Haunted Rome: perpetual unrest in the Eternal City

Debra Thimmesch | 26/07/2019
Castel Sant'Angelo
Castel Sant'Angelo: beware of this place at dawn or you might run into Mastro Titta

Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet about the spirits of the dead that inhabit Rome: “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman Streets.” 

Many Romans can verify that Shakespeare was onto something. According to a recent survey, 75% of Italians believe in ghosts and Romans are no exception. Inhabitants of an ancient city, they’ve lived side-by-side with their share of spectres, both ancient and recently departed. 

Not all spirits are equal, however. There are several famous ghosts who’ve settled down seemingly for the long haunt in The Eternal City, most often the turbulent souls of people who left the mortal coil abruptly and unpleasantly.

 

Ghosts in the catacombs and Colosseum

If you’re guessing that the catacombs and the Colosseum boast more ghosts per square foot, you’re probably right. The catacombs, Rome’s subterranean burial grounds, haven’t always been just cemeteries. They’ve also been secret refuges for Christians evading capture by Roman soldiers when their religion was still illegal. 

The ghosts of martyrs drift through the labyrinthine passages of the catacombs, which are mostly located outside of the city proper as was required by law. As for the Colosseum, the site of the deaths of thousands of slaves, gladiators and animals, visitors have reported hearing growls and screams, and seeing phantoms roam the tunnels below the massive structure.

 

Nero’s ghost in a flock of crows

You may have heard a lot about the unapologetically decadent and homicidal emperor, Nero. But did you know that even after his death his ghost menaced the city? He committed suicide in 68 CE after learning that he’d been declared an enemy of Rome and condemned to death. His burial took place on the Pincian Hill overlooking the current day Piazza del Popolo. 

 

According to legend, after his death Nero’s spirit inhabited a flock of crows often seen roosting in a walnut tree near his grave. The crows were said to feast on flesh with demons and witches. So convinced were Romans of Nero’s maleficent presence in the vicinity of the Pincio that, in the 11th century, the Pope ordered the tree cut down and a chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, built in its place. 

 

Wild Valeria Messalina

It wasn’t only emperors who gave the throne a bad name. Valeria Messalina, emperor Claudius’ young wife, was notorious for her promiscuity and serial adultery. According to the ancient Roman poet Juvenal, Messalina occasionally worked as a prostitute in a brothel using the pseudonym “She-Wolf” (after the legendary animal that suckled Rome’s founders, Remus and Romulus). 

Claudius mostly looked the other way while his wife ran amok. But he was unable to countenance her very public challenge of marrying a senator and conspiring to dethrone him. He ordered her by messenger to commit suicide to spare herself public shaming and execution for treason. Messalina’s ghost is now said to walk the Coppian Hill in search of a lover. Some say she occasionally wanders over to the Piazza Navona and pinches the bottoms of handsome young men.

 

The disembodied hand of Costanza Conti de Cupis

Sometimes all a phantom can manage is a partial haunting. Seventeenth-century hand model Costanza Conti de Cupis, renowned for the beauty of her delicate appendages, lost one to gangrene after wounding her finger while sewing. The amputation didn’t save Costanza, however, and the ghost of her hand is said to hover in a window of the Palazzo de Cupis on the west side of the Piazza Navona on nights when the moon is full. 

 

The sad tale of Beatrice Cenci

As for severed body parts, there are a number of spirits in Rome who are said to carry around their decapitated heads. Another Roman beauty, Beatrice Cenci, was a lovely young aristocrat whose tyrannical father mistreated her and her mother. When Francesco Cenci's family had their fill of his foul treatment, they plotted to kill him by throwing him off of a balcony and making it appear an accident. The plan was discovered before they could act and the entire family — mother, sons and daughter, were executed. Each year on the anniversary of her death the tragic Beatrice crosses the bridge carrying her head and weeping audibly. There have also been reports of sightings of her sorrowful spectre near the Palazzo Cenci in the Jewish Ghetto.

 

A black carriage on the Ponte Sisto

If you’re looking for haunted sites, make your way to the Ponte Sisto. You may catch a glimpse of Donna Olimpia Pamphili, former sister-in-law to Pope Innocent X, who can sometimes be seen tearing across the bridge in her black carriage. Poor Donna Olimpia died of the plague in the mid-16th century, but her ghost is in eternal flight from the city and from the pope from whom she’d stolen a couple chests of gold. 

 

The ghost of Rome’s gentleman executioner

Last but not least, meet Mastro Titta, once the official executioner of Rome when executions were public (for nearly 700 years). This was a coveted, well-paying job and Mastro Titta was a stellar employee, having scrupulously recorded important details and last wishes of all of his executionees in a diary. Starting out as executioner at age 17, this real-life gentlemanly grim reaper killed 516 people in the course of his career. 

At sunrise each day, Mastro Titta’s phantom is said to roam in the vicinity of the Castel Sant’Angelo, in the Piazza del Popolo and around Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Those who have seen his ghost report that he’s dressed in his red executioner’s uniform and offers tobacco, a last kindness he extended to many of his victims. It’s also said that many of his victims wander near the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the Castle lamenting their unjust and untimely deaths.

 

No shortage of ghosts in The Eternal City

While we’ve identified some of the more notorious hauntings in this ancient city, by no means is our list exhaustive. If you’re a true believer, you’d expect that Rome is virtually bursting with spirits of the restless departed. Neighborhoods, buildings, and even specific rooms boast their own resident phantoms and Romans delight in sharing their often intricate tales of tragedy.