Tucked away on a steep hill of Naples’ Sanita’ district, accessible only by narrow and very peculiar streets there is a very unique and outlandish ‘Cemetery’ that really deserves to be visited.
The first time we heard about the Fontanelle Cemetery was at the hotel we were staying at from a very cool guy that, knowing our interest about architecture and art, gave us some tips on places to see that aren’t always on everybody else’s attraction list but utterly worth going to. He told us just a little bit about the cemetery but it was enough to make it sound like a very interesting place and awoke our curiosity straight away.
Already from the majestic entrance carved in the tufa stone of the hill, I could tell the Fontanelle Cemetery was going to leave me speechless – and I wasn’t mistaken.
The Emptiness Within
The cold temperature inside only increased the chilled atmosphere I could perceive from the place. At first it looked very creepy, weird and not somewhere I would have imagine myself walking into, but step by step I started to perceive the peace that reigned there. Everything we heard before getting to the cemetery started to make sense and I could finally see with my eyes what I’ve only imagined in my head.
It’s probably more appropriate to say that the Fontanelle Cemetery is a charnel house with thousands of bones and skulls tidily laid out in the open and visible to everybody. There are so many that the more time I spent walking around them the more the creepiness of the place slowly turned into almost normality. It is such a weird feeling to explain and I think you really need to go there either with someone that can tell you the history of the cemetery, or by reading up beforehand, otherwise you won’t fully understand.
A Place for Restless Souls
In old times people were typically buried in churches, but they soon became over crowded with no space for newly deceased. This 30,000 square meter cavern has been used since 1500 as a place to relocate some of the remains once stored in churches in order to make space. Then Naples was hit by a terrible plague that killed loads of people whose bodies were simply placed straight into the Fonatenelle Cemetery without any identification and a proper burial ritual either.
More epidemic diseases occurred in the following years and the cemetery got fuller and fuller with remains with no name or past. Today studies are saying that there should be around 40,000 remains in the Fontanelle Cemetery even though experts think there might be more underneath it to be found.
A Morbid Ritual Turned Into Cult
It was a priest that started to tidy up the bones, to put them in piles and organize them in neat heaps. Catholics believe that souls that do not receive the last rites stay tangled in Purgatory, these abandoned souls – called Anime Pezzentelle in Neapolitan dialect – soon became the fulcrum of a cult. Devotees started to clean these skulls, pray for them, bring them flowers and other gifts and in some cases even adopt the one they claimed came to them in a dream. The devotees started to ‘ask’ the skulls for some favours or graces and suddenly they became very jealous of the skulls they were looking after and put them in boxes or created little shrines not only in sign of thanksgiving but also to claim their ownership.
This ghoulish practice went on for years until when, in the 1969, the Fontanelle Cemetery was closed because the Church thought this odd cult had turned into fetishism. The cemetery only opened again recently after a long restoration to make up for the many years of abandonment, closure and gross neglect.
Free admission – Open Daily from 10am to 5pm
Via Fontanelle, 80
What might seem a very creepy place for many people, was in fact a very interesting one for me to visit mainly for the history behind it and, even if it gave me slight goosebumps seeing so many skulls and bones collected altogether, I still think is one of the most astonishing places I’ve ever seen.