cats now residing among the crumbling ruins. The sanctuary, which operates with volunteers and donations, is open to the public every afternoon, but it is common to spot the cats lurking between the temples when passing by.
Street Art in Ostiense
The southern district of Ostiense has a gritty, industrial history as one of the working-class parts of the city. In recent years, it has begin forming a new reputation as a hip hangout thanks to trendy restaurants and bars as well as a thriving street art scene. The colourful works cover the neighbourhood’s buildings as part of a project to relaunch and rejuvenate the area. For the most eye-catching examples head to JB Rock’s 60m-long ‘Wall of Fame’ depicting famous inspirational writers, artists and musicians, Iacurci’s colourful swimmer mural above the neighbourhood’s fishmonger and the endless colourful faces of Blu’s work Fronte del Porto on Via del Porta Fluviale.
Modern Art at the MAXXI
The National Museum of 21st Century Arts was opened in 2010 within a celebrated complex designed by architect Zaha Hadid and completing the modernisation of the northern Flaminio area of Rome along with Renzo Piano’s curvaceous Auditorium. The contemporary works at the MAXXI provide a refreshing contrast in a city overflowing with ancient, renaissance and baroque wonders, with two museum areas concentrating on art and architecture. The permanent collection houses works by William Kentridge and Anish Kapoor as well as catalogues of work from renowned Italian architects. There are also frequent temporary exhibitions.
The Coppedè Neighbourhood
The whimsically wonderful Coppedè neighbourhood is tucked a little way north of central Rome, and features unique architecture a world away from the rest of the city. The area takes its name from the architect Gino Coppedè who began the project in 1915 and left it unfinished when he died in 1927. With a combination of architectural styles and detailed decoration, the buildings of Coppedè’s neighbourhood recall Gaudì’s fantastic houses in Barcelona. Walk through the elaborate entrance arch of the Palazzi degli Ambasciatori and don’t miss the decorative Palazzina del Ragno (Spider Palace) and Villino delle Fate (Fairies’ Villa).
Sculptures at Centrale Montemartini
The Centrale Montemartini is a fascinating museum located in the Ostiense neighbourhood, which sees ancient sculptures housed in the disused premises of Rome’s first public electric power plant. The juxtaposition of the sublime Greek and Roman marble statues with the modern machinery creates a truly unique space that can only exist in a city such as Rome where the history, art and industry span the centuries.
The Skull of Saint Valentine
The church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is perhaps most famous for the Boccà della Verita (Mouth of Truth) which is situated in the portico, but the interior of the church also has much to offer.
Aside from the beautiful mosaics and Cosmatesque inlaid floor, the church is also home to the skull of St Valentine. A Christian martyr believed to have died in 273 AD, St Valentine’s relics can be found throughout Europe with the flower-adorned skull kept in Rome. Each year on 14th February the skull is paraded through the church in celebration of his saint’s day.