Friday, July 24, 2009

The Narni article, in supplement to my previous blog

This gives some more information on Narni and the sotterranea. I typed it up from a picture I took of the article. :-) Enjoy.

Chronicles of Narni

Silvia Marchetti goes underground for a fascinating tour

Narni, an easy hour’s drive north from Rome along the breathtaking Via Faminia, is a fascinating town for a day trip from the capital. Dating back to pre-Roman times, it is perched on top of a rocky cliff surrounded by green valleys. CS Lewis, the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia, is believed to have visited, and to have been inspired by its stone bridge and fortress. But the real legends here lie deep underground.

Beneath a 14th century Dominican church, called Santa Maria Maggiore, is an extraordinary site—the best-preserved of the Catholic church’s Holy Inquisition secret courts in Italy. Discovered by chance in 1979, the warren of underground rooms is now restored and open to the public as Narni Underground.

It was unearthed one night, when a local student, Roberto Nini, with some friends, decided to explore an open crock in the wall of a neighbor’s house [side note: this is different than the information the tour guide provided]. Below, they saw the eyes of an angel surrounded by a star-blue sky, staring at them in the torchlight. They had discovered the ruins of a medieval chapel frescoed with angels. Built to worship St. Michael the Archangel, the colors are still bright and the images stunningly clear. Then they found a more sinister part of the site—the Inquisition chambers.

The discover began a lifetime’s work for Nini. In his bid to recover and reconstruct the history of this court, and its victims, he has been inside the Vatican’s secret rooms (where he found the original map of the Narni prison, dating from 1714). At Dublin’s Trinity College he found other bits of the puzzle: documents written by escaped and recaptured convicts such as Domenico Ciabocchi, who was accused of bigamy in 1726.

In April 2005, days before the death of Pope John Paul II, Nini wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) when he was still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Inquisition Office, asking permission to visit the Congregation’s secret archives. After a month the new Pope granted him a special pass. Here he found a list of victims’ names.

Nini, now 50, is an archaeologist and still in charge of the tours to the Inquisitions rooms, the frescoed chapel and a Roman aqueduct. The money from these tours helps preserve the site, but there’s a lot of work to be done and Narni hold other “hidden treasures” still to be unearthed.

The tours through the spooky halls, torture rooms (racks, ropes and other instruments are displayed) and cells are an evocative reminder of a terrifying past. These cells were used for more than 200 years (1650 to 1860) and thousands were held and tried here, accused of polygamy, blasphemy and other “crimes”—such as eating meat on forbidden days. Women were accused of witchcraft and adultery. The church considered them all heretics, and friends of the devil.

The pain endured by the detainees in the “Room of Torments” is almost tangible. One of the cells is covered in esoteric codes, prayers alchemic formulae, religious and Masonic symbols, signed in 1759 by Sir Andrea Giuseppe Lombardini, a guardian of Spoleto’s Inquisition jails who was accused of freeing another prisoner. He carved suns, moons, triangles, ladders to paradise, Jesuit and cabalistic images and the word “innocent”—later erased by his jailers. In one corner, the bed bears the imprint of a body’s head and sweat. In this cell, I felt a man’s personal drama, unwavering spiritual faith and desire to communicate his innocence to future generations. Lombardini, however, was lucky—condemned to the pillory in 1763 he begged forgiveness and was freed.

Every town and even small villages in Italy had an Inquisition court and jail, most still waiting to be brought to light. Narni’s cells are a tiny reminder of the bloody, hidden history that lies beneath Italy’s lovely towns.

For more information and to book visits by email: Narni Underground is open until October 31.


  1. That is SOOOOOO cool. I want to go!!!

  2. It's amazing how closely things are related to each would never have thought that this would even exist, let alone something that you could tie (albeit sketchily) to your endeavors in the art crime world!