Rome, with a history spanning many thousands of years, has gathered a multitude of stories, myths, and legends that have been told so many times they have become a part of the culture and popular tradition over time. With Halloween fast approaching, we want to explore a few of the most famous cases of ghostly appearances that have occurred throughout the history of Rome.
There is an area of Rome where, more than any other neighborhood, the stories of ghostly presences and appearances are centered. The neighborhood is called "mezzaluna" (or the half moon) because of the curved shape created by the Tiber river. The top point of the angle is marked by the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge. It is said that during ancient times there was probably a temple dedicated to Proserpina in this area. Although it was buried, it was said to reappear during celebrations dedicated to the goddess and this led to the legend that a gate to hell could be found in the "mezzaluna".
The most famous Roman ghost is that of Beatrice Cenci, a young girl who was a part of a powerful family in the late 16th century. Beatrice, whose complete story will be the subject of a future article, was condemned to death with some family members for the killing of her father, a violent man who subjected her and her siblings to regular oppression and abuse. She was decapitated on the morning of September 11th, 1599 in Piazza di Castel Sant'Angelo which was packed with people (among which was also Caravaggio). It is said that her ghost appears on the Sant'Angelo bridge during the night between September 10th and September 11th.
The story of another, much older, ghost unfolds on that same bridge. In 410 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alarico, wanted to destroy Rome. The legend goes that one of the barbarians was so enchanted by the majesty and grandeur of the city that he decided to protect instead of attack it. Unfortunately, he was opposed by his own men on the bridge and was not accepted by the Romans either. There he was shot with arrows and he died. This story also probably inspired Borges when he wrote, "The Barbarian and the Prisoner". The ghost of the Enchanted Barbarian appears on the Sant'Angelo bridge in the middle of the night, but only if he is alone, as if to seek comfort and then he slowly disappears into the background of Castel Sant'Angelo.
Staying in the same area, the ghost of another famous person, Mastro Titta, wrapped in a scarlet cloak, can appear at the first light of dawn in the surroundings of Castel Sant'Angelo. His real name was Giovanni Battista Bugatti, a papal executioner, who brought 514 prisoners to justice in the course of his career. He lived on Vicolo del Campanile, which now can be found across from Via della Conciliazione, and it is possible to find the ghost along the road that leads to the places where public executions took place as Castel Sant'Angelo, Piazza del Popolo, and Piazza della Bocca della Veritá. It is said that from time to time the ghost stops those he meets on the street to offer a pinch of tobacco, as was done for those condemned to death before their execution. The scarlet cloak, as well as the snuff box, are preserved at the Museo Criminologico in Rome.
Mysterious marks, burn prints, and signs in the form of the cross said to have been left by restless spirits on liturgical texts, bibles, and various fabrics throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, have all been gathered into one of the smaller but more bizarre collections in the world. It is known as the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio (the Museum of Tormented Souls) and it is located in a small room off the sacristy of the Neo-Gothic church, Sacro Cuore del Suffragio. This church can be found on the Lungotevere Prati, a few steps away from the Sant'Angelo bridge.
The church of Sacro Cuore del Suffragio was built in 1890 on the land bought by Victor Jouët, a missionary from Marseilles who founded the Association of the Sacred Heart for the suffrage of the souls in Purgatory. On the 15th of September, 1897 a fire erupted in the church that mostly damaged a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary. Among the damage, the fire left a mark behind the altar that Jouët interpreted as a human face with a sad expression (photographic reproduction located in the museum). He believed that it was the soul of a dead man condemned to Purgatory who wanted to contact the living.
So the missionary decided to travel around the world in search of testimonies and documentation of similar occurrences. So he began to build a collection named the Christian Museum of the Afterlife. It was even blessed by Pope Pius the Tenth who believed that this type of testimony could encourage greater loyalty among believers when confronted with death. However, after the death of Jouët, the collection diminished, keeping only the relics that could be indisputably authenticated.
Now our tour takes us in the direction of Piazza Navona. As we walk down Via del Governo Vecchio, we stop at number 57 and looking upwards, we are able to see the window of the apartment on the 3rd floor. Tradition has it that this apartment was haunted by every type of ghostly presence. In fact, in 1861, a series of phenomenons occurred that today could be classified as the presence of a poltergeist. Objects would float in the air and fly across the room to break against the wall. Loud bangs and all other types of noise, which even police officers testified to hearing, eventually forced the inhabitants to leave their house.
Arriving at Piazza Navona, the first spirit we will discuss is that of Costanza Conti de Cupis, who's ghost haunts Palazzo de Cupis which is located between Piazza Navona and Via dell'Anima. Costanza, after marrying the nephew of the Cardinal Giandomenico de Cupis, moved into the Palazzo which belonged to the family. Being a very charming woman, she became very admired and particularly admired for the beauty of her hands to the point that an artist asked her if he could make a mold of them to use in his studio. All of those who passed by the shop admired those hands. However, one day a foreign man (it's said he was a monk) foretold that the person to who those hands belonged would lose them very soon. This prophecy became well known and Costanza asked the artist to destroy the mold. She hid away inside the Palazzo, refusing to come out for fear an some accident befalling her and passing the time sewing and embroidering. Unfortunately, destiny still followed through and the noble lady wounded herself on a needle which became infected to the point where the hand had to be amputated. Shortly after Costanza died of blood poisoning.
