Fontanelle Cemetery, the mysteries of Naples' undergrounds

"See Naples and then die" - these are the words pronounced by the German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe following his stay in the Bay of Naples. Yes, the city is addictive, nostalgic and why not, it also arouses so much curiosity. And not only for the delights of the local gastronomy renowned and envied all over the world.

Its charm is everywhere, you just need to look up to find yourself in front of real masterpieces: from the Veiled Christ in the Sansevero Chapel to the Royal Palace without forgetting the Maschio Angioino, the Teatro San Carlo and the Castel dell'Ovo just to name a few of its countless beauties.

In reality, it must be said that his treasures are everywhere, even in the undergrounds. Everyone knows the Underground Naples (, but perhaps only a few know that the underground houses the Fontanelle Cemetery (named after the presence of water sources in the past). We are in the Rione Sanità and, specifically, in Via Fontanelle where, among the tuff quarries, there is an unusual burial place.

Between bones and skulls at the Fontanelle Cemetery

All originated around the 16th century. If previously it was customary to bury the bodies of the deceased in churches, following a series of misfortunes (popular uprisings, famines, earthquakes, eruptions and epidemics) that saw the number of deaths grow out of proportion, it became necessary to find new spaces to bury the corpses. Thus it was then that the so-called ''Salmatari'' (grave-diggers) began to unearth the bodies to move them to quarries such as the Fontanelle. The situation worsened further in 1837 when, following an epidemic of cholera and the order to remove the ossuaries from all the cemeteries of the parishes and the confraternities, new "guests" arrived.

After a period of neglect in which the quarry had become a sort of mass grave in 1872, thanks to the intervention of the parish priest of the church of Materdei Don Gaetano Barbati and some common people, the bones were put in order.

It is therefore worthwhile entering the underground to experience the history of this surreal ossuary which, in an area of ‚Äč‚Äčabout 3,000 square meters (the cavity measures about 30,000 m3), hosts over 40,000 skulls. Step by step you come across the "Nave of the Priests", the "Plague Victims" up to the "Pezzentelli"(Poors)  where the remains of the city's poorest are located.

Most bones are anonymous but they are all well looked after. This is because inside these walls took place the cult of the "Pezzentelle Souls", a form of popular devotion that provided for the adoption of skulls (to which a name was even given) by the faithful who took care of them paying homage to them with prayers and small gifts in the hope of receiving protection and fortune in return. Among the many souls there is, for example, that of the monk ('a capa 'e Pascale) able to reveal the winning numbers of the Lotto.

The cult of these skulls, called "capuzzelle", was widespread in the Neapolitan culture until 1969, when it was forbidden by Cardinal Corrado Ursi, through a decree of the Ecclesiastical Court, as it was considered a popular pagan rite. The site remained closed for several years but, after being secured, it was reopened to the public in 2010: nowadays it represents a tourist attraction (free) as fascinating as macabre where silence speaks more than a thousand words.

Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples