Complesso Museale Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

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Complesso Museale Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

Once a tavern, this building was rebuilt by the Monte di Pietà charity in 1616 as a church, and its two stories are fascinatingly complementary. As bare as the upper Church is lavish, the altar below-stairs is a stark black cross against a peeling gray wall. The nave covers what was a 1656 plague pit now set off by chains with four lamps to represent the flames of Purgatory. As the pit filled up, to accommodate more recent dead the skulls of earlier plague victims were placed on the central floor. So was born the cult of le anime pezzentelle (wretched souls). By praying for them, the living could accelerate these souls' way to Heaven, at which point the pezzentelle could intercede on behalf of the living.

During the 20th century, the Second World War left many Neapolitans with missing relatives. Some families found consolation by adopting a skull in their loved ones’ stead. The skulls would be cleaned polished and then given a box-type altarino.

If all this verges on the pagan, the Catholic Church thought likewise, and in 1969 the practice was banned. The altarini were blocked off and eventually abandoned. In 1992 the church reopened and most of the skulls were taken to Cimitero delle Fontanelle. Some still remain, like that of one Lucia, princess of skulls and patron of amore infelice (unhappy love).

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