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The Fontanelle Cemetery

by Clemente Esposito

Translated by Jeff Matthews

The quarter known as i Vergini, for better or worse, owes much to its location, and, particularly, to its hilly terrain. The “waters of the vergini” that for thousands of years eroded the glens of the Scudillo, of the Cristallini and the Fontanelle lay bare the tufa rock such that the pragmatic laws of the 1600s finally forbade any more excavating “intra moenia” (within the city walls), and excavations were moved outside the walls in this area of the city. These same streets are really the old water courses along which people built their houses; via Vergini, via Arena alla Sanità and via Sanità may be considered the main water course where water flowed—indeed,raged—until the 1950s. Over the centuries there have been a number of attempts to tame that flood, but the inhabitants of the area actually owe to these same waters all the discoveries made and changes that have taken place. Indeed, it was along these glens that tufa was visible, thus leading the first Greek settlers to excavate a great number of hypogea [underground chambers] of admirable beauty and then to decorate them with frescoes, reliefs, terracotta tablets and other items that are unique in the world. The Greek hypogea of via dei Cristallini, vico Traetta, via Santa Maria Antesaecula and via Sanità have come down to us intact precisely because they were inundated and protected by these watery deposits.

On September 19, 1569, following yet another downpour, the waters flooded a cave serving as a wine celler and breached a wall that hid the old catacombs of San Gaudioso, who had died in Naples in 452 AD. The same waters had filled and protected this very catacomb after the body of the saint was moved to the ninth-century monastery of Caponapoli. In 1728 a flood caused a huge chasm in the Fontanelle road; thus, grave diggers were ordered to fill in the collapsed surface with loose construction materials. We see that even in those days the Fontanelle was used for burials. In 1767 the streets of the village were completely surfaced with paving stones to provide for drainage.

In the village, the easternmost part is the area of Fontanelle, cut from the road of the same name where there are several quarries that, until the last century, provided building material for structures throughout the city and that today serve many different uses: olive storage, glass and marble workshops, garages, basements, shoe manufacturing, storehouses for building materials and even places for drying cod and baccalà. Right at the end of this road, the last building is the parish of Maria SS. Carmine, built at the end of the last century at the mouth of a cave used in ancient times as an unlicensed cemetery, then as a cemetery for the poor, even as the cemetery of plague victims and then as an ossuary for bones either found in the numerous excavations carried out in Naples or from the periodic “cleaning out” of church cemeteries.

Canon De Iorio tells us that "towards the end of 1700, all those who had the financial means wanted to be buried in churches, but the churches no longer had enough space. So grave diggers, after pretending to carry out a regular burial, would sneak back late at night, place the corpse in a sack, load it on their shoulders and carry it off to one of the many stone quarries at the Fontanelle site no longer in use. But following a sudden flooding in one of these galleries, the corpses were washed outside. The bones, however, were then reassembled again inside the cave; a wall and an altar were built and so the site became the municipal ossuary."

On December 22, 1788 Salvatore Lanzetta gave the Deputy General of the Sanità quarter a description of the caves that were in the Fontanelle and were property of the church of San Francesco di Paola, as well as a report on the use of the space for "storing bones resulting from the periodic clearing out of cemeteries in Neapolitan churches."

