The fragrant tomb of Nicolò the hermit in Santa Restituta

by Francesco Li Volti

Until recently, when you accessed the Duomo of Naples, one was immediately attracted to the scented tomb by Nicolò the hermit, kept inside the Basilica of Santa Restituta. There was a heavenly smell coming from the beautiful burial of the blessed of Lombard origins, located below theimage of Santa Maria del Principio, as the sources say, which filled the nostrils of passers-by, intent on admiring the interior of the Cathedral.

La tomba profumata di Nicolò l'eremita a Santa Restituta
The mosaic of Santa Maria del Principio, above the scented tomb

Nicolò the hermit and friendship with the queen

The religious tells us this story Carlo Celano, in his "News of the beauty of the ancient and the curious of the city of Naples ". In his work, in fact, moments of the daily life of a Naples now disappeared, but which makes us daydream are described in detail. It is Celano who told us about this by Fra Nicolò, who came to Naples on a pilgrimage at the beginning of the fourteenth century, to move near the small church of S. Maria a Circolo, dependent on the monastery of S. Pietro a Castello, in Pizzofalcone.

His gentle soul won the hearts of the kings of Naples, Charles II of Anjou, called the lame, and Mary of Hungary. It was in particular the queen who became fond of the hermit, to whom she sent large sums of money through a young man from Aquino, such Perinotto, in order to guarantee him the daily sustenance. In the meantime Nicolò the hermit was fighting against the Devil, within the walls of the Neapolitan Catacombs.

La tomba profumata di Nicolò l'eremita a Santa Restituta
Maria of Hungary

Death "by the hand" of the Devil

On 11 May 1310, as Celano tells us, armed and only Perinotto, possessed by the Devil, without any reason he went to the cave where he used to meet with Brother Nicolò. He found him as always intent on praying, next to a sacred icon. "Perinotto, why did you come armed?The religious asked him, smiling, as soon as he became aware of his presence.

"I come this way to kill youWas the icy reply of the wicked. With all the calm in the world, the hermit said to him: "Perinotto, if you have this thought, remember to be a Christian". Celano tells us that to dissuade him, he indicated all the divine punishments that he would suffer.

"You can't persuade me. Either you kill me, Or I kill youReplied Perinotto. "May I have to take your life, please God not; and if you know in me what offended you, do what you think»Concluded the blessed. Without thinking twice, the Devil, by means of Perinotto, drew his sword and with a well-aimed blow pierced him, killing him. Before taking his last breath, Nicolò said: "Forgive yourself merciful God; so much my son saved, saved quickly".

Suddenly, having come to his senses and repenting, Perinotto tried to stretch his leg but was unable to. Either the Devil or divine power had immobilized him. He tried to escape, but nothing. So, at the first light of dawn, some workers passed by those parts, who, seeing the body of the dead friar and the man beside him with the bloody sword, tried to grab Perinotto, taking him to the governor. The sentence was clear, perhaps because of his friendship with the queen: sentenced to death.

The fragrant tomb of Nicolò

Subsequently, the queen Maria of Hungary he went to the cave, along with other guards. Nicolò the hermit was stripped of everything, a bearskin shirt, a sackcloth and some iron chains. A piece of her dress was torn off by the queen, later ordering a solemn funeral. Immediately after the celebrations, the corpse of the religious began to perfume with an intense odor which, as Carlo Celano tells us, reminded us of Paradise.

In the hagiography of the hermit, written by Giacomo de Pisis, notary of the chancellery as well as royal family, before 1319, the year of his death, on commission from the same queen, we read that his remains were placed inside the coffin, which from that day became an object of veneration. The new sarcophagus of Blessed Nicolò, as can be deduced from the pastoral visit and from the recognition of the relics carried out in the years 1582-83 by the archbishop Hannibal of Capua, was erected by thirteen small columns, currently replaced by a base, while the front slab worked in the Cosmatesca style is still well preserved, that is, with polychrome marble encrustation, attributable to the same stylistic modality, of Roman import, of which it is an expression, also in the cathedral of Naples, the ark of Filippo Minutolo.

Above it was executed by Goofy Tesauro, a painter active in Naples in the early decades of the fourteenth century, a fresco depicting the scene of the killing of the hermit, while other images relating to his life were frescoed on a side wall; these, still clearly legible at the beginning of the eighteenth century, no longer exist today, while the scene of the killing, then very damaged, was faithfully taken up by the unknown author of the canvas, who still today adorns the altar erected in 1583 by the archbishop of Capua on the tomb of the holy hermit.

From that moment, everyone perceived a strong smell and the fragrant tomb it became a pilgrimage destination for the most faithful. That fragrant tomb entered the hearts of the people. In that fragrant tomb the greatest friend of Queen Maria of Hungary was mourned. In fact, no place was chosen for that fragrant tomb, but under the mosaic of Santa Maria del Principio.

If anyone can still smell the strong smell coming from the scented tomb, it is a clear sign that Nicholas is there and is praying for you.


R. Bevere, Suffragi, posthumous expiation, rites and funeral ceremonies of the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the Neapolitan provinces, in "Historical archive for the Neapolitan provinces", 21 (1896)

B. Cantera, The building of the cathedral of Naples at the time of the Angevins, Valle di Pompei 1890

A. Sorrentino, The basilica of Santa Restituta in Naples, Rome 1909

Giovanni Vitolo Religious experiences in Naples in the 12th-14th centuries [Printed in the Middle Ages Mediterranean South. Studies in honor of Mario Del Treppo, edited by G. Rossetti and G. Vitolo, vol. I, Naples 2000, pp. 3-34 - Distributed in digital format by "Reti Medievali"

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