Mindful of the verse in Ecclesiastes that reminds us that there is "nothing new under the sun," I don't throw the word "unique" around lightly. Yet, the Fontanelle cemetery in Naples is more than simply interesting, bizarre and unusual. Maybe there really is nothing quite like this anywhere else in the world. The Fontanelle is a charnel house, a Golgotha, an ossuary, a vast collection of skeletal remains in a cave in the tufaceous hillside in the Materdei section of the city.
The area, itself, was well to the north, beyond the walls of the ancient Greek and Roman city, and Greek burial chambers—called hypogea
—have been found in the vicinity. The area, thus, is no stranger to rituals of death, but the Greeks could not have imagined the Fontanell.
By the time the Spanish moved into the city
in the early 1500s, there was already concern over exactly where to locate cemeteries, and moves had been taken to locate graves outside of the city walls. This did not sit well with many Neapolitans, who insisted on being interred in their local churches, the ones where they had worshipped all their lives. To make space in the churches for the newly interred, undertakers started removing earlier "residents" outside the city to the cave that would one day be the Fontanelle cemetery. The remains were interred shallowly and then joined in 1656 by thousands upon thousands of anonymous corpses, victims of the great plague of that year
At that point—sometime in the late 1600s—according to Andrea de Jorio
, a scholar from the 19th century, great floods washed open the graves and flooded the remains out and into the streets, presenting the grisly spectacle of roads awash with anonymous bones and corpses. The remains were returned to the cave, at which point the cave became the unofficial final resting place for the indigent of the city in the succeeding years—a vast paupers' cemetery, about 5,000 square meters in area. It was codified officially as such in the early 1800s under the French rule of Naples. The last great "deposit" of the indigent dead seems to have been in the wake of the cholera epidemic of 1837. Still, though—nothing really unusual so far.
Then, in 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati had the chaotically buried skeletal remains disinterred and catalogued. They then remained on the surface, stored in makeshift crypts, in boxes and on wooden racks. From that moment, a spontaneous cult of affection for, and devotion to, the remains of these unnamed dead developed in Naples. Defenders of the cult pointed out that they were paying respect to those who had had none in life, who had been too poor even to have a proper burial. Devotees paid visits to the skulls, cleaned them—"adopted" them, in a way, even giving the skulls back their "living" names (revealed to their caretakers in dreams). An entire cult sprang up, devoted to caring for the skulls, talking to them, asking for favors, bringing them flowers, etc. A small church, Maria Santissima del Carmine
, was built at the entrance (photo, right--the entrance to the cemetery is the cavern on the right of the church).
Folklore sprang up—stories connected with the skulls, stories about their original "owners" and how they interacted with the living. The "Captain's skull" is one such tale: a poor young girl adopted a skull and knew (from a dream) that he had been a Spanish captain. She talked to him, prayed to him, and asked that she might find a husband. She did. On the wedding day in church, everyone noticed an oddly dressed stranger in church. He smiled at the young bride, at which point the jealous bridegroom struck him in the face. Back in the cave, where she had gone to thank "the captain," she saw that the skull had a fresh mark, a bruise around the eye.
The cult of devotion to the skulls of the Fontanelle cemetery lasted into the mid-20th century. In 1969, Cardinal Ursi of Naples decided that such devotion had degenerated into fetishism and ordered the cemetery to be closed. It has recently undergone restoration as a historical site and may be visited.
In spite of the disappearance of the cult, the Fontanelle remains close to the hearts of many Neapolitans, as evidenced a few years ago when Rebecca Horn, a German artist, contributed to the yearly episodes of installation art in Piazza Plebiscito
. Her work consisted of about 100 bronze skulls implanted in the pavement
. She may have meant it as tribute to the traditions of Naples, but the reception was cool—even hostile, on the order of "We don't need foreigners coming down here and reducing our traditions to a public spectacle."
Photo by and courtesy of Clemente Esposito of NapoliUndergound