Not all those who wander are lost.

Day Trip: Underground Narni

Rome can be excruciating in the summer months. Scorching sun, scalding pavement and unbearable humidity – it truly is an inferno. So what do the Romans do?  They leave their city to the tourists and get the hell out of here. And being the groupie that I am, I followed suit. Last week, my Roman and I took the train one hour north to the Umbrian hill town of Narni.

I had never heard of Narni. I suppose when competing against Assisi, Orvieto, Perugia, and Spoleto, Narni doesn’t exactly make the cut as an Umbrian “must-see.” But after having spent the afternoon wandering its charming medieval cobblestoned streets, I can truly say it made an impression.

Most notably was the Narni Sottoterranea – Narni Underground – tour, an eerie glimpse into Narni’s hidden past.  Our guide explained that these underground chambers were discovered in 1979 by a group of amateur spelunkers (a.k.a. bored teenage boys). The boys thought that there may have been something of interest beneath the existing Church of San Domenico and asked permission from a local farmer to knock down a wall of his chicken coop to start digging.

They were right. Almost immediately, they discovered an 8th century church with frescoed walls and ceilings. Further excavations have revealed human bones under the church floor – our guide casually informed us that it was a common practice to use dirt, rocks, and bones as filler. To describe it as unsettling is an understatement.  The last time I saw human bones, they were on display at a museum, protected by several inches of glass. I’m not exactly accustomed to walking over human skulls or femurs sticking out of the ground. This tour had already sent chills down my spine, and we had barely begun.

From the wall of the chapel, the boys continued digging and ended up in an ancient Roman cistern used to store the city’s water. The replicas of the tools used to ensure straight and level digging is testament to the Roman genius in architecture and design.

While the discovery of an underground church and ancient cistern would be enough for me, the boys thought there could still be more. They dug from the cistern along a corridor which emptied into a dark, windowless room.

The Inquisition was here. That dark period of history in which prisoners suffered through inhumane and excruciating torture methods in the name of uncovering the truth. A few of the devices, including the infamous “stretcher,” were reconstructed to give us an idea of the setup of the Interrogation Room. The imprisoned was placed lengthwise on the table with his hands and feet bound, the ropes wrapped around a wheel. During the interrogation, the wheel would be cranked slowly and methodically to dislocate or completely sever the limbs. Amazing what the human race is capable of, isn’t it?

Adjoining the Interrogation Room was a small, dark cell which held prisoners for what must have seemed like an eternity. What our amateur spelunkers found in the cell was straight out of “The Da Vinci Code.” The walls and ceiling of the cell were completely covered in graffiti. Their artist was a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons, equivalent to heresy in the eyes of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition.

My knowledge of the Freemasons is abysmal at best. But the repetition of cryptic messages, key numbers, and Masonic symbols in that room, along with their undeniable connection to Christianity, left me wanting to learn more.

Puzzles and cryptograms aside, one of the more interesting historical aspects of these two rooms is the amount of effort and luck it took to unveil their purpose. In 1979, there was absolutely no known documentation of their existence. Imagine digging underground with your friends, stumbling across a prisoner’s cell filled with Freemason symbols and then not being able to find anything in court documents, town records, history books, niente, zip, zilch, nadda. It seems as though the Catholic Church tried desperately to erase all evidence of this chapter in Narni’s history.

It took some pretty incredible coincidences involving the right people at the right place and time to locate documents detailing the trials which took place in that room. A team of researchers were able to link papers in the Vatican Archives with the Narni municipal archives. But oddly enough, it wasn’t until they were connected with a professor at Dublin’s Trinity College that they were able to really put the puzzle together. It really makes you think about what other stories have been hidden underneath Italy’s hill towns. Anyone feel like spelunking?


2 responses

  1. Very nice post! And you’re right, Narni is as amazing as the more famous Assisi, Perugia etc…And the Underground is definitely a “Must-see”. Umbria is all stunning! I’d like to invite you to visit my hometown, Todi: it’s 50 km from Narni and I’m sure you’ll fall in love with it too! If you decide to come, please contact me: I will be very pleased to show you Todi around! Ciao and have happy holidays!

    July 30, 2012 at 11:01 am

  2. i’ve always enjoyed visiting Narni but I’ve never done the underground tour. Sounds like I should check it out!

    July 31, 2012 at 8:47 am

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