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The Fontanelle Cemetery and Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio in Naples.

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

For this fourth blog, we return to Naples, a city steeped in ancient history, which harbors unique and fascinating places that tell the tale of its many cultural facets. Two of these places are linked by a common story and cult. First, I want to take you to the Fontanelle Cemetery, an extraordinary place that intertwines the city's history with legends, traditions, and an atmosphere that captivates the imagination of those who visit.

We visited it with the social cooperative "La paranza" before it was closed to the public. The recent news of its upcoming reopening, scheduled for the early months of 2024, is exciting! The site will be managed by the "La paranza" cooperative, which I highly recommend. It is an association of local youth who, with great passion and ambition, have enhanced and restored access to historical sites in Naples, uplifting the immense cultural heritage present even in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

© Napoli da Vivere

The Fontanelle Cemetery is located in the heart of the Sanità district of Naples and has its roots in a period of famine and plague in the 17th century. To give you an idea of how critical the situation was: in the same century, there were 3 popular uprisings, 3 famines, 5 eruptions of Vesuvius, 3 earthquakes, and 3 epidemics.

Due to the numerous victims, many of whom were unidentified and did not even receive a funeral, the bones were accumulated in the underground tuff caves of the area. Subsequently, the place remained in a state of total abandonment.

The entrance and the cave itself, tall, squared but organic, truly evoke the sensation of entering the realm of the dead.

In the 18th century, the cemetery was reorganized thanks to the initiative of Don Gaetano Barbatidi and a group of local women. Thus, the bones were arranged in an orderly manner, and the caves were divided into areas, each assigned a specific category. In the "Navata dei Preti" (Nave of Priests), the remains from churches and congregations were placed; in the "Navata degli Appestati" (Nave of the Plagued), those of all who died in epidemics, and in the "Navata dei Pezzentelli" (Nave of the Destitute), the bones of the poorest were arranged.

The bones were placed in niches, and a sort of popular cult developed around the unknown deceased, better known as the 'pezzentelle souls'—the souls of the dead without a name, identity, or family.

The legend tells that these souls, having not received a dignified burial, were destined to wander restlessly. This ritual, born from a situation of suffering and death, transformed into an act of love and devotion that continues to enchant visitors to Naples. Its persistence over time attests to the strength of tradition and the ability to transform pain into a meaningful connection with the afterlife. A visit to this special place is an opportunity to understand the cultural richness of Naples and appreciate the unique bond between the living and the dead perpetuated through the cult of the 'pezzentelle souls.'

To alleviate their suffering, devotees adopted the practice of caring for the cemetery's niches, essentially adopting the remains: leaving offerings such as toys, flowers, food, and meticulously cleaning the bones and the niche in which they were placed.

At times, coins and banknotes (of various kinds, including modern euros) are placed on them. It was believed that, in exchange for this devotion, the 'pezzentelle souls' would protect their benefactors and bring them good fortune. They were given 'refrisco,' that is, relief: 'A refrische ‘e ll’anime d’opriatorio.'

Specifically, the belief is based on a potential "intercession" mechanism. If this wandering soul in eternal limbo had been helped by a terrestrial being through their care and prayers, it could finally exit this endless purgatory to reach peace in paradise. Once in the celestial heights, it would remember its benefactor and intercede for them, fulfilling requests and desires, helping them throughout their lives.

A legacy of ancient pagan beliefs, these are the tolls necessary to undertake the 'journey' from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

On the contrary, if, after much care and prayers, the faithful did not find benefits and their requests were not fulfilled, the remains could be abandoned again, as if they were souls incapable, despite the care, of escaping their miserable condition and therefore not useful to fulfill the desires of the believer. Some skulls may even be turned, showing the back of the head. It is a punishment for the soul and a warning to other believers. It signifies that this spirit does not grant favors, making it known to everyone so they don't waste time caring for it.

The ungrateful one will not reciprocate with any miracles, not even a small favor. Let it be abandoned to itself. No one will pray for it.