On nights when the moon is full, legend has it that the moonlight on one of the windows of the Palazzo reveals the white outline of the five fingers of the hand of Costanza.
Another ghost that resides in Piazza Navona, in the Palazzo Pamphilli, is Olimpia Maidalchini, who is more famous in Rome under the name of Donna Olimpia or the more derogatory title Pimpaccia. Donna Olimpia was a young widow and took Pamphilio Pamphili, the brother of the man who would become the Pope under the name of Innocent X, as her second husband. After the death of this husband as well, Olimpia became so powerful and influential (she might have been the Pope's lover) that she became essentially the queen of Rome. A few hours before the death of the Pope, she shrewdly took two cases full of gold coin and escaped in her carriage. Not wanting to return the gold to the successor of the Papacy, Pope Alexander VII, she fled to San Martino nel Cimino, where she died of the plague two years later.
Because of immense greed during her life, her ghost appears during the night when the weather is foul, riding in her carriage with the gold. Her carriage crosses the Ponte Sisto, to follow that same path again from the Palazzo Pamphili at Piazza Navona towards the park of Villa Pamphili.
Behind Piazza Farnese, on the Vicolo delle Grotte, lingers the ghost of Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as the Count of Cagliostro, who was an alchemist, medicine man, and mason of the 18th century.
On this small road, he met his future wife Lorenza, who worked there in a brothel, when he was just 17 years old.
After experiencing many ups and downs while traveling through Europe with his wife in 1768, he returned to Rome where he was arrested for a long list of crimes among which was the use of magic and witchcraft.
It was his wife who betrayed and accused him. He managed to avoid the death penalty but was confined to a cell in the Rocca di San Leo, where he died four years later.
On nights when the moon is full, the ghost of Cagliostro returns to the place where he first met the wife who betrayed him and calls her name.
The ghost of the wife of Cagliostro, Lorenza Feliciani, also appears in the Roman nights, particularly during the Autumn.
The figure of a woman with a face concealed by a black veil walks silently through the streets of Trastevere.
She walks close to the walls in the direction of Ponte Garibaldi so she can cross the river and go towards Piazza di Spagna, the place where Cagliostro was arrested.
However, she always disappears in a black shadow when after a laugh, a voice yells her name: "Lorenza!"
Still in the area called the "mezzaluna", we come to the Pantheon. Obviously this building and its legends could take up a whole article but right now we will focus on the ghost of a king of Italy, who is buried inside the Pantheon and rumored to reappear often in the surrounding area.
The King in question is Umberto I, who died a violent death because he was killed in Monza by an anarchist in 1900. The first apparition of his ghost occurred in 1930 and was witnessed by a Carabiniere who was guarding the entrance of the Pantheon. Slowly and steadily, figure of the king drew closer to him which scared the Carabiniere practically to death. The king gave him a message that he did not want to reveal. It is only known to be political in nature. Before disappearing, the king brushed against the sleeve of the Carabiniere as a sign of farewell and thanks and left a burned mark. It is not known why the Carabiniere never wanted to revel the contents of the message.
The last story that we will tell in this article centers around an occurrence on the Via del Plebiscito in the early twentieth century.
A young man of 30 years was walking down the street when he saw an old woman about to be hit by an omnibus (a type of horse drawn bus used in that era).
Throwing himself towards the woman, he was able to grab her and save her life.
The old woman, recovering immediately from the shock, invited the young man to her house for a coffee in gratitude.
The young man accepted the kind offer, especially since the woman's house was located on the first floor of a new building right there where the accident had almost happened.
Inside the apartment, he also met the twin sister of the old woman and they spent a half hour together talking until the young man had to leave.
Walking down the Via del Plebiscito every day for work, the young man noticed that for the next three days the shutters of the sisters' apartment were completely closed. The fourth day, driven by curiosity, the man stopped to ask the doorman of the building if he had seen the two women.
His answer shocked the young man: My good man, those two sisters died two years ago!" Stunned, the man tried to explain to the doorman that he had coffee with them just three days before.
Because of his incredulous insistence, the doorman decided to show the young man the apartment. All the rooms were empty and there was a stale odor, the classic signs of an abandoned house. However, there on the table were the three used coffee cups.
In the coming days, the young man continued to research how the two women died. He discovered that it had happened practically at the same instant two years before: one was hit by an omnibus and the other suffered a heart attack as she watched her sister die from the window of their house.
As you can see, the ghosts of Rome are as numerous as the gelato shops. We've only explored the small area known as the "mezzaluna" but there are sightings of ghosts throughout the city of Rome. Who knows, maybe you'll discover one yourself while out walking through the moonlit streets.