~ Legendary Rome ~
- 8 -

Rome's Ghosts

a different 'Rome by night' experience

One may expect that due to Rome's millenary heritage, when the shadows of the night spread over the Eternal City, crowds of ghosts of emperors, popes, artists, saints, warlords, come out and haunt its streets and squares.
But nowadays the silence of the historical districts after dark is broken by the thosands of youngsters that hang around till dawn, and their roaring cars and dazzling scooters would probably scare these ghosts to death.
Nevertheless, Rome too can boast a few mysterious presences, whose stories are tightly bound to the city's own history and traditions. The real odd thing is that all these personages are female.

the Cenci coat of arms
Beatrice Cenci (1577-99)
Rome's most famous ghost is that of a young lady who belonged to one of the powerful noble families of the late Renaissance. She is said to appear on the night between September 10 and 11, along the bridge that leads to Sant'Angelo Castle.
Her story inspired paintings (G.Reni), tragedies (P.B.Shelley) and novels (A.Dumas, Stendhal).

Beatrice was the son of Francesco Cenci, an aristocrat who, due to his violent temper and immoral behaviour, had found himself in trouble with the papal justice more than once. In Rome, they lived in a mid 16th century mansion in Regola district, built over the ruins of a previous medieval fortified palace.
Together with them lived also Beatrice's elder brother Giacomo, Francesco's second wife Lucrezia Petroni, and Bernardo, the young boy born after the man's second marriage. Among their other possessions was a castle in Petrella Salto, a small village near Rieti, north of Rome.
Even at home Francesco Cenci behaved as a brute. He abused his wife and his sons, and had reached the point of committing incest with Beatrice.
He had been jailed for other crimes, but thanks to the leniency which the nobles were treated with, he had been freed too soon. The girl had tried to inform the authorities about the frequent mistreatments, but nothing had happened, although everybody in Rome knew what kind of person Francesco Cenci was. When he found out that his daughter had reported against him, he sent Beatrice and Lucrezia away from Rome, to live in the family's country castle.

Beatrice Cenci,
painting by Guido Reni

Exasperated by his attitude, the four Cenci had no better choice than to try and get rid of Francesco, and all together they organized a plot. In 1598, during one of Francesco's stays at the castle, the castle-keeper and the blacksmith (the former of the two allegedly was Beatrice's secret lover) helped them to drug the man, stab him with a long nail through his head and throat, and then drop the corpse from a balcony, to simulate an accidental fall.
But somehow his absence was noticed, and the body was found during an investigation by the papal police. A servant whom Beatrice had ordered to wash the blood-stained sheets, telling her that she was menstruating, became suspicious and reported to the investigators. Beatrice's lover was threatened to be tortured and confessed the crime; he then managed to escape, but a family friend ordered his killing, to avoid any risk. The blacksmith was almost tortured to death; he initially confessed, then retracted his confession, but died soon later. Also Beatrice's confession was obtained by means of torture.
The four members of the Cenci family were therefore found guilty, and sentenced to death.

← Palazzo Cenci (today Palazzo Cenci Bolognetti)

The Roman people, knowing the reasons of the murder, uprose against the tribunal's decision, obtaining a short postponement of the execution.
But pope Clement VIII, despite his name, was all but clement; so on September 11, 1599, at dawn, all four members of the family were taken to Sant'Angelo Bridge, where the scaffold for public executions used to be built. They set off from the two prisons of Corte Savella (where the two women were held) and Tor di Nona (where the two brothers had been sent), both ill-famed and feared because of the inhumane treatment received by convicts. In via di Monserrato, on the ancient site of the Corte Savella prison, now no longer extant, in 1999 Rome's Council hung a commemorative plaque that says:


the plaque that remembers
the 500th anniversary of Beatrice's death

Sant'Angelo Bridge, where Beatrice's ghost is said to appear
Along the way to the scaffold, Giacomo was tortured with hot pincers. When they reached the site of the execution, Lucrezia (who had already fainted) was beheaded with a sword. Then Beatrice took her turn on the block.
Finally, Giacomo received a blow in the head with a mallet, which likely killed him; but then the same instrument was used to quarter him: his limbs were torn off and hung in the four corners of the scaffold, where they remained on display for the whole day.
Only the young boy was spared, yet he too was led to the site of the execution, to witness the fate of his relatives, before being returned to prison and having his properties confiscated (and sold for a very low price to one of the pope's nephews!).

