The 16th and 17th centuries were particularly disastrous for Naples: earthquakes, eruptions, famines and epidemics followed one another (the 1656 plague alone killed 250,000 out of 400,000 residents), with everything made worse by the negligence of the Spanish viceroys. As the church cemeteries were filled to capacity, gravediggers exhumed bodies by night, without the knowledge of the families and three them into the mass grave in the old Fontanelle quarry (outside the city walls at the time). They were so numerous and so crudely buried that whenever there was a heavy storm, the torrents of silty water flowing down from Capodimonte hill washed out the corpses that the terrified residents then saw floating down the streets.
When in 1837 church burial grounds were demolished, according to Amedeo Colella, Fontanelle cemetery is thought to have held 8 million skeletons.
In 1872, the ossuary was redesigned by Father Gaetano Barbati with the support of local women and divided into three sectors. To the left, the “priests’ aisle” houses all the bones from the churches and their congregations. with at the bottom a very evocative cave known as the “Tribunal”. It is here that, for over a century, the Camorra godfathers would meet for their initiatory rites and oaths of allegiance in blood, as well as to issue death warrants, In the centre, the “plague aisle” takes in all the victims of epidemics. To the rights, in the name of anime pezzentelle (poor little souls) aisle, a chapel is festooned with thousands of femurs, stacked like books, surmounted by skulls, which are said to be arranged in male/female pairs. “This is the library of the dead who are engaged (to be married), not of dead fiancés”, declared a young boy who showed Roberto De Simone around in the 1970s.
After its closure following the ban imposed by the Church in 1968 [the Second Vatican Council banned the cult of souls in purgatory calling it ‘superstitious, arbitrary and therefore inadmissible”], the ossuary was restored and it was reopened to the public in 2011.
An amazing legend
Among the mass of skulls piled up in the central aisle of Fontanelle is the skull of ‘the captain’, placed in the front of its scarabattola (mini-chapel), generally adorned with beads and distinguished by a number of candles (above). It is the subject of an amazing legend.
A feisty local youth, who was an incorrigible womaniser, used to meet his conquests in the cemetery. One evening, after that day’s lover had left, he wanted to smoke a cigarette. All of a sudden, the eye-sockets of the skulls around him lit up like eyes of fire and stared at him as a sign of reprobation. The young man laughed and challenged death, inviting it to his coming wedding.
On the wedding day, during the feast, a carabineer (captain) dressed in black arrived and sat at a table without speaking. Asked who he was, he replied that he would only reveal that in private to the married couple. So they went with the carabineer to a room away from the crowd and he asked the youth if he remembered the invitation he had issued in the cemetery. The newly married miscreant laughed at the stranger and even offered to shake his hand.
The captain took off his uniform, revealing his skeleton, and struck the couple down dead on the spot!! (Adapted from Roberto De Simone Novelle K666, Einaudi, 2007)
So, next time you are in Naples, you may want to visit this unusual cemetery and see for yourself, the skull of ‘the captain’ who attended a wedding to bring grief to the newly married couple…. a little unfair on the newly married wife methinks!!
(Adpated from Secret Naples by Valerio Grimaldi Maria Franchini, published by JonGlez)