Given the choice, most people would not enter a shadowy underground chamber stacked high with human skeletons. However, with an understanding of the Neapolitan fetish for skull iconography, a visit to Cimitero delle Fontanelle provides an unlikely calming and reflective antidote to Naples’ frenzied street life. The vast cemetery, dug deep into soft tufo stone, intersects with Neapolitan traditions of religion, folklore and pagan ritual – and is indicative of the many strata of the city’s history. The former quarry became a makeshift burial site in 1656 when a plague reduced the population from 400,000 to 150,000. According to tradition, being buried away from the consecrated soil of their parish church rendered the souls unable to reach heaven. Eternally dislocated from the afterlife, the chamber appears to embody the earthly manifestation of purgatory.
Fortunately for the anime pezzentelle (lost souls) a spontaneous cult of skull adoption developed after parish priest Don Gaetano Barbati encouraged the local community to assist in bringing some order to the bones in 1872. Since then, local women have taken it upon themselves to assist the souls in reaching heaven, cleaning the skulls and assigning them names which appear to the women in dreams.
Wishes are requested of the skulls in exchange for their care and over time legends have sprung up surrounding those who are particularly benevolent. As a token of thanks the guardian houses the skull in a homemade wooden box which line the ossuary, engraved with the soul’s name and the date the wish was granted. The possibility for skulls to deliver wishes is coupled with the idea that they have for millennia served as a mortal reminder of the futility of vanity and the accumulation of unnecessary objects, as depicted in the memento mori mosaics found at Pompeii.
Devotion to the skulls still exists today. The cemetery is free to visit, and local women can often be spotted making their way through the nearby La Sanità district with offerings in hand. Follow their footsteps into the silence of the ossuary to request a wish or to be soberly reminded of the equalising nature of death for all. A visit to Cimitero delle Fontanelle is less a macabre experience and more a meditation on life itself.
• Via Fontanelle 80, comune.napoli.it
• Sophia Seymour curates bespoke guided walks of Naples, lookingforlila.com