According to her will, Beatrice was buried in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, yet in a nameless tomb (having been executed). For the people of Rome she became a symbol of resistance against the arrogant aristocracy, what still today, on the night before her execution, brings back to the bridge her ghost, carrying her severed head with her hands.
The tragic story of Beatrice had a further sad conclusion, which undoubtly fuelled this legend, as even after her death she did not rest in peace. In 1798, Rome had just been occupied by Napoleon's troops, when some French soldiers stormed into the church of San Pietro in Montorio, smashed all the tombstones to steal the lead from the coffins, including Beatrice's own, scattered her remains, which were never retrieved, and - as told by a witness - one soldier even played with her skull, tossing it in the air as a ball.

Pimpaccia, or Dame Olimpia (1592-1657)
Another famous roman ghost allegedly appears aboard a black carriage, that in the dead of night suddenly comes dashing along Sisto Bridge, heading towards Trastevere district.

the Pamphilj coat of arms
Olimpia Maidalchini was born from a humble family in Viterbo (80 Km or 50 miles north of Rome); the young girl was very ambitious, cunning and also rather good-looking, all qualities that enabled her to become an excellent social climber.
Her first husband was a rich man, who died very soon. She was only twenty when she married again, and also this time her husband was some thirty years older than her. His name was Pamphilio Pamphilj, brother of the cardinal who a few years later was to become pope Innocent X. This time Olimpia had really made it.

When also her second husband died, Dame Olimpia's power reached the paramount, as she exerted a strong influence upon his brother-in-law, soon becoming the only person whose advice the pope fully relied on. For this reason ambassadors, artists, tradesmen, politicians, and any important person in Rome presented her with rich gifts, to gain her favour and be well introduced to Innocent X.
Her urban dwelling was Palazzo Pamphilj, a large mansion at the southern end of piazza Navona, from where she practically ruled as a queen. The Pamphilj owned several other properties, among which a famous suburban villa, now a public park, located beyond the Vatican, in the outskirts of the 17th century Rome.

Dame Olimpia, bust by A.Algardi

Palazzo Pamphilj in piazza Navona

Dame Olimpia knew that she was unpopular, but did not really care, since her great wealth and social position granted her anything she may have wished for, as long as his brother-in-law was the pope.

In 1655, only a few hours before Innocent's death, realizing that without him she may have lost everything, she filled two cases with gold coins, loaded them on a carriage, and rushed away. She never returned to piazza Navona again.
The people of Rome did not like Dame Olimpia at all, nor they were happy of being ruled by a woman who once was a commoner, and even came from a small town. They nicknamed her Pimpa or Pimpaccia, and wrote several jokes about her, regularly hung to the 'talking statue' of Pasquino, which by coincidence stands just round the corner of Palazzo Pamphilj. Even rumors that she and the pope may have been lovers were heard, probably only a gossip, but clearly indicating the people's feelings about her.

the mansion in Villa Pamphilj, once located outside the city

Innocent's successor, pope Alexander VII, exiled her in San Martino al Cimino (a small village just north of Rome); she was asked to give back the gold she had taken away, but Dame Olimpia refused. She died of plague two years later.
Her greed gave birth to the popular tradition according to which she appears on Sisto Bridge in her carriage, with her loot of coins; in fact, this bridge spans the Tiber along the shortest way from piazza Navona to her suburban residence, Villa Pamphilj.

← Sisto Bridge, among Rome's most ancient ones (1473-79)

Costanza Conti De Cupis (17th century)

the De Cupis coat of arms
Another famous story concerns a young woman from the aristocratic Conti family, whose presence haunts a building near the aforesaid Palazzo Pamphilj.
In the early 1600s, after marrying the nephew of cardinal Giandomenico De Cupis, Costanza and her husband moved to the latter's family mansion, which stands in via dell'Anima, whose back looks out upon piazza Navona, adjoining the right side of the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone.
She was a very fine-looking woman, and was particolarly praised for the beauty of her hands, up to the point that an artist asked her to let him cast a mould, a frequent custom in those days, making a model of them, which he kept on display in his workshop.
Everybody admired those beautiful hands. But one day a stranger or (according to another version) a friar, after looking at them, said that the woman whom they belonged to would have lost them very soon.

