The Cimitero Delle Fontanelle is tucked away in the Materdei section of Naples – hidden away from many of the popular tourist sites in the Bay of Naples. Visiting a cemetery may not be high on everyone’s list, especially when confronted with the thought of viewing bones so closely. But hidden in this shadowy tufa cave lies an important history.
Warning – this post contains images of human remains
I’ve shared about my visit to the San Gennaro Catacombs in Naples, and it has sparked some interest. Is it that we all have a fascination with death that graveyards and cemeteries have become a tourist attraction for our holidays? There’s something in visiting these final resting places that ignites my curiosity. I’ve tended to find much of my studies looking at death, saying that as an Archaeologist doesn’t sound too odd, but I’ve always had a fascination about the way that different societies treat their dead. I find it strangely comforting hearing the ways that death is incorporated into life, in ways that we don’t in Britain. I even wrote about the ways the Romans did in it Ostia for my undergraduate dissertation. I’ll admit that I became pretty hooked on the Netflix series Dark Tourist, and David Farrier. I can’t say I’ll be rushing to take part in some of the tourist activities he was involved in, but certainly learning about how death is treated across the world is intriguing to me – maybe there’s a small part of me that wants to be a Dark Tourist too.
Its this fascination that lead me to discover the catacombs of Naples, and the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle. I managed to fit in a trip to the San Gennaro Catacombs a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t until this summer, when my family and I stayed in Naples for a week, that I finally managed to tick a visit to the Fontanelle Cemetery off my list.
The Cimitero Delle Fontanelle
How to get to The Cimitero Delle Fontanelle
The Fontanelle Cemetery is located in the Materdei region of the city. The easiest way to get to the Cimitero is by Metro – hop on linea 1 to Materdei and you’ll find the Cemetery delle Fontanelle a 9 minute walk away. Or if you’ve hopped onto linea 2, jump off at Montesanto, and walk for 28 minutes.
From the Materdei station, there are sign posts to keep you walking in the right direction.
The History of the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle
After the Spanish occupation of the city, and the move of cemeteries to outside city walls, the churches became full and older graves were relocated to the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle. In 1656, a plague hit Naples, which brought a population of 400,000 down to 150,000 people. Without a place to inter the huge number of people who had died from the plague, the bodies were discarded in the tufa cave, where they remained anonymous and without any burial rites. Because the bodies had not received the proper treatment of the dead, it was believed according to Catholic rites, that the souls remained in purgatory. The cemetery was unkept until 1872, when Father Gaetano Barbati had the locals organise and catalogue the remains, which inspired a Cult of the Dead in Naples. Locals would care for the bones, visiting them with tokens of flowers, cleaning the bones and even naming them. They believed that they were paying them the respects that they had not been given, since they were too poor.
The Cult of the Dead remained until the mid 20th Century. Cardinal Ursi of Naples declared in 1969 that the cemetery of Fontanelle was to be closed, to prohibit the cult of the devotion to the skulls. The cult had reached its height, with many claiming skulls as lucky charms or fortune tellers. Today, you may still see local women caring for the souls, cleaning the skulls and laying flowers by the bones.
Visiting the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle Today
Entrance to the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle is free – you do not need to book or purchase tickets to enter.
There is no signage or stories around the Fontanelle Cemetery, so be sure to understand the history before you go, or book onto a guided tour. The official website offer guided tours of the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle as well as the San Gennaro Catacombs and more!
Places to Visit in Campania
If you’re holidaying in the Bay of Naples, then there are many historic sites that you should have on your list to visit.
Places to Visit in Italy
Looking for more places to visit in Italy? I’ve shared some guides to other historic & beautiful places in Italy!