Our final full day in Naples delighted my inner Goth, as we spent the whole day exploring Naples’ fascination with darkness and death.
Our first stop was la chiesa delle cape di morte – the Church of Skulls. When you first enter it, it looks pretty normal for a Neapolitan church – beautiful art and architecture with a few discreet skull motifs here and there. But for a small fee you can enter the lower church..which is just incredible. Unfortunately photos are not permitted in the lower church but you can view them here. The lower church is starkly monochrome, with no colour anywhere and an enormous black cross painted on the wall. You then descend a stairwell into a crypt filled with the skulls of those who could not afford a proper burial. People leave these skulls offerings of money, flowers and religious artefacts as part of the cult of anime pezzentelle (poor souls), in which followers “adopt” skulls and pray for their soul. The most famous of these skulls is dubbed Lucia, after a neon sign of the same name left by her. She wears a tiara and was supposedly a teenage bride. Nowadays young brides leave her offerings as they see her as their protector. As a newly-wed myself, I left an offering of a few cents hoping to receive Lucia’s blessing on our marriage!
After this, we went on to the Catacombs of San Gennaro, where the patron saint of Naples was interred in the 5th century. The tombs are in the form of alcoves in the walls – those of the wealthy are of course larger and some have beautiful frescoes. Here are a few pictures:
Finally, we went to the Fontanelle Cemetery, which was my favourite part of the day. Like the Church of the Skulls, it’s a site of the cult of the poor souls, in which skulls are adopted by followers and offered money, flowers and prayers. However, it’s much bigger than the Church of the Skulls and a guide is not necessary to explore the cemetery.
Fontanelle Cemetery is beautiful, with a darkly peaceful atmosphere. I loved seeing how well the skulls are cared for by visitors, who treat them in much the same way they treat the street shrines to the saints. I thought it was really positive to see death being venerated in this way – in Britain, where death is very much taboo, such a cult involving offerings to skulls would be unthinkable, which is a shame. And again, I was struck by the similarity between the shrines of the skulls in the cemetery, and the shrines to the old Pagan gods in Pompeii. It was wonderful to see how the Pagan traditions still continue in Naples, albeit in a Catholicised form. I think Fontanelle Cemetery represents a really wonderful expression of syncretism, folk religion and ancestor worship.
Here’s some of my favourite photos from the Fontanelle Cemetery…