Naples is the largest city in southern Italy and although not always under Italian rule, has been part of the European landscape dating back to the 7th Century BC. Founded originally by the Greeks, the city grew to be a powerful walled city-state that bustled with trade. Conquering Romans later took possession of the city, but found the city quite harmonious and allowed the Greek culture to remain the dominant doctrine. In fact, many Roman dignitaries found the culture of Naples to be so favorable, that they made the city their home. Many were also present when Christianity was ushered in. The city has a rich history that can still be enjoyed today. Modern-day Naples is the home to some of the world’s best opera and theater houses and is often referred to as an “open-air” museum, due to its many historic statues and monuments.
From a distance, the city can be described as nothing short of breathtaking. The azure blue ocean waters gently lap the shores, creating dazzling reflections in the sunlight, complimenting the elegantly painted seaside buildings. Numerous docks are lined with pleasure boats of all shapes and sizes. The local population is near a million people and they are very active. The coastline provides amazing beaches and there are nearly 150 separate sights to see and over one hundred activities. With so much to offer, you’d think Naples would be a tourist destination, but unfortunately Naples has to compete with other Italian cities, which can offer much more. Over 50 million annual tourism visitors make Italy their destination of choice, but less than 7 million of those visitors make their way to Naples. Rome and other Northern Italian cities draw most of the tourists interested in ancient ruins and Vatican City draws pious Catholics hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pope.
Yet, there are the curious types who find their way to Naples to see one of the great underground sites of Europe. Naples’ famous Fontanelle Cemetery is hands-down, one of the most unique burial grounds in the world and one with a story worth retelling. The origins and history of the cemetery are part history lesson, part archeological study, but mostly a macabre look at a mammoth collection of skulls and bones dating back hundreds of years.
Early History & Origins of The Fontanelle Cemetery
The 16th & 17th Centuries were nothing short of disastrous for the city of Naples and the surrounding area. Three civil uprisings, three earthquakes, three famines, three epidemics including the plague, plus five notable eruptions of Mount Vesuvius claimed over half of the lives of Naples citizens. The city was in a constant state of chaos and city leaders were faced with new challenges every day. One of those problems was a steady stream of corpses with no place to bury them. Having little room for burials was not a new problem, but it was one that was kept quiet….very quiet. Even though every Church cemetery was filled to capacity, more dead bodies kept coming. Parishioners wanted their family members interred into the holy ground of the church cemetery, so the local clergy followed through with a proper funeral and burial to meet their requests. But, in order to ensure the church cemeteries were never “filled,” grave diggers would later slip in and exhume the freshly buried bodies during the wee hours of the night. The undertakers would then quickly move them into the mass graves outside of the city. The old Fontanelle quarry was right outside the city walls and served as a quick depository for the undertakers who wanted minimal observation on their actions. Inside the quarry, bodies were haphazardly buried, sometimes with three corpses stacked in each hole.
Quarry’s were very common in ancient times as stone was a very common and inexpensive building material. The coastal city of Naples is situated between two areas of high volcanic activity, mainly on a very large hillside. Houses made of stone and stucco line the narrow old streets which wind their way up the mountainside. Most of the stone for the construction came from numerous quarries located on the outskirts of the city, where miners would carve out slabs of volcanic tuff for building houses and roadways. When the tuff was mined out, all that remained was a complex cave network, which were basically abandoned, that is until they became ossuaries. The Fontanelle quarry would eventually become the cemetery called, “Cimitero delle Fonatnelle.”
Human remains were buried in the empty caves dating back to the 1500’s, but it wasn’t until the plague of 1656 that the cave started garnering attention. From January to August in that year, 150,000 people died in the city of Naples and surrounding countryside; at that time nearly half the city’s population. About 40,000 of those victims were interred into the caves in a short period. Some were buried, but as the plague ravaged the population, most of the bodies were unceremoniously dumped inside, often without a member of the clergy present. Since Naples was a very religious city, those bodies and their immortal souls were considered trapped in purgatory. With so many convened in a single place, rumors quickly circulated about the caves themselves being haunted; almost like an earthbound netherworld. Needless to say, the “haunted” caves were avoided at all costs, with the only exception being gravediggers or undertakers who were adding fresh bodies. The crowded conditions were noticeable whenever a heavy rainstorm hit. Torrents of water would flow down from the highest elevations of the city, near Capodimonte Hill, with such strength that the quarry with often fill to the point of flooding, releasing thousands of skulls and bones that would be washed out into the streets; often so numerous that they would clog the great sewers of the city.
