The skull with ears in the Church of Santa Luciella ai Librai
The Church of Santa Luciella ai Librai is a gem of architecture at the heart of Naples, made accessible once again thanks to the efforts of the Respiriamo Arte Association. It is located on the narrow street of the same name, which was known as Vicus Cornelianus in the Roman age and connects San Biagio dei Librai to San Gregorio Armeno.
Founded little before 1327 by will of Bartholomew of Capua, an advisor to Charles II of Naples, it was identified as the Millers’ Chapel (Cappella dell’Arte dei Molinari) in Alessandro Baratta’s 1628 “Veduta”, which depicted the city. It was later taken over by the “pipernieri”, artists who sculpted precious stones and were devoted to Saint Lucy, protector of sight – as they always had to be careful that chips didn’t hurt their eyes as they chiseled the stones.
In 1748, the church became the seat of the Arch-confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, Saint Joachim and Charles Borromeo, but was later abandoned for decades until its recent re-opening to the public.
Inside, visitors can now admire 18th-century Marian emblems, paintings and a wonderful majolica floor. But it is underground, in the hypogeum, that they can see its most unique piece: the skull with ears, a rare example of cranium with mummified cartilages that once sparked the myth that it could listen to prayers and report them to the afterworld. To this day, nobody has discovered whose skull it was, adding to the mystery: all we know for sure is it dates back to the 1600s. The legend of this peculiar skull intertwines with the worship of “pezzentelle” souls, the nameless, abandoned people who had no proper burial, their mortal remains simply forgotten in mass graves. “Pezzentella” comes from the Latin verb “petere”, meaning “to ask to obtain something”, and indeed by “adopting” a skull faithful Christians believed they could relieve some of the “pezzentella” soul’s pain, and receive graces in return.
Church of Santa Luciella ai Librai
Vico Santa Luciella, 5