It was believed that the dead sent "signs" to the living. One such sign was sweating, condensation from humidity that could appear on skulls, indicating that a grace had been granted. If the skull did not sweat, it was a sign of the suffering of the abandoned soul and a bad omen. Skulls were never placed under tombstones, so they were free to come out at night and appear in dreams. The more "generous" skulls were placed in cases locked with a padlock, real treasures to be kept secure.

Among the most famous is the Captain's skull.

According to tradition, a young bride-to-be, devoted to the captain's skull, often visited to seek a grace. However, her jealous fiancé, unhappy with the attention she bestowed on the skull, decided to accompany her one day. He struck the skull in the eye with a stick while mocking it, inviting it to participate in their wedding. Legend has it that on the day of the wedding, a carabiniere (military police officer) appeared at the ceremony and struck the groom, blinding him. Removing his cloak, he revealed himself for what he was—a skeleton of the captain. The two lovers and the guests then died on the spot from the shock.

Another very famous legend is that of Concetta, also known as "a capa che suda" (the head that sweats). The peculiarity of this skull, placed inside a case, lies in the fact that, unlike the others covered in dust, it appears well-polished. This is likely due to the excessive humidity of the location, but for the devotees, it represents the sweat mentioned earlier. According to tradition, Concetta is one of the most generous souls, ready to fulfill requests. To verify if this will happen, one simply needs to touch it and check if their hand becomes wet.

Skull of Concetta

The second place I want to take you to is Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio, located along the Decumano Maggiore in the heart of the ancient center of the city.

The first striking feature from the outside is the numerous decorations shaped like bones and skulls. It is an exquisitely Baroque church also known as the "church of the head of the dead," and it is closely linked to the cult of the 'pezzentelle souls.'

This particular devotion is evident in the numerous ex-votos and votive paintings displayed inside the church, a testament to the prayers and supplications directed towards the suffering souls in purgatory.

Its roots trace back to the 17th century when it was founded by a group of devoted believers. Its construction was completed in 1616, and since then, it has become a spiritual landmark for the people of Naples.

Beneath the conventional church, there is an actual underground church with striking high fissures that allow little light to enter. These were the same openings through which bodies were lowered from the street directly into the underlying church.

The structure is intentionally bare and devoid of ornaments, a clear symbol of the state of penance and humiliation to which the souls in Purgatory are subjected. For instance, the main altar is adorned only with a simple cross, painted with black paint.

One of the most fascinating elements of the church is the underlying crypt, called the "Crypt of the Souls." This sacred space is adorned with skulls and skeletons representing the souls in Purgatory. Despite the waning popularity of the cult, we have observed many recent offerings, from candles with the IKEA logo to coins placed in every accessible corner.

Down church

Worth noting is the skull of Princess Lucia, occupying the back of the hypogeum hall. It wears a crown and is adorned with a bridal veil; several candles, silver ex-votos, and offerings surround it. Despite the lack of official documents identifying it, the skull has been known as that of Princess 'Lucia.' This mysterious character is linked to an ancient legend recognizing her as the patroness of young brides.

The legend traces back to a real event in the 18th century. In the same neighborhood as the church lived a Neapolitan nobleman, Don Domenico d’Amore, Prince of Ruffano, whose young daughter, 17-year-old Lucia, died prematurely from tuberculosis shortly after her marriage. Deeply devoted to the souls in Purgatory, her father decided to have her buried in consecrated ground, in the hypogeum of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio.

Lucia's story deeply moved the neighborhood. This episode gave rise to the legend of Princess Lucia, portrayed in some versions as a noblewoman who dies for the love of a commoner, and in others as a commoner who sacrifices her life for the love of her fisherman spouse.

Lucia, by virtue of this legend, is considered the protector of young brides.

Skull of Lucia

We cherished these two visits; this unique cult is a testament to the profound spirituality and devotion of the Neapolitan people.

The connection between the living and the dead through the cult of 'pezzentelle souls' is seen as a practice that transcends mere remembrance of the deceased, offering a tangible and active bond with the afterlife.

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