The Aragonese castle is a building of extraordinary beauty, located on an islet beside Ischia, in front of Procida. Placed within the gulf of Naples, it was a strategic place offering shelter to the inhabitants of Ischia during the troublesome centuries of pirates attacks, when the sea was access to assaults and raids.
Below: the Aragonese Castle. Picture by Roberto De Martino shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The castle was an actual city with 13 churches, a monastery of monks, a casemate for the garrison, a bishop and a cathedral. In 1575 it became home of the Poor Clares too, who came once Beatrice Quadra, Muzio d’Avalos’ widow, moved to the little island with 40 nuns coming from San Nicola convent.
The nuns were destined to a cloistered life from a very early age, measure adopted by several noble families in order to not divide the inheritance in too many parts and preserve most of its content to the male offspring. The story of the convent lasted around 250 years and finished in 1810 when the French General Gioacchino Murat dissolved all the religious orders to seize their possessions.
Below: Gioacchino Murat painted by François Gérard
In this period of time the nuns lived and died in this exquisite part of the world. To remind themselves of the transience of life, the pious women set up a room, contiguous to the cemetery, known as the Putridarium; this little room was meant to host the corpses of the deceased sisters in a seated position, waiting for the putrefaction to decompose the bodies.
Below: view of Ischia from the Aragonese castle. Picture by Luca Scognamillo shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The room was attended by the living nuns daily, who were praying for the dead women as well as observing the changes of their bodies. The corpses were in fact draining their own liquids purifying the soul from the flesh, corruptible aspect of the human condition. The Putridarium, or draining room, was a place of cleansing, room where the body would get rid of all the impurity and remains just its essence, the bones, subsequently buried in the nearby cemetery.
Below: the Putridarium, picture of Orric shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The nuns who were used to praying in this room were aware of the Latin way of saying
“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris – Remember, man, that dust you are and dust you will return”
That saying would risk to become truth in a rather quick time. The environment, cozy and windowless, was a receptacle of viruses for the decomposition of all those corpses. Often the women would fall ill because of the many hours spent inside of this room. Preserved throughout the years, the Putridarium is nowadays open to visitors inside the Aragonese castle.
The Putridarium all over Italy
The draining room of the Poor Clares in Ischia is neither the first nor the last Putridarium inside Italy. In the Kingdom of the two Sicilies the Putridarium were common; you could find them in Naples, Palermo, Armerina Plaza, Eboli, Matera, Lamezia Terme and many other cities. Their disappearance dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when the health authority put in place some safety measures for clerics and worshippers.