According to Dante, the Mountain of Purgatory was the only land that existed in the southern hemisphere. It came into existence because of the displaced rock that resulted when Satan’s fall created hell. Today, purgatory can be found on a narrow street in the Centro Storico at the Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco church where the baroque façade has a show of skulls and femurs adorned daily with fresh flowers and candles. Neapolitan noble families commissioned the construction of this church in the early 1600’s so that they could bury their loved ones in crypts under the city.
Stairs at the back of the church descend to an underground cathedral, now only hollow tuff stone with niches on either side. Across the underground cathedral, a doorway leads to a hallway where rectangular holes display unburied skulls and bones. From here, the visitor enters a cavern with two long beds of dirt on either side. Looking closer, these are unmarked graves. Niches in the walls display a plethora of skulls and bones, burgeoning onto the sides of the walkways and littered with small pictures of the deceased.
Up at the front of this cavernous room, an altar swells with flowers, rosaries, and other memorabilia left by devotees. To the right of the altar, sickly-sweet smelling flowers and handwritten cards sit underneath the remains of Lucia, the virgin-bride. Legend has it – and many different versions of the legend exist – that Lucia was the only daughter of Domenico d’Amore, the prince of Ruffano. In 1789, at the age of seventeen, she died of consumption shortly before she was to wed the Marquis Giacomo Santomango. The tragedy caused a tumult of heartfelt emotion by the populous who to this day leave fresh flowers and handwritten cards underneath her skull and bones.