Father Gaetano Barbati – Keeper of the Bones
The devastation to the population from the plagues led to a lengthy period of recovery. Entire families were wiped out and the city was weak. The Fontanelle caves were filled with stacks of unorganized bones and skulls, which after being washed out time and time again were disorganized and messy. New bodies, mostly paupers or indigents were added to the growing sprawl as well as those from a cholera epidemic in 1837. Finally, in 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati decided it was time to clean up the cave, and return a sense of piety to the grave site. He and his followers disinterred, organized and catalogued the bones. They stacked the bones on wooden racks, in makeshift crypts, and along corridor walls; creating a macabre underground display of the dead.
In the process of this massive undertaking, a spontaneous cult appeared with a strange devotion to the dead found within the caves. Father Barbati’s volunteers weren’t just cleaning and stacking bones and skulls. They were “adopting” them. They gave them back their human names (claims were that these names were whispered to cult members while dreaming.) They brought offerings and flowers, and many reports were that cult members started praying to them, instead of God, asking for favors. A small church, Maria Santissima del Carmine, was built at the entrance to the ossuary at the time. This Fontanelle cult existed until 1969, when the Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Ursi, closed the cemetery down as it was in direct conflict to the church’s teachings. The cemetery was restored and only reopened to the public full-time in 2010. It remains filled with the bones and skulls of 40,000 nameless souls that perished over the history of the great city.
The Cult of the “Anime Pezzentelle”, or “the Abandoned Souls”
One of the strangest cults of Naples, was made up almost entirely of elderly women who seemingly communed with the dead; talking with them, lavishing the bones with gifts, setting up altars, and even praying to them. Fontanelle cemetery was the “headquarters” of this death-obsessed cult, with some of their ideals being found in other sites across Europe. And although it wasn’t formally established, became an odd magnet to widowers or older women with no families of their own to care for. Over time, the women began to speak of dreams in which the dead would communicate to them, providing “facts” that led to their adoption. The Fontanelle women would then act as caretakers for portions of the stacked bones; some even creating miniature shrines for certain skulls. The actual numbers of cult followers may never be known, but stories often depict “armies” of elderly women scurrying around the caves at all hours of the day and night.
Offerings of flowers and gifts were left to the anonymous dead, which the women felt would serve as offerings for the dead so that they would grant them favors. It was also reported that the women would petition the skulls for assistance in a variety of forms, whether through dreams, direct conversation, or other forms of telepathy, or by writing their requests on small slips of paper, which would be rolled up and inserted into the skulls’ eye sockets, the women asked for services or gifts. They became highly possessive of their adopted skulls and many built shrines to “mark” their charges as off-limits to other cult members. Some women went so far as to chain and lock their skulls inside wooden boxes to keep rivals from even looking at them.
Among the mass of skulls piled up in the central aisle of Fontanelle is the skull of ‘The Captain’, adorned with beads and distinguished by a number of candles. The legend of this particular skull is connected a local man who habitually used to take women to the cemetery, for “privacy” reasons. One evening, after his lover had left, he wanted to smoke a cigarette. The legend says that out of nowhere, the eye-sockets of the skulls around him lit up like fire and stared at him as a sign of reprobation. The bold young man laughed, and it was said he even invited “death” to come to his wedding. Later on his actual wedding day, during the feast, a man dressed completely in black arrived and sat at a table without speaking. When asked who he was, he replied that he would only reveal himself to the married couple, and in private. The young couple took their leave with the stranger who almost immediately asked the youth if he remembered the invitation he had issued in the cemetery. Again the young man laughed at the stranger, even offering a handshake. The mysterious guest took off his uniform, revealing his skeleton, and struck the couple down dead on the spot.
The Ossuary Today
Today visitors can walk certain parts of the ossuary and if you are interested in making the trip, it’s important to make an appointment since it’s not that popular for tourists. There is no cost to visit but you may leave a donation. Inside you’ll see many “donations” left behind by earlier visitors such as coins atop the lines of skulls or small gifts at some of the remaining altars and shrines.