Like many ossuaries in Europe, the Cimitero Fontanelle began as a secondary burial ground when the churchyards and crypts began to overflow. Unlike other ossuaries, the skulls of the anonymous dead were lovingly cared for, named and then asked for prophecies of winning lotto numbers.
The offloading of temporarily buried remains into this cave on the outskirts of town began during the Spanish occupation of Naples in the 1500s, but the majority of its 40,000 residents came from the devastating plague outbreak of 1656 and smaller cholera epidemics in the 1830s.
The 1656 plague arrived in January and by August had claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 people, or half the population of Naples. It took generations for the city to recover from the effects of the outbreak. The victims died and were buried or tossed into a cave under the most chaotic of circumstances, often without last rites and almost always without any grave markers.
In the tradition of the populace, these poor souls were trapped in a form of purgatory. The Fontanelle was therefore viewed as a haunted place – to be avoided at all costs. The only exception seemed to be when it was necessary to add more bodies in times of outbreak. Over time, the ossuary became so crowded with haphazardly stacked bones and bodies that at one point during a heavy rainfall, the city was inundated by a flood of skulls and bones.
Beginning in 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati began the enormous task of cataloging and organizing the anonymous remains. They remained unburied, but were sorted and placed on shelves, racks, in boxes or in crypts. As the remains were sorted, volunteers would pray for the deceased as they worked, the beginning of an unusual relationship with the dead. Anonymous long-dead skulls were given names by the women who cared for them, who would often return to chat with or ask favors from the dead, placing wishes written on papers rolled up into the empty eye sockets of the skulls.
This “cult of the dead” sustained itself as a uniquely Neapolitan subculture until the bombings of World War II. Naples was the most heavily bombed city in Italy and the Fontanelle, along with the other underground spaces in the city, served as a bomb shelter.
The Fontanelle is a combination of natural caves, tufa mines and ancient Roman tunnels. Naples, in the shadow of Vesuvius, is located in the Campi Flegrei or Fiery Fields, an area of intense volcanic activity that has left the area riddled with caves, thermal springs and craters. The early residents of the area carved and quarried the soft volcanic stone, using some of the underground spaces as their own burial places. The Romans who followed, dug networks of tunnels and aqueducts through the hills. They were often connected with the natural cave systems, all of which leaves modern Naples and the surrounding countryside riddled with underground spaces of all kinds.
Following the war, the Fontanelle cult reached its height, with women caring for and conversing with the skulls; bringing flowers, offerings and asking for wishes to be granted. Many skulls were claimed and housed in wooden niches by individuals as personal lucky charms. The cemetery also became a popular spot for dating couples who sought some privacy, as well as a late night haunt for those dabbling in a bit of black magic. In an attempt to sanctify the space, a small church, Maria Santissima del Carmine, was built near the opening to the cave, but it was largely ignored.
All of this lasted until 1969, when the Cardinal of Naples finally ordered the cemetery closed to end the troubling obsession with lucky skulls. The cemetery has remained closed, but restoration efforts began again at the turn of the millennium to sort the remains, as well as reinforce the structure of the cave. After years of being off limits, Cimitero Fontanelle is once again open, but now it is by appointment only – and leave your lottery slips at the door.