Rome: The Eccentric City

Explore Rome's weird and wonderful side with our round-up of the city's quirks and myths.

Rome may be considered the birthplace of antiquity and conservatism, but don’t be fooled: the city is also rich in local myths and strange sites that range from silly to spooky. A church made of bones? Fountains that sing? An Egyptian pyramid? Rome’s offbeat side is out there, waiting to be explored.

 1. Rome has seen its fair share of monkey business…literally.
According to local legend, an 11th century nobleman named Frangipane left his baby daughter with his pet monkey Hilde as he went out to run some errands. When he returned, he discovered a crowd of people huddled under the tower of his villa, aghast at the sight of Hilde, who had carried the baby to the top. As the crowd prayed and implored the Virgin Mary to protect the baby, Frangipane whistled to Hilde. To his relief, the monkey obeyed and safely returned the baby to her crib. To thank the Virgin Mary for protecting his daughter, Frangipane decided to place a lamp on the top of the tower, asking that it stay forever lit. From then on, the tower, found on modern-day Via dei Portoghesi 18, became known as The Tower of the Monkey. The moral of the story? Never let your monkey babysit.

2. The city’s fountains can carry a tune.
Some of Rome’s most elaborate watery works also moonlighted as classical music orchestras. In the 1700s, the city’s elite (popes and aristocrats among them) took a fancy to commissioning extravagant fountains fitted with elaborate hydraulic devices. The falling water was engineered to force air up the pipes of an actual organ, whose keys were engaged by a turning wheel, producing a pleasant sonority. Nowadays, the best example of harmonious fountains are found at Villa d’Este in nearby Tivoli. Look for the outlandish Owlet Fountain: bronze birds twitter and chirp before a mechanical owl startles them into silence.

 3. The Capuchin Monks had an interesting approach to interior design.
The award for the most unusual church in Rome without a doubt goes to the Capuchin Monks. Built in 1631, the order’s Roman crypt (Via Veneto, 27) is composed of the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies of Capuchin friars (yes, you read that right). Bones are artfully arranged to form flowers, stars, and other patterns, and the church is divided into various chambers with unsettling names like the Crypt of the Pelvises, the Crypt of the Skulls, and the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. Perhaps most startling is The Crypt of the Three Skeletons, which holds a skeleton wielding a scythe, a symbol of death, in one hand, and scales symbolizing God’s judgment in the other. A placard in five languages ominously reads “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…” The order claims, however, that the crypt is not meant to be macabre; instead, it’s to be interpreted as a powerful reminder of our mortality.

4. Want to visit Egypt without leaving the Eternal City?
No problem! The city is home to the 2000-year-old Pyramid of Cestius, a 120-foot Nubian-style pyramid that was constructed around 12 BC as a tomb for tribune Gaius Cestius. Scholars believe that Cestius was sent to Cairo on a military campaign, and was inspired by the architecture he subsequently encountered. There are many legends that swirl around the pyramid: one has it that it that Cestius promised slaves building his tomb their freedom if they completed the project within 330 days of his death. Eager to be liberated, the slaves finished in record-time. Another claims that Gaius Cestius’s ashes (which have never been found) are hidden in a secret chamber somewhere within the pyramid that archaeologists have yet to discover. 2015 is perhaps the Pyramid’s best year in a while – it just recently underwent a thorough cleaning, rendering it sparkly and white, and tours inside the Pyramid are now available on the first and third Saturday morning of every month. Booking is required; call 065743193. 

Wondering about the Egyptian obelisks scattered throughout the city? When Augustus conquered Egypt in 31 BC, the Romans confiscated several of their columns, transforming Rome into the city with the highest number of obelisks in the world. Find them at the center of St. Peter’s square, Piazza Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Piazza del Popolo, and Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano.

 5. Rome is home to an ancient lie detector… 
Or so we thought. La Bocca della Verità, or The Mouth of Truth, is an imposing marble sculpture of a man-like face, found in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church. Made famous abroad for its appearance in Roman Holiday, the Bocca is best-known for its role as a lie detector: according to a myth tracing back to the Middle Ages, if you tell a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it’ll promptly be bitten off. Recently, however, scholars have stated that the sculpture is most likely a part of a 1st-century ancient Roman fountain, or even a drain hole cover portraying the pagan god Oceanus.

 6. Rome’s monsters are found just above the Spanish Steps. 
The brainchild of Italian mannerist painter Federico Zuccari, Palazzo Zuccari (also dubbed “The Monster House”) is an imposing 16th-century villa with a menacing façade: monstrous sculptures frame the windows and front door of the palace, which give the illusion of scary, gaping mouths. The Monster House was initially built as a private home for Zuccari, but now serves as the base of the Hertzian Library. See it at Via Gregoriana, 28.

 7. Some of the city’s most beautiful art is all an illusion.
Optical illusions reign supreme in the Capital. Filippo Balbi’s 1855 painting of a Carthusian monk seems, at first glance, three-dimensional. The effect, however, is a result of trompe l’oeil, a tricky technique that uses realistic imagery to fool the spectator into believing that the painted figures are 3D. The mural can be viewed today at the National Roman Museum at the Baths of Diocletian. The arcaded courtyard of Baroque architect Borromini’s Palazzo Spada (Piazza Capo di Ferro) looks like a sprawling 120ft corridor, but is actually no longer than 30 ft, and the seemingly life size-sculpture at the end of it barely 3ft high. Aided by a mathematician, Borromini created this deceptive masterpiece by reducing the dimensions of the colonnade as it receded and combined it with an uphill mosaic floor. 

 8. A giant once ruled Rome.
Roman emperor Constantine the Great was of average stature, but the colossal acrolithic statue sculpted in his honor tells a different story: looming a staggering 40 ft high, the Colossus of Constantine publically illustrated the emperor’s authority after he defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. The Colossus was eventually pillaged for its bronze, and the surviving marble pieces were unearthed in 1487. Nowadays, the statue’s fragments - a right arm, head, both kneecaps, right hand, the left shin - can be viewed at the Capitoline Museums, making for an abstract and curious line-up.