Fontanelle: an atypical cemetery

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Our last tour to Napoli included a visit to the “Cimitero delle Fontanelle”, the “Fontanelle” cemeteryCimitero delle Fontanelle

Entrance and center nave
Entrance and center nave

The place has always been familiar, even though I had never been there before. “it’s like the Fontanelle cemetery” is the typical Neapolitan expression to describe a dark place, where the eyes can barely see what they should see. Maybe this is why I had always pictured the “Fontanelle cemetery” as an underground, narrow, dark place filled with bones. Of course it’s nothing like that!

We get in Via delle Fontanelle. As absurd as it may sound, it is a remote place in the middle of the city. The street leaves the “Sanità” quarter, in the center of the city, and ends up in a lonely place with patches of green. And here the truth unveils to me.

The “cemetery” is an old cave on the side of a hill. Huge, very high rooms. The cave develops with a main “nave”, another parallel “nave”, and a couple of cross naves connecting the two. I did not use the word “nave” by chance: the structure is like a church, with both main naves ending up with monuments that remind and represent the Calvary, the Golgotha.

In the naves
In the naves

The environment is all but dark, at least at the entrance: thanks to the height of the nave, there is plenty of light for half of it. As soon as you turn in one of the side naves darkness takes quickly over, creating the gloomy environment recalled by the saying.

"Capuzzelle" adottate
Adopted “Capuzzelle”

The visit is guided by a member of a local cultural association, a former school teacher who is devoting his retirement time to the study of this place. The people we cross on the street greet him simply as “Professor”. He would, and he actually does, go on for hours talking about the history of the place in the context of the History with the big “H”, just briefly touching on the small and irrelevant legends about some famous “capuzzelle” (“little heads”, referring to skulls), that people have “adopted” and worship as if they were their relatives. Iris Fontanelle (www.irisfontanelle.it) is an association that I suggest as an excellent guide to whoever is planning a visit. And the guide is free!

I will leave the description of the place and its history to a live visit for whoever will like to do it. I will just mention that this place originated by the transfer of the bones from various churches in Naples when in XVII century burying within the city was prohibited. I would rather share the impressions I got, and mainly one: the counterpoint, the differences side by side, typical for Naples. Here is why.

Altare nella "navata dei Preti"
Altar in the “Nave of the Priests”

First, the sacredness in a place where you don’t expect it. Perfectly lined bones, crosses, votive lamps, altars, offerings… in what clearly is a cave! The sacredness introduced by man in the lower part quickly fades into the bare tuff rock walls of the hill.

Second, death and life as one thing. A few meters from the entrance of this place where death reigns, life explodes. Valentino (famous Neapolitan stylist) started his lab here. A smith works loudly in front of the entrance, and this sound typical of man industriousness can be clearly heard inside the “cemetery”. Is this man gaining immortality through his work, or is death reminding man of the uselessness of his activity? That will be a personal reading for each of us.

 

An involving experience, a very peculiar setting, a visit definitely worth it. On the way out, to celebrate life, we decide to indulge with pizza in one of the “sacred places” for such thing in Naples: “Concettina ai Tre Santi” (www.pizzeriaoliva.it). After the first bites skulls and votive lamps were gone from our minds!

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