Rome harbors many corners of mystery and tales of the occult within the intricate web of its ancient alleys. The architecture of churches and palaces that sketch the landscape of the eternal city often conceal a unique blend of the sacred and the profane, where symbols of superstition, occultism, and alchemy reveal themselves to those who seek their traces.
Where can one find the most evocative atmospheres to celebrate Halloween in Rome? Let’s delve into some stories that fuel Rome’s mystery and pinpoint the locations that witnessed them.
Halloween and Rome
These are stories and legends, sometimes just mere hints, that perfectly fit the Halloween mood, increasingly celebrated in Rome and throughout Italy by both the young and the old. Many in Italy argue that this festivity is not Italian but imposed by Anglo-Saxon culture. However, the ancient Romans were quite fascinated by Samhain’s festival when they conquered the Celtic people.
This celebration marked an intermediate moment between the harvest season and the cold, a transition where people gathered in a community shared with the dead. The Romans recognized similarities with their ritual of the Parentalia and readily embraced it among their customs, following the Empire’s usual pattern of continuously integrating new deities and “conquered” traditions. Later, the Church transformed it into the celebration of All Saints’ Day (Halloween is a contraction of the Scottish “Allhallow’s-even,” meaning “All Saints’ Eve”).
The Ghosts of Rome, Beatrice Cenci, and the Count of Cagliostro
With its ghosts, Rome narrates its most emotionally charged and tragically nuanced stories.
The sad tale of Beatrice Cenci is well-known and resonant in Rome; at Castel Sant’Angelo, her ghost’s presence is felt every September 11th. It was there, on that day in 1599, that many witnessed the young woman’s beheading, including a young Caravaggio. On the eve of a century, the 17th, defined by violence, power, wealth, and familial tyranny among the aristocracy, her execution struck public opinion and the imagination of the Romans and the great Renaissance painter like an omen.
Beatrice Cenci was part of the noble Cenci family, which had fallen into ruin. In this tragic family phase, she endured her father Francesco’s violence. In agreement with her mother, she decided to murder Francesco, throwing him out of a window while they were guests at the Colonna family’s Rocca Putrella. She naively hoped for mercy from them, the Roman aristocracy, and the Pope, who actually sentenced her to decapitation.
Thus unfolds a tragic tale of endured violence and revenge, where the drama usually hidden within the walls of great families bursts forth and is stained with blood.
In his “Judith and Holofernes,” Caravaggio masterfully transposed the violence of Judith’s throat-cutting of Holofernes, reminiscent of the beheading that many Romans witnessed. Simultaneously, Judith’s expression reveals the vengeful fury with which Beatrice killed her father. The artistic resonance continues with another great Renaissance painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, who knew Caravaggio and his work intimately. In her own “Judith and Holofernes,” she portrayed with equal intensity the violence she endured from her painting tutor, Agostino Tassi.
In the Rome of the 18th century, amidst Freemasonry, Alchemy, and Witchcraft—deeply despised by the Church—the story of Giuseppe Balsamo, Count of Cagliostro, and his wife, the beautiful Lorenza Serafina Feliciani, takes its place. It’s said that their ghosts can be felt chasing one another between the central Via del Babbuino and Via della Margutta. What is their story?
Cagliostro practiced alchemy and established his Masonic lodge, attracting members of high society, through which he gained prestige and wealth. Lorenza met him in a house of pleasure, and continued her seductive arts, aiding her husband in growing his fame, until a certain point. Perhaps neglected by her husband, she later accused him of abuse and exploitation, leading to his arrest and imprisonment in Castel Sant’Angelo. Interrogated extensively more for their involvement in Freemasonry than for the mistreatment of the woman, the trial saw the beautiful Lorenza acquitted for her complicity, and the Count imprisoned for life after an abjuration that spared him the gallows. Cagliostro spent the rest of his days locked up in the fortress of San Leo in the Tuscan-Romagnolo Apennines, where he died four years after his sentencing. Lorenza, remorseful for her betrayal, mourned him while confined to a convent.
Lorenza’s ghost is tormented by remorse, while the Count of Cagliostro chases her, mocking.
Freemasonry and Alchemy in Rome
With its millennial history, Rome has been a beacon not only of political and spiritual power but also a crossroads for esotericism, where ancient practices of alchemy and the mysteries of Freemasonry have intertwined.
The winding streets of Rome hide stories of alchemists in search of the philosopher’s stone, the legendary elixir of eternal life, or the transmutation of metals into gold. In the shadows of ancient libraries and monasteries, enchanters and alchemists have toiled, attempting to decipher the universe’s concealed secrets.
But it’s not just the walls of Rome that safeguard these mysteries. Freemasonry, with its secret rites and enigmatic symbols, has found a quiet refuge in this city. Rome’s Masonic lodges have been centers of knowledge and enlightenment, where members have shared philosophical secrets and promoted ideals of brotherhood and wisdom.
Today, as you stroll through Rome’s historic squares and cobblestone streets, know that beneath this city’s surface lies a world of mystery and spiritual quest, waiting to be uncovered.