The lady was informed of the bad omen, and she was so shattered by this news that she ordered to destry the model and, in the fear of being involved in some accident, she decided to seclude herself in her own house.

mould of a woman's hand (Napoleonic Museum)

piazza Navona, with Palazzo De Cupis in the background

She spent her time sewing. So she happened to prick her finger with a needle, and this simple injury developed an infection, which rapidly spread to her arm. Nothing could be done, and her hand, now swollen and covered with sores, had to be amputated. Not even this drastic measure was enough to save Costanza's life: the infection had already spread to the rest of her body, and soon the wretched lady died of septicaemia.
It is said that ever since, when the moon shines on the windows of the building, the light reflecting on the window glass reveals a pale shape with five fingers, that can be seen from the plaza below.

For the sake of completeness, some more scary presences and apparitions have been reported also in the past.

By ancient tradition, the area just outside Porta del Popolo, the northernmost among the city gates, once called Porta Flaminia, acted as a burial place graveyard for prostitutes, atheists and prisoners who had refused to repent before being executed, as all of them were refused final rest on sacred ground, i.e. inside a church or within its premises (a custom that lasted up to the 19th century!).
Due to its nature of 'infamous graveyard', in the Middle Ages this area was known to be haunted by the ghost of Nero, commonly believed to be the most wicked among ancient Rome's emperors. Actually, on one side of the gate once stood the large tomb of the Domitii Ahenobarbi family, where the famous emperor was in fact buried, being himself a member of that clan.
The present church of Santa Maria del Popolo was first built in 1099, in the shape of a small chapel, on the site of the aforesaid tomb, with the purpose of driving the ghost away from this spot. This apparently worked well, not having Nero's evil presence been reported ever since.
Inside the church, rebuilt and refurbished over the centuries, a large number of skulls and skeletons in the most diverse fashions decorate the local tombs and chapels (the most famous ones are shown on the left). These figures, together with the legend, indeed contribute to maintain a halo of mistery that still today surrounds Santa Maria del Popolo.
many images of death are found in Santa Maria del Popolo's church

Apparitions of Nero's wrestless ghost were also allegedly reported by Salario Bridge, across the Aniene river (today in the northern part of Rome, once 7 km / 4 mi from the city), as nearby stood the villa of the freedman Epaphroditos, who aided the emperor in killing himself there.

the building in via del Governo Vecchio
haunted in the 19th century
Among the stories whose memory is still lingering, in the 1930s, in a villa not far from St.John in the Lateran, the owner saw and heard on several occasions groups of nuns who, passing by the windows of the house, left the glass steamed, and even traced on it human figures.
Further back in time, in 1861, on the third floor of a building in via del Governo Vecchio 57 (again, very close to piazza Navona!) strange phenomena that today would be labelled as Poltergeist, such as loud thuds and other noises, objects that flew in the air and smashed against the walls, scared a couple named Tromba who lived in the apartment for some time, until they decided to quit the house. The strange facts were reported also by reliable witnesses, among whom some police officers.

Finally, some say that in vicolo delle Grotte, at the back of piazza Farnese, a ghost can be seen; it is that of Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as Count of Cagliostro, a famous esoterist, alchimist and freemason of the 18th century, who also was a healer, a forger and a fraud. In this lane, in a well-know brothel, he had met his future wife Lorenza Feliciani, who by that time was seventeen years old. Cagliostro carried out his activities not only throughout Italy, but also in England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, almost constantly followed by Lorenza, whom he had married in 1768, and who rounded up the family budget by practicing her own job, with the approval of her husband. After over two decades of countless adventures over most parts of Europe, once back in Rome, his own wife reported him to the authorities, in 1791. He was charged with an endless list of offences, among which the practice of magic, pandering, fraud, sedition and heresy; he managed to escape capital punishment, but received a life sentence, which he spent in the fortress of San Leo, on the boundary by the provinces of Rimini and Urbino and the state of San Marino, in a doorless cell (he was lowered from a trap-door on the ceiling); he died there four years later.
On moonlit nights it is said that Cagliostro comes back to vicolo delle Grotte, crying out the name of the dissolute Lorenza.

Other mysterious traces, such as prints of hands, signs of crosses, etc. left by the ghosts of holy personages on garments, prayer books, banknotes, mostly dating to the 18th-19th centuries, have even been collected in the smallest and weirdest gallery in the world, called Museum of the Purgatory Souls, housed in a single room by the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio church.

(↑ above) Sacro Cuore del Suffragio church and
(← left) its small weird museum consisting of about thirty exhibits

Indeed, these are few ghosts for an over two-thousand-year-old city like Rome. But who knows... maybe new ones might appear one day.
Check this page for future updatings!