Whilst in Naples recently, I spent many hours exploring and photographing the enigmatic and fascinating Cimitero delle Fontanelle, epicenter of what is known as "The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead," or "The Neapolitan Skull Cult." In this vast underground ossuary you will find, among the usual piles of bones, tiny stuctures--some with text engraved, others draped in rosaries and embellished with prayer cards--enshrining chosen skeletal bits. To the uninitiated, their meanings are unclear.
One invaluable source in trying to decipher the meaning here was the work of author/scholar/photographer Paul Koudounaris of Empire of Death fame; he explains the cult thusly in his Fortean Times article "Sisterhood of the Skulls" (excerpted below; click here to read article in its entirety):
...One of [Naples'] greatest enigmas was a strange cult, composed almost exclusively of elderly women who communed with the dead, lavishing their attention on, and even making offerings to, human skulls.
The cult was centred on a cemetery known as the Fontanelle... A curious cult dedicated to the remains began to evolve around the site, especially after 1872. In that year, Father Gaetano Barbati had large deposits of bones exhumed, and the skulls were cleaned and placed on racks or in troughs, where they took on the role of devotional items for this death-obsessed group. There was no formal organisation to this cult, but it rapidly grew popular with older women, especially widows or those with little or no family. They claimed to receive messages from the deceased in their dreams, and would then “adopt” whichever skull they believed had belonged to the spirit that had contacted them, becoming in effect a kind of caretaker of not just the remains but also the soul of the dead person. They would clean and care for their skulls, even constructing engraved marble shrines for them. These boxes might enclose a single skull, or multiples if the same person adopted more than one.
Cult devotees would bring flowers and gifts as offerings for their chosen crania, and address them by name. The dead at the Fontanelle were of course anonymous, but this army of old ladies claimed the skulls would reveal their true names to their benefactors. In return for this doting care, the deceased would grant favours to their devotees, who would petition the skulls for assistance in a variety of forms – through dreams, direct conversation, various forms of telepathy, or by writing their requests on small slips of paper, which would be rolled up and inserted into the skulls’ eye sockets.
The shrines in which adherents housed their adopted charges were frequently inscribed with messages thanking the skulls for various favours or services; usually the inscriptions were simple, something along the lines of “Per Grazie Recevuta” (thanks for what was given). But they could be more elaborate, even containing names. The inscribed names were not those of the deceased, however, but rather those of the skulls’ benefactors. The devotees were highly possessive of their skulls, and the shrines were not intended solely to show gratitude to the deceased, but also to mark a specimen as having been adopted, a sign to potential rivals that they should find their own skull and not commune with remains which were already spoken for. Some of the boxes even included doors with locks and chains, as some people didn’t want anyone else to be able even to look upon their skulls...
The members of the “necrophiliac” group based on the Fontanelle were not so interested in these more orthodox types of religious sentiment, however. Their devotions were primarily inspired by a different and surprising mechanism: lottery numbers. One might beseech the dead for any number of favours, but the typical requests made of the skulls at the Fontanelle, on which all this devotion was lavished, centred on an obsessive desire for precognition of winning lottery numbers...
The aid of the bones would also be beseeched when family and friends were ill, or to help with various domestic problems. One skull, considered to be “public property,” was understood to aid infertile women. Young women who could not bear children were encouraged to come to the cemetery and caress it – with the consequence that it became the most smoothly polished skull in the ossuary, as generations of women rubbing it over in the hopes of getting pregnant left it, even today, with an almost supernatural sheen. Another skull is enshrined in a box inscribed with the owner’s thanks, and the date “6 September, 1943”. In fact, that was the date of the heaviest allied bombing of Naples in the war. During air raids, the Fontanelle became a makeshift bomb shelter, especially for devotees of the site who found strength and hope in the presence of their adopted skulls. As the bombs fell on 6 September, someone apparently begged a particular skull for protection, and attributed her own survival to its powers, rewarding it with a shrine....
As far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, the cult based on the Fontanelle was wholly unacceptable. If this was all just superstition, it had degenerated into a form of heathen fetishism, and if any of the stories about mysterious occult happenings were true then it was something even worse. The Church became convinced that the place would have to be shut down; the only surprise is that, perhaps fearing a local backlash, it took them until 1969 to actually do it, when Cardinal Corrado Ursi ordered the premises permanently closed. The Fontanelle languished after its closure, and by now most of the devotees of the site have passed on and become what they once adored. For brief periods, it has been open for tourism, but even that is no longer permitted, and it now receives few visitors – mostly just scholars and VIPs. “But we do get some Satanists who break in and hold Black Masses down here, and we have to chase them out,” Alamaro acknowledges...Another source for getting deeper into this enigmatic practice--especially the pagan/Catholic aspects, which particularly intrigued me-- was the article "The Fontanelle Cemetery and the Skull Cult in Contemporary Naples," sent to me by Sicilian anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, his co-contribution (with Albert Zink) to the exhibition catalog Schädelkult: Kopf und Schädel in der Kulturgeschichte des Menschen. Following is an excerpt from that article via Google Translate (from the German); I did my best to streamline the text into something readable; when I was not sure of the meaning, I kept the original Google Translated text in quotes.
