Naples is a city brimming with magic, esoterism and mystery. However, these secrets are not hidden in faraway, inaccessible places: they are an integral part of the city, easily discoverable by those with a trained eye. This series about esoteric and mysterious Naples will help you explore some of the most fascinating, incredible and weird sites of the city. We are about to enter the “upside down” of Naples, a world full of legends, skulls and unfathomable mysteries. Are you ready?
Our “mystery tour” cannot but start from the Fontanelle cemetery, a place that will definitely send some shivers down your spine. The place is a charnel house located inside of a tuff cave in the Sanità district. Around 40.000 remains are stored in this astonishing place full of history and (for some at least) charm. Fontanelle cemetery houses the skeletal remains, disinterred and catalogued, of the Naples plague (1656)’s and the 1836-cholera breakout’s victims. However, even though they were not properly buried, these poor people were not completely forgotten.
As a matter of fact, a spontaneous cult of devotion for these unnamed dead developed in Naples when people started to go to the tuff cave to pay their respect to the “capuzzelle”, the skulls of the deceased. The ritual of the “anime pezzentelle” (roughly translatable as “poor little souls”, namely the souls of the abandoned people who were not given a grave) emerged out of the devotion for a specific “capuzzella”: people began to adopt these skulls, to care for them as if they were part of their families, and to pray in order to alleviate the souls’ suffering in purgatory. In exchange of this particular devotion, the soul belonging to a specific skull had to appear in the devotee’s dream and give her (it was usually women) the lotto’s winning numbers or grant her a favour.
If the skull “did their job” and proved to be beneficial to the devotee, they got to be enshrined in little tabernacles, boxes or other containers depending on the devotee’s financial means, bearing the inscription “Per grazia ricevuta” (for the grace received). Because the “anime pezzentelle” were a sort of intermediaries between this world and the other, this inscription was important as it showed that the relationship between the skull and the person was mutual and that the first was grateful for the prayers of the latter.
Some of these “capuzzelle” were eventually wrapped up in even more mysterious tales. For example, donna Concetta’s skull, also called "'a capa che suda", the sweating skull, (in the picture above) became famous because, unlike other skulls, hers is always polished and wet. For this reason, it was believed that the skull was soaked in sweat from her suffering in purgatory. Another famous skull is that of the Capitano (the captain) around which many different stories circulate. According to the most popular one, a young soon-to-be bride was very devoted to the Captain and frequently went to the cemetery to pray for his soul. Her fiancé was jealous of the attention she paid to the skull and once went to pray with her. However, he took a cane with him and poked the poor skull with it (thus the strange blackness of the skull’s right eye socket). The girl’s fiancé scoffed at him and, mockingly, invited the Captain to their wedding.
The day of the wedding, a man dressed like a carabiniere (a member of the Italian paramilitary police) appeared among the guests. The groom then asked who he was and the man replied that he had invited him to the wedding when he blinded his eye with the cane. The man showed his real face and instantly the two spouses and all other guests died on the spot.
These are just some of the stories about the Fontanelle cemetery, a place definitely unique in its genre that deserves a visit. Even better, a guided visit. As a matter of fact, I would recommend going to the Fontanelle cemetery with a guided walking tour like those offered by Guide Turistiche di Napoli by Mani e Vulcani. As I said at the beginning, Naples’ secrets are open to anyone who has the key to understand them. A guided tour with a professional, trustworthy and competent guide means that you can better appreciate the places you are visiting. Moreover, if you’re not completely sure whether Naples is safe or not, a guided tour will definitely help overcome your fear of venturing into less touristic neighborhoods so that you won’t miss the chance to enjoy the beauties and the mysteries of this incredible city.
Stay tuned for our Esoteric and Mysterious Naples part 2!