Naples: For centuries, up until the 1990s, the skull at the church of Santa Luciella ai Librai, which has protruding pieces of mummified cartilage resembling a pair of ears, was an object of devotion for local worshippers who believed that the skull would hear their supplications and send them onto the afterlife.
Since April, the skull has once again been busy fulfilling the wishes of its devotees after the church was re-opened to the public by a group of passionate art-historians. The collective, who goes under the moniker Respiriamo Arte, were inspired to ‘return a piece of history to the city’ after stumbling across a book entitled The Prohibited Churches of Naples.
They realised that if they could launch a crowdfunder to restore at least one of the 200 odd abandoned chapels in the city to its citizens then they might inspire others to do the same. “Everything was born from the book” explained the leader of the group Massimo Faella at the inauguration of oratory.
Newly restored, the chapel has a stunning simplicity in keeping with Neapolitan decaying beauty: a pair of non-descript wooden doors mark the entrance to the small sanctuary which boasts a crumbling but unmistakable baroque interior.
The floor is laid with faded 17th Century blue and green Majolica tiles, paint peels from the vaulted walls and at the prow of the chapel is a large rectangular altarpiece. The all-listening skull is housed down a narrow flight of stairs in the crypt where it sits abreast a marble mantelpiece.
The skull might well be able to pass on messages to an unknown realm, but the chapel – since 1327 – has actually been dedicated to Santa Luciella – the protector of eyesight. It was frequented by members of the Corporation of Pipernieri – stonemasons who worked the native speckled black marble that decorates the cornices and doorways of the grand palazzos nearby and whose work was particularly perilous for their precious eyesight.
Neapolitans, however, have always attributed special powers to both saints and skulls – the latter which can be found decorating the facades of churches and cloisters all over Naples.
The most notable collection of skulls can be found at the Cimitero delle Fontanelle in the Sanità district where millions of bones have been arranged into neat rows and have been granting wishes (most notably husbands) to believers for centuries.