Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, and the cult of “pezzentelle” souls.5 min read
The Fontanelle cemetery is a place of worship located in in a cave in the tuff hillside in the Materdei section of the city of Naples, Italy. Inside there are about 40,000 human remains that derive both from the plague epidemics (1656) in Naples, and from the cholera epidemic (1839). Only the plague, according to some estimates, made at least 250,000 victims only in the capital of Campania region. In fact the 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. The site is located in Via Fontanelle and at one time, it is said, in that precise place there were a series of water springs: hence the origin of the name.
The site is associated with a chapter in the folklore of the city. When the Spanish moved into the city in the early 16th century, there was already concern over where to locate cemeteries, and moves had been taken to locate graves outside of the city walls. Many locals, however, insisted on being interred in their local churches and to make space in the churches for the newly interred, undertakers started removing earlier remains outside the city to the cave, the site of the future Fontanelle cemetery. The remains were interred shallowly and then joined in 1656 by thousands of anonymous corpses, victims of the great plague of that year.
According to Andrea de Jorio, a Neapolitan scholar from the 19th century, sometime in the late 17th century a great floods washed the remains out and into the streets, presenting a really creepy spectacle. The anonymous remains were returned to the cave, that became the unofficial final resting place for the indigent of the city in the succeeding years: a vast paupers’ cemetery. It was codified officially as such in the early 19th century under the French rule of Naples, and the last great “turnout” of dead seems to have been in the wake of the cholera epidemic of 1837.
Some years later, in 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati had the chaotically buried skeletal remains disinterred and catalogued. Parish priest encouraged the local community to assist in bringing some order to the bones.
So, a spontaneous cult of devotion to the remains of these unnamed dead developed throughout Naples, a cult known as culto delle anime “pezzentelle” (lost souls).
People, in fact, went to this place to adopt a “capuzzella” (a skull) that they had to keep with care and affection to receive protection.
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 (often revealed to their caretakers in dreams). An entire cult sprang up, devoted to caring for the skulls, talking to them, asking for favors, or bringing them flowers. Therefore, the care against the soul precisely “pezzentella” (abandoned) guaranteed the person who adopted it a hope, a good omen. A small church, Maria Santissima del Carmine, was built at the entrance.
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 fetishism and ordered the cemetery to be closed. It has recently restored as a historical site and may be visited.
The cemetery covers an area of about 3,000 square meters, in which a series of skulls and human remains are kept for eternity. Inside the site there are also a series of tuff quarries built inside the Materdei hill and in total there are three tunnels, all trapezoidal in shape, fifteen meters high and about a hundred meters long. Each of them boasts a connection to the other thanks to the corridors (or aisles) about ten meters long.
The aisles also have lanes on which human remains are stored and usually have proper names. The right corridor, for example, is called “dei preti” (of the priests), the central one of the “plague victims” and the left one, finally, of the “pezzentielli”, that is, of poor people.
The skulls could have been placed in glass, wood or marble display cases, at the discretion of those who adopted them and their economic possibilities. In the last room of the nave there are the gutters, the places where the skulls were placed to lose body fluids before being placed on the shelves.
Passing the corridors you can instead see the statue of the “Monacone” (Saint Vincenzo Ferrer) and the small church, Maria Santissima del Carmine, in which the rites are celebrated. At the end of the long walkway, finally, there is the so-called “tribunal”, that is a place with three crosses where (according to legends) the Camorra’s leaders are found to initialize the new affiliates through a particular rite. In this lane, however, there is also the most famous skull in the cemetery, known as the “Captain”. Inside the chapel, instead, you can see a reproduction of the Madonna of Lourdes and Bernadette. Next to these are located two coffins containing the bodies of the nobles Filippo Carafa, count of Cerreto, and of the duke of Maddaloni. Next to it, finally, there is a life-size crib.