by Sarah Humphreys
The delightful medieval town of Narni in Umbria would perhaps have gone almost unnoticed, apart from being considered to be the exact geographical centre of Italy, if it hadn’t been for C.S.Lewis. While examining a Latin atlas of Europe, he came across the name Narnia, which soon took on a whole new meaning. Although Lewis never visited Narnia, or Narni, as it is now known, it may not be pure coincidence that the tomb of Blessed Lucy of Narni can be found in the town’s impressive cathedral. Images of mythical beasts in stone and iron decorate the ancient buildings and streets. The lion features prominently.
However, horrors more evil than The White Witch and her army of beasts lurk beneath the stones of this ancient town which were only unearthed relatively recently. In 1979, a group of young potholers began to explore a crevice in the ruins of an abandoned convent, on the suggestion of an old gardener who suspected there may have been something hidden there. The young friends were astonished to discover an underground grotto containing a well-preserved thirteenth century church.
Guided tours of Narni Underground nowadays begin in the church, which was consecrated as “Santa Maria delle Rupe”, although the discovery of a copy of a fourteenth century contract revealed the church’s original name as being Chiesa di Sant’Angelo or S. Michele Archangelo (St Michael The Archangel). Although the church has sustained considerable damage, due to water infiltration, beautiful frescos of Christ on the Cross and symbols of the evangelists still adorn the walls and the ceiling is painted with stars and a symbol of The Lamb of God. The Archangel Michael features fighting a dragon and weighing souls. Several skeletons were found in tombs in the floor of the church, which has still not been completely excavated.
Beyond the church, the friends came across the remains of a Roman domus (house) with a cistern which today houses replicas of a groma, a tool used by surveyors in Roman times to trace out roads and divide the land, and a corobate, which was the Roman equivalent of a spirit level. Both these tools were used to construct Narni’s Formina aqueduct in the 1st century AD, which was still in use until shortly after World War II.
Convinced there was still more to discover, in May 1979, the young potholers, whose efforts to draw attention to their discovery were largely ignored, found a blocked up door in a garden on the other side of the wall. Being denied permission to try and open the door, the friends took advantage of boisterous festivities, during the local medieval celebration the “Corsa all’Anello”, to cover noise while they made a hole in the door. They were stunned by what they discovered. A short passage led to a large windowless chamber, which later came to light had been used by The Court of the Inquisition to “extract” confessions from those accused of polygamy, blasphemy, witchcraft and adultery- crimes which labelled them as heretics. “The Room of Torment” now contains models of gruesome torture instruments used on these ill-fated souls, including the rack and Judas cradle. Beyond the chamber, the group came across a tiny cell, completely covered in mysterious graffiti. The inscription “Santo Uffizio” (Holy Office), was the key to leading them to understand the area had been used by The Inquisition.
The graffiti in the prison cell appears to have largely been the work of one desperate prisoner, Giuseppe Andrea Lombardini, whose name is inscribed on the wall under the date 1759 and the remains of the word “Innocent”, which was erased by his guards. Lombardini left a series of cryptic messages and mysterious symbols ,made from a mixture of brick dust and urine, that seem to have a peculiar mixture of origins. Masonic symbols, such as a triangle with a dot, symbolising the eye of the Grand Architect of the Universe merge with strong Christian symbols such as crosses, religious monograms and a representation of the legend of St Nicolas. An image of a tree surrounded by doves is thought to symbolize the tree of life. A sinister falconer catching birds under the tree may represent the church, or the Inquistion itself, destroying freedom. The sequence 7, 24, 42, 70 is repeated in 3 areas within the cell. The sum of the interior numbers is 66, whereas that of the exterior numbers is 77, therefore implying the battle between good and evil. It is interesting to note that the graffiti artist deliberately replaces the letter D with the letter T in his inscriptions, which is believed to express hatred for the Dominican order who ran the Inquisition. Suns, moons, ladders, Jesuit and cabalistic images leave secret messages that have still not been completely deciphered.
The name Andrea Pasqualucci, with the date 1811, is also inscribed on the walls, bearing witness to the fact that the cell was once again used as a prison, by Napoleon’s troops, when the original convent was transformed into a barracks. The Inquisition in Narni officially ceased to exist in 1860 when the town was annexed to the Italian state. The tale of a certain Domenico Ciabocchi, who was accused of bigamy and imprisoned in the cells in Narni, was revealed in a document, found in Narni’s Town Hall Archives, dating from 1726. Ciabocchi eventually managed to escape by strangling his guard but confessed his crime to a priest, who immediately turned him over to the authorities. The unfortunate fellow was condemned to row in a galley ship until his death.
In 2004, it was discovered that Trinity College, Dublin housed a number of important documents referring to the Inquisition including transcripts of the trial of Domenico Ciabocchi, confirming the existence of The Inquisition in Narni. Following this discovery, Robert Nini, one of the intrepid potholers and now president of Narni Underground, wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XIV) who granted him permission to consult the secret archives in the Vatican.
In Roberto’s words, “The emotional impact of entering the Vatican archives was nearly as great as when we discovered the underground chambers.” Amongst other documents, Nini found a map of Narni prison dating from 1714 and papers verifying the imprisonment of Giuseppe Andrea Lombardini, once an officer of the Inquisition, who was seemingly incarcerated for letting a prisoner escape and on suspicion of being involved with heretics. Lombardini spent three years in exile and was later pardoned.
In other areas of the museum, it is possible to see a Napoleonic toilet, the skeleton of a young woman found during excavations, information on the grisly torture methods used by The Inquisition, fragments of Byzantine mosaics dating back to the 6th Century and a copy of the document relating to Domenico Ciabocchi. The volunteers of Narni Underground have recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the official opening to the public. However, their work is not finished. Further excavations have been planned and the search for the truth continues. The horrors of one of Umbria’s darkest chapters of history may have been hidden away for centuries, but their victims have not been forgotten.
If You Go:
♦ The nearest airports are Rome’s Fumicino International Airport and Ciampino Airport where Ryanair and Wizzair operate from.
♦ The closest station is Narnia-Amelia. Trains on the Ancona-Rome and Perugia Rome lines stop there.
♦ By car take highway A1 Roma-Milano- The exit is Orte if you are coming from the North or Magliano Sabina if coming from the South.
♦ Entrance to Narni Underground Museum is through the public gardens of S.Bernardo, just off via Mazzini.
♦ Entrance costs €6 with reductions available for groups of over twenty and children aged 6-14 years. Children under 6 enter free. The ticket allows for 10% discounts at some hotels and restaurants.
♦ For opening times and further information visit Narni Sottereana
About the author:
Sarah Humphreys has been writing since she could hold a pencil. She is originally form near Liverpool in the UK but has lived in the USA, Greece, Czech Republic and Italy. She has been living in Pistoia, near Florence for 15 years, where she teaches English. She is passionate about poetry, literature, music and travel.
Top photo of Narni, Italy by Marco Molena from Pixabay
Photos 2 & 3 are by Sarah Humphreys
Photos 4-6 are courtesy of Narni Sotterranea