Coffee, Crypts, Bones, and Friars — the Origin of the Cappuccino

What do coffee, crypts, bones, and friars have in common? No, they aren’t the ingredients for a misguided Halloween party theme. They are, instead, the basis for what may be one of your favorite beverages.

The cappuccino is a coffee-based drink that is topped with frothed milk. The drink as we know it was developed in the coffee houses of Venice in the 18th century. It owes its name — but not its origins — to a group of Christian clerics known as Capuchin friars.

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin was started in 1525. Their faith is marked by strict adherence to the teachings of Francis of Assisi. In 1626, Pope Urban VIII commissioned the construction of the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. Five years later, the crypt beneath the church became the official burial site for the Capuchin friars. The remains of thousands of friars were exhumed and relocated to the crypt, where their bones now line the walls.

The remains of 4,000 friars adorn the ossuary of the Santa Maria della Concezione. (Click image to expand)

Lest you think that drinking cappuccinos will earn your bones a quick relocation to this creepy crypt, the hot drink’s name comes from something far less chilling. In addition to their penchant for decorating with the remains of deceased brethren, Capuchin friars are known for their distinct clothing.

They wear a simple brown robe that includes a long, pointed hood that hangs down the back. The Italian word for this distinctive hood is cappuccio. It is for the robe’s color, however, that the drink is associated with the Capuchins. The brown robes bear the color of coffee mixed with the frothed milk. The association stuck, thus giving the world a name for a much-loved beverage.

Although the coffee drink has nothing to do with the cappuccio hood that gave the drink its name, there is another bit of Capuchin-inspired nomenclature that must be mentioned. When Portuguese explorers reached the Americas in the 15th century, they were greeted by small primates who impressed them with their intelligence. The monkeys were easy to identify because of a ruff of fur on their necks that looked an awful lot like the hoods that gave Capuchin friars their name. It was in this way that the Capuchin friars (also known as monks) inspired the name for the Capuchin monkeys.

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