The cemetery of “le Fontanelle”, an ossuary in the middle of the “Rione Sanità”, is one of the most disquieting places in Naples. Here more than anywhere else can one understand the relationship between Neapolitans and religion, death, the dead, fate, and luck.
The site was first a tufa quarry, then an ancient Greek necropolis -it was out of the city walls in those times- then it became an early Christian cemetery. In the centuries that followed, the underground caves of “le Fontanelle” were used to bury people who were too poor to afford a more decorous burial.
During the 1656 plague, 300,000 corpses were hoarded in the Fontanelle and, after Gioachino Murat's edict, all the bones exhumed from the churches' graveyards were thrown there. In 1836 the victims of the big cholera epidemic were buried there. People in Naples worship the cult of the dead in many ways, some rituals mix superstitious beliefs with Christian religion, for that reason, in 1969, Cardinal Corrado Ursi commanded the closing of “le Fontanelle” because of the blasphemy and paganism that took place in the site.
People used to choose one or more skulls, polished them, oftem gave them a name, built a small altar and decorated it with flowers and rosary beads, lighted small oil-lamps and prayed for the soul of the unknown departed, waiting for it to appear in their dreams. It was a sort of “do ut des” : -I pray for your soul and you pay me back with a favour-.
Usually people asked for good lottery numbers, for getting pregnant, for a son's coming back from the war, for a quick recovery. If the soul did the favour, “faceva la grazia”, its caretaker built a more confortable and protected closet to put the skull in, but if the soul didn't do the favour, the skull was abandoned and a new one was chosen.