Sat in the central courtyard, Michelangelo’s Cloister, of the National Museum of Rome, I was filled with an immense and an indescribable sadness, a low. A real low. In part hangover, in part horrible regret at having to come back to London to my deadend, deadbeat job that I can’t quit and go fannying around Europe as soon as I want to because I’m so appalling shit with money, but much more a deeper, more profound sense of hopelessness following my visit, earlier in the day, to the Crypt of the Capuchin Monastery.
Capuchin monks (those after whom the infamous coffee and milk beverage is named) are a humble, Franciscan order who have convents and friars across the planet, each one aiming to do good within its community. They dress in coarse, simple, cross-shaped habits with a square hood, and commonly wear self-flagellating objects beneath their clothes. In several of these aspects, they are unremarkable. The way in which they stand out as a group is that for a period of about 2/300 years, it was standard practice to, after 30 years or so of decomposition in holy soil especially shipped in from Jerusalem, exhume dead friar’s corpses and use their bones to decorate their crypt.
What is there now is a series of four or five rooms, each featuring thousands of bones – piles of hundreds of skulls, floral ceiling designs made out of ribs, vertebrae stacked, wings made from inverted shoulder blades… patterns, animals, frames, borders, boats, objects, made entirely from human bones… Some skulls still with a slither of cartilage in their noses, some bodies left whole, a vestige of dark, rancid, skin left on the bones as a mark of high respect… The crypt is a testament to death, a macabre and terrifying reminder of our own ultimate impermeability.
We are flesh and bone. We are nothing more. “We start as come and end as soil”, as they say… And what is a stronger reminder of that than the torn apart and rearranged skeletons of hundreds of devout, long-dead men who dreamed of a god that would glorify and respect them when they died? There is no afterlife of the mind. Their empty bodies, instead, have been turned into art, now into a cheap tourist trick for those touring Gothic Rome. Sinister. Horrible. But peel back our skin and that is all we are.
So I sat there, overcome by this sense of my own impermanence, my own physical actuality, staring at beautiful sculptures hacked from marble by a civilisation that couldn’t sustain itself… Death, death is everywhere. Life is suffering, mortality is a universal curse.
But I’m back, here I am. I’ve cut off most of my hair. I’ve done another day’s penance in a job that isn’t work. The punishment never stops. I just wish I knew what it was all for.
I’m being down. I’m sorry.
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