On most of my travels, I make a point to seek out the macabre and bizarre. This was not necessary on my first trip to Italy. To my delight, there were so many strange and unusual things to do in Italy — catacombs and crypts, the skulls of Catholic saints, horrific artworks… these things were not just on the beaten path. In many cases, they were the top sights.
Before visiting, I imagined I’d fall in love with Italy because of the pizza. (Don’t get me wrong, I loved the pizza.) What I discovered on my two weeks in Tuscany and Rome that really captured my dark heart was just how much the country celebrates their dead, the beautifully gothic arts, and the legacy of its violent past. I couldn’t possibly see them all.
So here are my Top 5 personal favourite strange and unusual things to see and do in Italy!
Severed Heads at the Uffuzi Gallery
I always laugh when violent video games or horror movies are accused of corrupting youth. Violence in art is as old as art itself.
And of the many horrific artworks in Italy, two of my favourites were at the Uffuzi Gallery in Florence. First up, the infamous Medusa by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). You know Medusa – of Greek mythology, with the snakes for hair. Caravaggio’s oil painting on a ceremonial wooden shield is just her decapitated head, complete with a copious blood spray and expression of pure terror. Apparently, the face is actually Caravaggio’s. Because, why not?
Second, Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). She was a follower of Caravaggio and one of the great female artists of her time. The religious scene depicts the assassin Judith plunging a sword into the drunken general’s neck, his blood spattered onto the sheets, onto her breasts. Judith looks determined, a female companion helping to hold the man’s body down. Some say this was Gentileschi’s way of expressing her own violent past; she was a victim of rape at a young age and participated in her rapist’s very public trial.
The Uffuzi was recently named the most visited cultural site in all of Italy.
The masses come for world famous artworks like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus but if you’re like me, be sure to visit these two bloody artworks.
Free alternative: If you’re short on time or money, or just want more severed heads, wander over to the nearby Piazza della Signoria plaza. It’s gorgeous on its own but it also has Perseus with the Head of Medusa, an imposing bronze sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini and a copy of Donatello’s bronze sculpture Judith and Holofernes.
Buying your ticket in advance saves time in queues. Advance tickets to Uffuzi Gallery here! Adult tickets are 30 Euro but Gallery is free on Sundays (expect crowds.)
Tuscany’s Torture Museums
Italy has not one but four Torture Museums all around Tuscany. It’s like a chain of Torture Museums, all dedicated to displaying bone-crushing, rectal-tearing, head-chopping devices used by religious authorities through the ages. They may or may not be replicas, but these cruel inventions definitely did exist. We visited the location in Montepulciano and found the small collection to be a little bit “house of horrors” tourist attraction but also quite chilling when you consider how much torture still exists in this world. If you’re looking for strange and unusual things to do in Italy and are in Montepulciano, Siena, Lucca, Volterra or San Gimignato, it’s worth 8Euros and an hour of your time.
See more from my visit to the Montepulciano Torture Museum here
The Capuchin Crypts of Rome
OK, so I understand why some Capuchin friars brought the skeletal remains of their brethren to be reburied beneath their new church back in the 1630s. I’m not clear on why they arranged the 3,700 bodies (or body parts) on the walls like artwork.
In any case, the crypts at Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins in Rome are a dramatic and macabre memento mori – a reminder of our own deaths. Some claim they inspired other famous ossuaries, like the Bone Church near Prague. Of course, I had to go.
The crypts are accessed as part of a museum covering a history of the Capuchins. It’s meant to be serious. But there was something about these tiny underground rooms, each with their own “theme”, that felt a bit….carny. “Step right up, see the Crypt of the Pelvises!” “Exit through the gift shop, please…”
This is not a complaint! It’s just not quite the sombre experience I expected. It reminded me somewhat of the mummy museum of Guanajuato, Mexico, where the exhumed are on display to the public to help pay for upkeep of the cemetery. No photos are allowed inside, so you’ll have to trust me that’s it’s both beautiful and tacky at the same time. I found the pelvises arranged like butterflies to be artful and reverential while a skeleton posed with scythes in front of dirt formed like fresh graves seemed more like a Halloween yard scene.
All things considered, this was still a highlight of unusual things to do in Italy.
The Mummified Head of St. Catherine of Siena
Some things are simple. Like the mummified head of a saint, kept behind glass in her hometown Basilica. St. Catherine is a patron Saint of Italy (1347-1380), a mystic in her time who is buried in Rome. But her head is in Siena. As legend has it, her spiritual advisor had it severed from her body when her remains were being moved a few years after death. (As one does.) And that it was paraded through Sienna, with Catherine’s mother following behind.
The Basilica of San Domenico is an imposing Gothic church slightly outside downtown Siena, offering sweeping views of the city. The interior is much more basic than other Italian churches, although there are impressive religious paintings in the naves. And…there’s no polite way to say this…the absolute worst stained glass I’ve ever seen. I’m talking Monkey Christ restoration level bad.
Nevertheless, we came for St. Catherine’s head, and there it was. Mummified, sanctified, accessible to all who worship her, or just want a glimpse. Like most mummied heads, it’s not pretty. But it is powerful. A friend of mine who visited Siena many years ago recalls making an offering to push a button that lit it up the gilded case from inside. Today, it’s treated more respectfully. No photographs are allowed.
Entrance is free. There’s a religious bookstore and gift shop inside with an excellent selection of rosaries.
Colosseum fight club
The Colosseum is a gem of Rome. The four-story amphitheatre could hold up to 50,000 citizens back in its heyday. It’s most famous as the site of spectacular battles to death between slaves and prisoners turned Gladiators and also wild animals like lions, tigers and bears, hunted and imported from Asia at great expense. Thousands, perhaps even a million, animals were slaughtered during their brutal festivities.
In summer 2021, the Colosseum opened the underground tunnels to the public for the first time! So we took advantage of this exciting new attraction and upgraded our tickets to include arena floor access.
Walking onto the Colosseum floor, you could practically hear the rush of the crowds. I actually turned around and re-entered a few times to feel the power. Our tickets were the last time slot of the day, so it wasn’t very busy. We took advantage of this to really marvel at the site.
From the arena floor you can look down into the Colosseum tunnels – rows upon rows where cells would have kept the men awaiting their fights. You can imagine the sound of the animals, caged and antagonized for maximum bloodthirstiness.
A hole in the floor shows you an example of the many trap doors from which animals once sprung out onto to the public stage. There were 28 of these ancient wooden winch elevators, and they could handle beasts as heavy as 300 kg (660 pounds). We know much of this because the scenes were sculpted on coins and commemorated on parchments. I did need to use some of my imagination to conjure the Colosseum floor covered in blood and mauled carcasses. But it was easy to do.
My visit to the Colosseum in Rome reminded me of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Majestic and powerful. I’m grateful to those who have restored is so that visitors can feel like we were there.
Tickets and tours to the Colosseum are available everywhere. But to get the floor access or something special like the night tour, buy in advance. We purchased ours here.
And that’s just my Top 5! My list of strange and unusual things to do in Italy only grew on my first visit, so I know I’ll be back. What are you favourite creepy attractions in Italy? Let me know in the comments below.