Praying to skulls: the Cimitero delle Fontanelle in Naples

by Alexandra


(the Captain’s skull)

I’ve visited Naples about seven or eight times now. (Much to the confusion of friends, family members, and Italians from other parts of the country, I really, really love Naples).

When I go to Naples, I tend to do the same things over and over again. Walking up and down Spaccanapoli and Via dei Tribunali. Enjoying the view of Vesuvius from the seafront. Eating pizza at Da Michele. Getting lost in the Quartieri Spagnoli. Gazing at gigantic statues in the Archaeological Museum.

This time, I spent one day doing all the usual things – and wearing myself out in the process, as I always do. When I returned to my room at the hostel that evening, absolutely exhausted, I picked my copy of Secret Naples and started flicking through it, looking for inspiration for the next morning. Within seconds of turning to the page on the Cimitero delle Fonantelle, I’d decided. A purgatory cult in a skull-filled cemetery where criminals made blood oaths? You don’t get much more Neapolitan than that.

Fontanelle is slightly on the edge of the city centre. Getting there involves taking the metro (and, if you’re me, having to buy your ticket twice because no one understands your English pronunciation of the station name “Materdei”). From Materdei, just follow the signs. Strangely, the cemetery is the best-signposted place I’ve ever been in Italy.

When I found Fontanelle, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. When I think of cemeteries, I think of grass, trees and overgrown tombstones, not ominous looking caves. But there was a sign, and a custode to welcome me in and give me a guided tour in enthusiastic, very Neapolitan English.

Centuries ago, the Neapolitans used to bury their dead in a quarry on the outskirts of the city. The plague in the 16th century had killed 250,000 people – more than half of the city’s population – and the church cemeteries were overflowing, so the quarry seemed like a convenient dumping ground/burial ground. But then the quarry too began to overflow. According to the authors of Secret Naples, “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”.

In the 19th century Father Gaetano Barbati redesigned the ossuary, with some help from local women, which is the section of the cemetery that can be visited today. After fervently crossing himself in front of a shrine made of bones, Antonio showed me the different sections of the ossuary, which has been designed to vaguely resemble a subterranean church. Only this church is filled with skulls – skulls of men, women and children, which have been neatly stacked up or placed in special glass cases, known as scarabattole (mini-chapels).


Some skulls come with a skeleton intact, displayed in a sort of glass coffin, such as the rather ghastly-looking woman with a gaping mouth (“they say she died choking on her gnocchi”), or the child who lies beneath a mountain of offerings – cuddly toys, coins, candles, jewellery, flowers and a bus ticket.

The most famous skull is known as the Captain’s Skull, and stands out for the number of candles and rosaries surrounding his scarabattola. Here’s his story, taken from Secret Naples:

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 dressed in black arrived and sat at a table without speaking or eating. Asked who he was, he replied that he’d only reveal that in private to the married couple. So they went with their carabineer to a room away from the crowd and he asked the youth if he remembered the invitation he had issued in the cemetery. Once again the 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 on the spot.

Antonio interspersed these stories with questions about me – where was I from, what was I doing in Italy, did I have a boyfriend etc. Then he would casually point out another site of interest – “This is where the Camorra used to make oaths of allegiance in blood”.

He didn’t, however, explain the salt. One otherwise empty cave room had a thick of line of what appeared to be salt on the floor. Anywhere else, you might not think much of some “salt” on the floor, but in the context of a cemetery with a history of cultish rituals, such things seem sinister.

“What’s this?” I asked Antonio. “Is it for some kind of event?”

“Yes,” said Antonio. He didn’t elaborate, but walked on, leaving my curiosity unsatisfied.

Fontanelle is also one of the centres of the Neapolitan purgatory cult. A believer will choose a skull belonging to a soul in purgatory and pray for it, in order to help the poor soul escape from purgatory. The chosen skull might receive offerings – flowers, coins, images of saints – in addition to prayers. Once the soul eventually reaches heaven, they will return the favour for their living patron, healing illnesses, husband-hunting, and even passing on winning lottery numbers.

In the 1960s the Catholic Church banned the cult, calling it “superstitious, arbitrary, and therefore inadmissable”. But the ban didn’t last long, and the cult lives on.

At the end of the tour, Antonio told me that I was “very nice, very beautiful”, and said he would get in touch with me when he was next in Rome. An interesting trend in my travels is that the highlight of my trip is often a visit to an obscure, off-the-beaten-path site where the elderly male guardian hits on me. (See also: a visit to the Islamic teqe in Kruje, Albania).

If you’re interested in learning more about the Neapolitan purgatory cult but don’t fancy making the trek to Fontanelle, I recommend a visit to the fascinating Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco on Via dei Tribunali. It’s open on weekdays and there are guided tours. I found the experience so inspiring that it even gave me the idea for a novel – my current writing project.

In Rome there’s the tiny Museo del Purgatorio, located in the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio (Lungotevere Prati), which has an odd display of objects supposedly touched by the burning hands of souls in purgatory. The man who showed me the museum – much less simpatico than Antonio – put his hand on my bum not once but twice, so if you’re a lone woman, enter at your own risk.