Sunday, February 26, 2012

Le Fontanelle Cemetery

In the seedy Sanità district, the O Campusanto de Funtanelle for many years acted as a bridge to the afterlife where the living tenderly cared for the skulls of the departed. The cavernous space retains an atmosphere shot through with Gothic imagery where fetishistic bric-a-brac drapes over thousands of skulls and bones.

The Sanità district once lay outside the Greco-Roman city and provided a burial place for pagans before Christian interments took over. The vast cavity, which was first a tuff rock quarry, came into use as a burial ground for the excluded – the urban poor, victims of plague (at least 300,000 died in 1656), earthquake, insurrection, executions, and cholera (1836-7).

When the Bourbons razed many churches, the remains of Neapolitans came up to La Fontanelle. In the late 18th century, despite family members thinking their loved ones had secured a church interment, they might have been bundled into a sack at the dead of night and offloaded here. It’s estimated that 40,000 rest in plain sight, but at least four more meters of human remains hide under the floor level.

At some time in the late 17th century a rushing torrent of rain washed much of the contents of the cemetery out into the streets, creating a scene of apocalyptic horror. Then followed the first attempt to put some order into the charnel house, stacking together the skulls and bones. Father Gaetano Barbati continued this effort until, in 1872, the cult of devotion to the Anime Pezzetelle, or Poor Souls, became popular. The ritual included the selection of a capuzzella (skull) which was polished carefully and placed on an embroidered handkerchief with a rosary encircling it. Later, a lace trimmed cushion was substituted, small oil lamps lit, and flowers added.

The supplicant waited for the soul to be revealed to him or her in a dream. It was thought the soul needed some kind of refreshment: ’A refrische ’e ll’anime d’o priatorio’. If the skull seemed to sweat, that meant some success. The grace or favor sought might be the finding of a son missing in war, winning lottery numbers, or a much-longed for pregnancy. If this was not forthcoming, Neapolitans made no bones about putting the pampered skull back in the general mass of remains and beginning the process anew.

Many stories grew up about particular skulls, devotees imposing names and personalities onto their favorite skulls and, if things worked out well, giving them special stone or wooden boxes in which to repose; even a biscuit tin would do. In vain Archbishop Corrado Ursi labored to eradicate this veneration in 1969; even in the late 1970’s cars waited outside the locked gates of Le Fontanelle for the bones of Don Francesco, a Spanish cabalist long departed from this world, to reveal upcoming Lotto numbers.

Step into any of the three huge trapezoidal cavities and the atmosphere will begin to work on you, whether in front of the headless but winged statue of San Vincenzo Ferreri (1330-1419) whose cloth robe moves with the breeze, or before the three crosses set in heaped skulls laced with cobwebs. For many years the cemetery was closed to the public, but now visitors can enter thanks to an overnight occupation by locals that got the municipal authorities’ attention.

Getting There: Not an easy drive by car, consider taking the train to Piazza Cavour station (Metropolitana) and then getting on C51 bus in front of Tommaso Campanella School. A twenty minute ride takes you to the Fontanelle stop. Alternatively, walk from Materdei station.

The address is Piazza Fontanelle alla Sanità 154, Naples. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Wednesdays, the entrance is free. Call at 081 544 1305 or email:

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