Following is a guest post by Ivan Cenzi of the Bizzarro Bazar blog, who has just published a new, heavily illustrated book on the astounding Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples, which some readers might remember from this recent Morbid Anatomy post. You can find out more about the book--and order a copy of your own--here.You can also visit in the Morbid Anatomy Library where you will find a copy on our Death and Culture shelf!
THE CALL OF ABANDONED SOULS
The strange, unorthodox cult which developed in the Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples
by Ivan Cenzi, Bizzarro Bazar
The Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples is not just exceptional in its location (the remains of 40.000 human beings are stacked inside an ancient tuff quarry), but mainly because in this evocative underground cathedral a popular cult has developed over the ages: it's the cult of abandoned souls (anime pezzentelle). Anonymous souls, poor and deprived of the prayers and comfort of their loved ones, souls in need of the compassion of the living to alleviate their suffering.
There is an undoubted elective affinity between the suffering souls in Purgatory and they who struggle and suffer in this world. There has never been any doubt in the minds of the Neapolitans about the truth of suffering on Earth, where hope is weak, work is inevitable fatigue, and the hell of Vesuvius ready to explode at any moment makes every breath uncertain. Naples is in some senses a purgatorial city in itself. An afterlife where suffering continues is inevitably a familiar concept.
So the Neapolitans found in this poverty – the dead leave behind all material goods, and are left forgotten in suffering, while the living are always in need of assistance and help – the trait d'union between this world and the next. The skulls piled in the great cavern became a bridge between the tribulations of both sides, a symbolic representation of all the “nameless souls” waiting for redemption.
According to tradition, a person would choose a skull to adopt, dedicate his prayers to and light candles for. Sometimes on the other hand it was the departed who “called” and chose his supporter, appearing in dreams to show himself: he would then tell the story of his life, frequently a tragic tale, and ask for offerings and prayers on his behalf. Once the identity of the soul in question had been revealed, the skull was cleaned and polished, placed on a piece of cloth with a rosary around it, and surrounded with flowers and candles. All communication occurred through dreams: in this way the soul of the deceased could keep his champion informed on his state of “relief”, the effectiveness of the offerings, and about the advancement of any requests for favor. This last frequently concerned for example an ailing child, a daughter who could not find a husband, or a husband away at war, in other cases it became a request for lottery numbers – in the eternal hope that luck and fate would alleviate financial problems.
Whenever piety shown by the faithful was rewarded by an answer to their prayers, the decorations would become more ornate, The piece of cloth was replaced with an embroidered cushion with lace, and the skull would be put in a glass display case or, where this couldn't be afforded, in a tin box. The more “generous” skulls ended up being adopted as protective spirits by the whole community; if on the other hand no prayers were answered, the cranium would be returned to the stack and another chosen, and the whole process started over again.
This worship of anonymous remains was clearly not contemplated by the Church, which only allows veneration of recognized, Vatican-approved relics of saints. Even the votive displays, when observed more carefully, look like a proletarian version of the sacred reliquaries kept in the Cathedral or in numerous other Neapolitan churches: the fideistic practice instituted de facto a range of unorthodox “saints”, not authorized by the Church and whose relics became object of the worship of common people.
These original popular “saints” are the real Superstars in the cemetery – skulls so generous in their favours that they have, over time, become real icons of the cemetery, taking on the role of folklore characters around which various legends have sprung up. There's Donna Concetta, the “sweating head”, a revered skull that has the quality of attracting more humidity than any of the others. When little drops of water appear on its shiny forehead, the skull is ready to fulfill any requests. There is the skull of Pascale, who helps you win the lottery; 'o nennillo who brings happiness to the family; and the most famous of all, “the Captain”, around which several legends revolve, and who makes sure respectful girls find a good husband.
It might seem surprising that such a practice was tolerated, however marginalized, for so long by the Catholic Church until the cult was definitively ostracised in 1969. Today, you can still see some old woman lighting up a candle before a specific skull, but the cult has almost entirely died out. And, as it so often happens in Italy despite our great cultural heritage, the Fontanelle cemetery is now sadly left to crumble. If you travel to Italy and find yourself in Naples, you might want to plan a visit before it's gone for good. Its enchanted underground location and sober arrangement of bones (not at all macabre, as in some other baroque italian charnel houses) make for a peaceful and meaningful break from traffic and confusion, as you enter a place where the barrier between the living and the dead was once trespassed.
Ivan Cenzi and Carlo Vannini's“De Profundis, second volume in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, is dedicated to the Fontanelle Cemetery, and is available on Libri.it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ivan Cenzi is an explorer of the uncanny and collector of curiosities. Since 2009 he has been curator of Bizzarro Bazar, a blog dedicated to everything that is strange, macabre and wonderful.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Carlo Vannini is the photographer of all “cultural” objects: artworks, archaeological finds, restoration works, architectural structures, city views, but also ordinary handcrafted artefacts permeated by a strong historical feeling. Website www.carlovannini.it