Architect Carlo Praus states that "in 1764, a time marked by a terrible famine, the Fontanelle Cemetery was set aside by the Committee of Public Health to bury the corpses of the lower classes that could not be handled by public burials at churches within the city ​​". Again, it was Praus, following the Edict of Saint-Cloud of June 1804, who presented in 1810 a project to build a vast cemetery by broadening the ancient necropolis of Fontanelle. In the report attached to the draft, Praus gives a precise description of the spaces in front of the pits and quarries themselves that, in support of his project, he describes as "being so laid out in the quarries, so framed among themselves, so bright, that they seem to be in temples, except that the stone has been removed, for we do not use temples for public burials.” And that was a perfect description—these quarries, unlike all the others that exist in that area, have a number of openings that let light into the spaces, brightening them just enough to bring out, as in a Caravaggio, what is important and to keep in the shadows those parts that the place itself wants to hide; the poor bones of the ancient dead deserve at least that. And, indeed, the central branch of these quarries is perfectly lighted: the light emphasizes the altar of three crosses, while the areas where the bones of plague victims are laid remain in the shadows. The statue of St. Vincent, located in the area of the souls of priests, faces the light and is completely filled by the same light that shines on the location of the saint. Whoever stops to look notes that it all seems to await the miracle of the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead. There is just enough light in the small stone chapel behind the church, there where the crucifix is at the center of a window, as in a painting; from the same window there enters a reflected light that brightens the altar, while the whole scene—which has benches for the faithful—is sparsely shaded, just enough to avoid total darkness, by the soft beams of light coming from the nave. An opening like a wolf's mouth, like those found in basements, gives a touch of light, like an eternal flame set by a pile of bones placed near the statue of St. Vincent. This old ossuary became part of the city between the late 1800s and early 1900s, when "for the paltry sum of 15 cents the electric tram transported the devotees of the souls in purgatory."

Francis Newfoundland described it in 1905 folkloristically—his visit to this cemetery, one that many Neapolitans repeated weekly on each Monday: "The tram, moving through the streets of the Sanità without actually making stops, yet picking up and discharging passengers as it approached the Fontanelle, showed a clear transition from the middle-classes of Naples to the lower classes". Nothing has changed—after Traetta Palace comes the Palazzo Fonseca and the Palazzo of the Spagnolo; you pass the Basilica of St. Mary of Sanità and turn onto Via Fontanelle where the homes have always been more modest, and you move along to those that have something more rural about them in this area that for centuries has always had this destination—this end of the line.

At the beginning of the century, when there were still devotees of the “purged souls” [those cleared from the cemeteries in the city] those streets were full of candle vendors and merchants who eked out a living from this cult well into the 1950s when the church decided that the cult had degenerated into fetishism and it was abolished by cardinal Ursi. Indeed, many Neapolitans had adopted skeletons and set them apart from the others into their own caskets and small boxes like dovecotes, where they could then turn all their attention and prayers to them, most often for cabalistic purposes.

Then, as now, the three ossuary bays served different categories of death: in the first, there were the bones of the "souls of priest"; in the middle were the "plague-stricken souls” and in the last were the “souls of those who had had nothing in life”. The bones of the plague-stricken souls in the central nave, which has two large exits to the outside, were more at the mercy of the weather; thus, during periods of wet weather, condensation formed on the bones the more they were polished; this was held by believers to be a good omen. Quite the opposite, however, when there was a north wind blowing and the climate dried out the bones; "no sweat" was a premonition of trouble. Then the devotees sang for the plague-stricken souls, intoning their prayers at an ever higher pitch:

Jesus, have mercy
For the tears of the Grieving Mother
Refresh the souls of the plague-stricken

The Saint-Cloud edict led to the implementation of Praus' plans, and the cemetery continued to function until the new cemetery of Poggioreale was completed, which put a definitive end to burials in the ossuary. Even then, however, bones were still disposed of there that had been excavated by the 1852/3 excavations on via Toledo, in the 1934 Fascist excavations on via Acton or uncovered by the demolition of churches (the 1934 Confraternity of S. Giuseppe Maggiore). Popular belief says that a monk had “calculated that there were eight million dead whose bones were buried 50 palms below the surface. They were all nameless except for two: Filippo Carafa, count of Cerreto of the dukes of Maddaloni (died on July 17, 1797) and his wife, who choked to death, according to popular tradition, on a dumpling. Those are the only two skeletons dressed and laid on proper biers. The woman's mouth is wide open as if she were going to regurgitate, which has given rise to the tale of the dumpling.

For illustrations of the church of Maria SS. del Carmine alle Fontanelle, we refer you to the book “Il Borgo dei Vergini” by Leopoldo de Vivo.

Our photos of the Fontanelle cemetery were taken by artist, Fulvio De Marinis.

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