The Fontanelle cemetery is located at the boundary of the district Vergini - Sanità in Naples, Italy. The name literally means 'the cemetery of the water springs' because Via Fontanelle, where the cemetery is located, is an old water course.
The ancient quarry is located outside the city walls and was intended for quarrying tuff which was used as construction material. When the city was struck by epidemics, earthquakes and eruptions of the Vesuvius in the 16th century the quarry became a burial site born of necessity. In 1656, when a plague struck the city, it is said that 250.000 corpses where piled up there.
In the end of the 18th century people wanted to be buried in churches because they believed that those not buried in the soils of the church are unable to enter heaven. However, as there were problems of space, grave diggers pretended to adhere to people’s wishes only to displace them later at night to the quarry of the fontanelle, which by then was officially no longer in use … (click next to read more)
In 1872 Don Gaetano Barbati, a local priest, and the community members cleaned and rearranged the huge number of skulls and bones and put them in order throughout the various spaces in the cavity. Since then, there has been a very strong devotion for these unidentified remains. Skulls were put in wooden boxes or into special glass because the devotees “(…) identified in them the souls of the purgatory that needed special care and attention“. In exchange for this care the skulls are asked to fulfill wishes and to predict the future.
Since its excavation the quarry has converted into a cultural space. Though it is said that mainly people from lower classes were put there, without being named or labelled, all skeletons look similar and are given new meanings through local community members.
A. Scotto di Santolo et al. 2013 „The Fontanelle Cemetery: between legend and reality.“
Sophia Seymour 2018 „Naples’ Fontanelle cemetery: skulls and silence beneath the busy city streets."