Napoli (I): Cimiterio delle Fontanelle

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The first sight of the Fontanelle cemetery, situated in an old tuff quarry in the Sanità area of Napoli, is definitely an impressive one: thousands of skulls and bones are neatly piled up against the walls of the various dark passages, an abundance of votive offerings and crosses in gloomy lights. This cemetery is probably the most imposing expression of Napoli’s cult of the dead, it is another house of lost souls. The numerous remains belong to the nameless dead: victims of plagues, famine and earthquakes, those who committed suicide or were hanged, those with no family to take care of them. The skulls represent the souls in purgatory, seen as beings somewhere between this life and the afterlife and as a kind of middle-man between people and God. Although the heydays of the cult lay between the two World wars we see that up till today the skulls are covered with fresh offerings like coins, rosaries, flowers, photographs, cigarettes and bus tickets.

Devotees chose a capuzzella or skull and “adopt” it, offering help and prayer and, in return, ask for themselves and their loved ones to be given grace and favor. The perception is that it is the soul of the deceased that chooses its earthly helper by appearing in their dreams, revealing the place where they can be found in the cemetery. Monday was the day for the Souls in Purgatory, and this was the day when people collected money for the poor because they were supposed to be the living representatives of the lost souls. According to popular belief, any dreams you had on a Monday night were bound to come true. Tradition had it that if you did not show enough respect for the dead, they would punish you.

The worship of anonymous human remains was forbidden by the Catholic church in 1969 but at Fontanelle Cemetery one can observe ongoing and recent activities. I found the tension between official church symbols and these persistent popular practices quite intriguing. Also, the large number of astonished (Northern) Italian ‘tourists’ at the site was interesting to observe!


All photos are taken in Napoli, December 10 2017 by Claudia Venhorst.

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