Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 105, entry Nov 2006          

he Fontanelle Cemetery

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 Sanità 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 even though the Greeks carved the original huge cavern out of the hillside north of Neapolis, they could not have imagined the Fontanelle

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.

The entrance to the cemetery is the
cavern on the right of the church.

Then, in 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati had the chaotically buried skeletal remains disinterred and cataloged. 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).

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 a stranger in anachronistic military garb 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.  (An alternate ending says that the husband approached the captain at the wedding and asked him, "Who are you? Who invited you?!" "Your bride did, at the cemetery," said the Captain. The husband challenged the stranger to prove that he was, indeed, who he claimed to be, at which point the Captain opened his tunic to reveal a skeleton beneath. The young husband promptly died of shock.) *see note 1, below  

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 paganism and ordered the cemetery to be closed. An intensive project of restoration under the auspices of Mario Alamaro of the Servizio Sicurezza Geologica e Sottosuolo (Department for Geological and Subterranean Safety) of the city of Naples was started in the year 2000. The restorers were faced with a very large and potentially very unsafe cavern littered with an unbelievable jumble of scattered skeletal remains. In four years' time, the restorers shored up and embedded miles of steel rods to reinforce those sections of the tufaceous cavern surfaces that needed it; they also collected, sorted, recatalogued, cleaned and restored to their original places most of the tens of thousands of skeletal remains, primarily the skulls, which had given rise to the cult of the Fontanelle in the first place. Alamaro says, "We restored dignity to the premises." To me, the site now looks to be in good enough condition to be open to visitors, but there is, according to Alamaro, still a lot of work left to be done before the general public is admitted.

                Entrance to the Fontanelle cemetery  

Most impressive are the restored teche (plural of teca) small box-like shrines arrayed around the cavern. Each one contains at least one skull (sometimes more), representing the departed spirit of the original owner adopted by one of the many devotees of the cult. The procedure was to adopt a skull and, in exchange for small favors, pray for the spirit of the deceased to be released from purgatory. In the process of cleaning the skulls, the restoration team found a number of votive slips of paper stuffed into the eye-sockets of skulls; the notes contain wishes of the devotee.  (This is quite common in other religious contexts in Naples; even Christmas trees are often so decorated). Also, the small shrines often have the name written on them of the woman who had taken charge of that particular skull. Each small shrine, thus, has its own history handed down by oral tradition among the devotees; as time has passed, however, and with the closing of the cemetery, decades of neglect, and the inevitable dwindling of active interest in the site, most of that oral tradition has been lost. The story of the Captain's skull (cited above) is but one of many; a few others have been preserved.

Interestingly, the cavern was not just a repository for remains from well-known disasters--say, the devastations of the 1600s...meaning eruptions of Vesuvius, pestilence, famine, etc.; the cavern also contains many remains that simply turned up over the centuries in the course of various dramatic episodes of one kind or another--the collapse of a building, the discovery of remains in the course of often massive urban renewal projects such as the risanamento, etc. Indeed, one shrine has the dedication "In thanks of grace received, Sept. 6, 1943." There is no name, just a thank-you for having survived a devastating Allied air-raid against Naples on that day. The period of greatest "cult devotion" at the Fontanelle cemetery was the 1950s, perhaps understandable in light of the recent devastations of WWII. As strange as it sounds, the premises were a favorite trysting place of young lovers, and--this perhaps not so strange--of those dedicated to Black Magic. Also, Monday was one of the two special days of the week considered most propitious to be active at the Fontanelle since that day was, according to lore, the day favored by Hecate, the Greek goddess of the underworld, magic, and the moon. (The day after Sunday is named for the moon in many languages.) Friday was the other special day since the lottery numbers were drawn on Saturday; it never hurts to get in a last-minute pitch to beseech a lucky number in a dream that night from your adopted spirit.

In spite of the disappearance of the cult, the Fontanelle remains close to the hearts of many Neapolitans, and as macabre as the site may seem to outsiders, this manifestation of a less sanitized view of death than we are used to in modern Western society is of extreme anthropological interest. The local attachment to tradition was in evidence 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."

update-April 8, 2011: The city has announced the "closure until further notice" of the Fontanelle due to a cave-in on the premises. See this item.)

update-Aug 13, 2011: It has reopened.

(Also see this remarkable painting by Fulvio De Marinis.)

[For another example of a strange cemetery, see The 300 Trenches.]


(*note 1) A slightly different version is retold in the recent book by musicologist Roberto de Simone, Novelle K666. Fra Mozart e Napoli [Between Mozart and Naples] (Einaudi, 2007), a work that deals with the presence of the young Mozart in Naples in 1777. The title is a give-away: the K is a play on KV (Köchel-Verzeichnis), the catalogue system used to number Mozart's works; the 666 is the infamous, satanic "number of the beast." In the course of Mozart's (de Simone's) wanderings in Naples, the Fontanelle comes into play and, thus, the tale of the Captain's Skull is retold. More interesting is the fact that at least some of the loss of oral tradition is now compensated for by literature in the hands of those such as de Simone. (back to main text)


-Alamaro, Mario. Personal correspondence (August 14, 2009) and the brochure on the project to stabilize and restore the premises of the Fontanelle cemetery, prepared for the Servizio Sicurezza Geologica e Sottosuolo e la V Direzione Centrale Infrastrutture. (2008) Naples.

-Liccardo, Giovanni. (2000). Guida insolita ai misteri, ai segreti, alle leggende e alle curiosità di Napoli sotterranea.  Rome: Newton &Compton.
Puntillo, Eleonora. (1994), Grotte e Caverne di Napoli. Rome: Newton tascabile.
Regina, Vincenzo. (1994). Napoli antica. Rome: Newton & Compton.

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