This strange museum could exist only in Naples. Once a tavern, the Monte di Pietà charity in 1616 rebuilt it 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 grey 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. Most of the skulls were taken to Cimitero delle Fontanelle. Some, though, remain, like that of one Lucia, princess of skulls and patron of amore infelice (unhappy love). Then there’s the skull of Giulio Mastrillo. In the church above you'll find his statue to the left of the 1653 altar he partly paid for. Winged to speed it heavenward, note the dentally challenged Fanzago skull. Yes, even skulls are subject to decay.