Cult of the Dead in Naples’ culture

Published October 19, 2012 by Tony

Cemetery of Fontanelle

Fontanelle Cemetery entrance

One of the most populated and rich in history and tradition neighborhoods in Naples is the one called “Rione Sanità“. The area in which this district develops is situated between two big valleys, “Valley of the Gerolamini” and “Valley of the Vergini“, areas rich in tufa, as is most Neapolitan’s subsoil, a time exploited to find the tuff needed to build the houses. For this reason, the subsoil of Naples seems a huge gruyere, with hundreds of grottoes and long tunnels.
One of these abandoned quarries in the valley of the Vergini, was used for the burial of those who could not afford a more decent burying and later as a huge mass grave for all the victims caused by various epidemic that hit the city, such as plague of 1656 or the cholera epidemic of 1836. To these mortal remains later were joined also all the bones of the dead who until that moment were in the catacombs of the churches, as a result of the edict of Saint Cloud, a Napoleonic decree of 1804, according which the dead could no longer be buried in churches and in urban areas.
Because of the inadequacy of the sewer system and the steep slope of the site, a strong deluge led the caves to flood, and the consequent dragging of all the bones that inevitably invaded the streets. Thus, at that time all the bones were brought back in the caves and also was built a barrage wall, while the construction of an altar led the site to become the official ossuary of the city, called the “Fontanelle cemetery”. Currently, the ancient ossuary runs for about 3,000 square meters, and the cavity is estimated at about 30,000 cubic meters.
Interestingly, the local place names of “Fontanelle” (small fountains) and “Sanità” (health) are derived, the first by the presence of abundant water sources in this part of the city, especially during periods of drought, while the second name is due to the many miracles obtained on the graves of saints buried, but also for the healthy place.
It is said that at the end of 1800 a monk counted about 8 million corpses but, although today they have been estimated to be about 40,000, under the caves is assumed that are present four meters of human bones compressed in the subsoil.
Between 1872 and 1877, thanks to the pastor of the “Sanità district”, the first cave with the altar became a church opened to the public.
Although the cult of the dead has always been felt by Neapolitan people, from that moment began a spontaneous and strong popular devotion towards those anonymous dead, in which faithful identify the souls in purgatory in need of care and attention, (in Naples nicknamed “anime pezzentelle“, ie miserable souls).
Each person “adopted” a skull, placing it in containers, showcases of wood or marble, then assigning or identifying the skull by a name, a role, or a story that the believer had got in a dream. Often the Neapolitan, mostly women, went to the place and adopted a particular skull that the soul had indicated her in the dream, and from that moment the soul, tied to the skull, became like a family member.

The bones were associated with unknown souls, abandoned and still wandering and for this in need of care and prayers, as a bridge between the earth and the hereafter, between the believer and the pezzentelle soul. A white handkerchief, a rosary and candles were the first things that the woman gave to the soul of the chosen skull. Then followed constant and regular visits to dedicate prayers, and only later the soul could appear her in a dream. She prayed for alleviating the suffering of the soul, creating a relation of reciprocity in exchange for a favor she wanted or to get winning numbers to play the lotto. If the graces were granted, the skulls were worshiped and honored by a worthy burying, a simple box or a kind of tabernacle, according to the possibilities of the adopter, with an embroidered pillow in place of the handkerchief, while she even invited others people to pray for him. If the demands were not fulfilled, the skull was abandoned and replaced with another, on the other hand, there was plenty of choice. If the soul was particularly generous, the skull was even put in security, closing the box with a lock, to make it as a private property. The skull was never concealed or buried, to allow to the soul to be free and appear in dream, the only means of communication between the dead person and the benefactor.

Holy souls, souls in purgatory,
I am alone and you are so many
Go next to my Lord
and tell him all my sorrows
Before that this holy day darkens
I want to be comforted by God.
Pitiful my God with Your redeemed blood
greets all the souls in Purgatory at all times,
Eternal Rest.

In 1969, in order to avoid the effects of “fetishism” and superstitions inherent in the cult of the souls of the bones piled in the cave, the Cardinal then forbade the entrance to the quarry. Only in 2002 it was reopened to the public, but only for a few days a year, and at the request of citizens, in 2010, the mayor made the site again fully accessible.


For many years, the cemetery was the scene of this popular religiosity made of rites and particular practices. In a lane at the bottom of a cave is one of the most famous skulls, nicknamed the “Captain“.
'o CapitanoOn his figure, various legends waft, and mainly the one of a couple. The Engaged couple, ready to get married, once visited the Cemetery of Fontanelle, and when in front of the skeleton of the Captain, the young man, to do the blowhard in the presence of his girlfriend, said: “We should invite him to our wedding” and both burst out laughing. The day of the wedding arrived: while all the guests were eating and drinking in the tavern, a tall distinguished figure came, with a dark face, dressed all in white, looking like a sea captain, but no one knew him. He had suddenly appeared at the entrance door, and without looking round,  resolutely crossed the room going straight ahead to the newlyweds like to greet them. The husband said, “Who are you, I do not know you.” The figure replied, “Do not you know me? Ah, Fine! How, have you already forgotten?”. The young man was puzzled, but try as he might, he could not remember where he got to know that man. Then, the gentleman dressed in white, with sunken eyes and a face without expression, said, “Two months ago, at Fontanelle, I was invited by you at your wedding, remember? There was also your girlfriend. We laughed in my face, remember? “. At these words, the stranger opened a little bit his shirt to show his real body. The groom looked shocked, becoming white in face as snow, and then fell down dead as a doornail. Any guest gave aid to him while that figure disappeared by a sinister chuckle that chilled everyone’s blood. The young bride had to change the white wedding dress with a black one, and it’s told that her sad face smiled nevermore.

Another peculiar skull is the one of  “Donna Concetta” (ma’am Concetta), which is always unusually shiny. donna ConcettaLegend has it that Donna Concetta, a commoner well known in the district, longing for a pregnancy that made her a fulfilled wife, decided to go to the “Fontanelle cemetery” to ask for the grace to a soul in purgatory. After reciting various prayers in front of a skull with no name, Donna Concetta came up to it and stroked it gently asking for help. Later she actually became pregnant, and nine months later she gave birth to her long desired son,  a healthy child that filled her heart with joy. As soon as she could get to his feet, returned from the skull to thank the souls of the grace received, and there she noticed that the skull was shiny and clean, while the other skulls around there were as usually opaque and dusty. She adopted the skull and became a fervent devotee of the unknown deceased, whose soul had helped her.

Until a few decades ago, it was customary for many Neapolitans, to go at night near the cemetery gates and wait for the shadows, some souls dispatched from the skull of “Don Francesco“, a Spanish Kabbalist, to reveal the numbers to play the lotto. The same was true for a monk nicknamed “a capa e Pascale” (Pasquale’s head) able to know the winning numbers of the  lotto.

Then, the figure of Lucia, a young girl died while her marriage  preparations were in full swing, or some legends about children’s stories and in particular of “Pasqualino“, called “o’ Piccerillo“, around which were spread numerous tales imbued with tenderness and benevolence. But there are also other characters such as the “Capa Rossa”, a reddish skull that appeared to the devotees as a red-haired man, bearer of good news. Besides, “Dottore Alfonso” (Dr. Alfonso) that from neitherworld made his medical diagnosis;  the “Testa del Cieco” (head of the blind guy) that having had some candles thanked his benefactor, saying: <Grazie for light, I was blind and now I see!>;   the “Nuns”, the “Sailors “, the “Married couple”, the “Virgin”, etc..

a pile of bones  the 3 crosses 

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