In the Campania region of Italy, traces of a cult with roots in pre-Christian beliefs has been preserved. The so called Skull Cult is a merger of the ancient with the Catholic religion; it exists independently of the official faith, with its own principles and values. Every Monday--a day once dedicated to Hecate, goddess of the moon and mistress of the underworld--believers descend to the tombs and ossuaries of the city. The process is a vestige of pagan heritage.If you want to know more, you can visit the Morbid Anatomy Library to spend some good time with the wonderful book/exhibition catalog Schädelkult: Kopf und Schädel in der Kulturgeschichte des Menschen, recently donated by longtime friend of the library Ryan Matthew Cohn. If you are in and around London, I also invite you to come out on June 10th to see filmmaker Chiara Ambrosio speak on the Neapolitan Cult of the Dead as part of the lecture series I am organizing at The Last Tuesday Society taking place this June and July; more her lecture here, and on the entire series here. You can also read Paul Koudounaris' entire article "Sisterhood of the Skulls" by clicking here, or check out his invaluable (and beautiful) book Empire of Death by clicking here.
The most obvious manifestation of this takes place at the Fontanelle Cemetery, located in an ancient tuff mine in the historic Sanità district, very close to a pagan and later Christian Cemetery...
Visitors to the Fontanelle Cemetery these days are touched by the immense quantity of bones and skulls, or capuzzelle in the Neapolitan dialect. There are the human remains, the cult of the skull, the culto delle capuzzelle, the Fontanelle Cemetery and at other Tombs of the city alive.
These anonymous skulls embody the idea of the the souls in purgatory, whose worship is a Neapolitan folk rite is of great importance. Believers think of them as mediating between the world of the here and the hereafter. Prayers are dedicated to the abandoned souls, popularly called le Anime Pezzentelle, in order to alleviate their pain, in exchange for promises of a returned help to the prayer. The believer thus concludes with the anima pezzentella an agreement that compassion and obligations to the other presupposes and is based on a shared sense of still determines the actions of the Neapolitans.
Anonymous Souls to help make as if it is their own nationals would act, they are in fact the male morti, the poor Dead, where the faithful allow refrisco - a relief from their suffering through prayer. It is generally noted that the skull cult always begins the same way: a worshipper chooses her soul of a dead person "Intercessor on earth made by him in a dream and the will Situation of the skull inside the cemetery reveals " In this way will create a physical adoption of the capuzzella instead. The phenomenon of skull adoption occurs first between the two world wars; the skull is cleaned placed in display cases that range from boxes to fruit boxes or cookie jars from. The skull is treated as care and prayer objects, in turn, promised the believer grace, prayers or even luck.
In the showcases were also messages and "Votivbildchen", a process that very close to the veneration of saints occurs. Oral sources suggest that the skull cult began in 1709 after the body of the Holy Candida, an early Christian martyr from Naples, was buried together with the remains of another anonymous and forgotten "geratenen" found early Christians. While the souls of the heavenly spheres were traditionally considered unreachable, those in purgatory was perceived as relatively close, as purgatory represented the lowest level on the way to paradise and therefore nearer the earthly sphere. By worshiping the anonymous skull a direct contact with death was attempted. "Worship cult that was the foundation of a Community Ethics and solidarity with the most vulnerable in society." On Earth, the needy were the lively correspondence with the Le Anime Pezzentelle, as in the case of the so-called poor St. Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, who had the task of accompanying funeral processions. Thus, a connection between the living and the dead were created, by their common traits "Ausgegrenztsein her and her neediness" - the disinherited of this world to which deputies are allowed to ask for help from those in the next life
"The skull, or capuzzelle, are symbolic of individuals who died a cruel death. It is therefore likely that men who dies in the plague most worshiped. In 1685 Father Domenico D'Alessandro writes from Dominican order, nothing more solvent from divine wrath as the failure to assistance to the souls in purgatory. It is therefore necessary, both to souls in purgatory to gain relief and the poor of the earth to give alms, for the the latter are, as already mentioned, the deputy for the dead."
All photos are my own; you can see many more images from the Cimitero delle Fontanelle by clicking here or here.