|Modern day skull veneration, this spirit is being appeased||with small gifts and trinkets,||Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, Italy.|
Southern Italy has always been a place of magic and superstition. Desperately poor in many areas people have had much need for miracles and have turned to any spirit who can help them.
I'd like to talk about an interesting yet little known part of Southern Italian culture, the worship of the Dead. This post ties in with last post as it is closely tied up with the Anima Sola cults.
I'd like to talk about a particular type of Anima Sola known collectively in Italy as "Anime Pezzentelle" or in English "Tramp Souls" i.e the lost souls of the forgotten dead who reside in purgatory. In this blog post I shall be talking about a specific type of veneration directed at theses spirits; the practice of skull worship.
One of the most interesting cults to grow up around these spirits is the Fontenelle skull cult of Naples. An unorganised cult of the dead where adherents would (and still do) communicate to the purgatorial souls through venerating their skulls. One of the most famous skull spirits venerated in this cult is Il Capitano (The Captain).
To understand the Fontenelle Skull cult, first a little history;
Throughout Southern Italy charnal houses, catacombs and ossuaries are no big deal, given that Italians rarely bury their dead (prefering to brick them into walls, mosoleums or put them in ossuaries).
In 17th century Naples a little charnal house was born from the bones of the cities poor.
Starting out as a small cave known as Fontenelle cemetery, here corpses with no family or family too poor to have them properly intered, would be unceremoniously dumped.
By the late 17th century the cave was full to bursting with rotting corpses and bones, it was sealed and left well alone.
During heavy rain, Naples became flooded one year, resulting in the cave over flowing with water and spilling its contents out into the streets of the city, creating a macarbre and grisly display. Upset and ashamed by the poor treatment of the human remains (or perhaps frightened the disrespected Dead had refused to be forgotten and had decided to make their existence well known by washinig up on the sidewalk), the citizens gathered up the remains and returned them to the cave. Displaying the bones in a more dignified manner.
Fontenelle Cemetery proper was born.
From this point on the "cemetery" (more properly a vast carnal house) became a dignified resting place for skulls of the unknown and desperately poor to be put to rest. Where prayers to ease their suffering in purgatory and ensure their salvation could be offered by the living.
In 1837 a cholera epidemic hit Naples killing many people, Fontenelle cemetery exploded from a large carnal house to a vast necropolis of skulls.
Over the next few decades more skulls found their way into Fontenelle, and more believers came to pray for the skulls. Some came simply to give respect to the deceased who had been given no respect in life, some came to pray for the release of the souls from purgatory and some came because the skulls as representatives of individual purgatorial souls, where willing to respond to petitions and grant favours.
|Our Lady assisting The Dead.|
By 1887 Fontenelle was a huge city of the Dead. A chapel to Our Lady of Mount Carmel (who in catholic theology is said to help souls out of purgatory) had been erected at the gates of the cemetery.
|Organised skulls neatly arranged at Fontanelle Cemetery.|
The Rise, Fall and Rise of the Fontenelle cult in the 20th and 21st Century:
To work with the skulls in Fontenelle, one must first adopt a skull. Originally a devotee would go to Fontenelle and sleep among the skulls, a skull would present themselves to the devotee and tell him or her their true name and where to find the skull in the ossuary. Once the devotee had physically located the skull then he or she would talk directly to the skull and the skull would answer back psychically. The skull would give advice and barter with the devotee to grant their requests in exchange of care and offerings.
If a skull did not appear in the devotees dream, no problem, particularly fervent devotees of the skulls (usually women) who where skilled in conversing with the skulls would be able to divine or ask the skulls on your behalf as to which would be willing to help you. This would be a personal relationship between skull and devotee, that particular skull being your first port of call when in need of any favour.
Small requests where rewarded with candles, prayers and small gifts of coins and flowers.
|Ex voto shrine engraved with the mystically revealed names of spirits.|
|Engraving reads: "For Favours Received"|
If a skull fulfilled a particularly generous request, the devotee would pay to have a box shrine made to house the skull, these ex voto shrines where made of either wood or marble and the revealed name of the skull (not the name of the devotee) would be engraved on the shrine.
The better the skull worked the more elaborate the shrine, as it could draw more followers to pay to build grander shrines and receive more offerings. Some skulls had many followers who would petition the skulls directly or write out their requests on scraps of paper and stuff them into the skulls eye sockets.
|Modern offering of prayer to a lone skull at Fontanelle.|
By the 20th century many of the skulls had garnered reputations as being good at different things. For example one skull was highly prized for granting fertility, this skull would often be fought over by women desperate to conceive, asking little in return other than to be carressed. This skull became shiny and polished through years of being stroked.
|Fontanelle Cemetery. Catacomb leading to the main altar.|
In 1969 The Archbishop of Naples had enough of the skulls and their devotees. He decided he would single handedly stamp out the skull cult, his rationale being the cult was pagan, satanic and evil.
Though in truth, he was probably just lacking faith and was simply embarrassed that his diocese was becoming famous for magic talking skulls that granted wishes. This made the members of his flock look retarded among stuffy church officials and caused him to be butt of jokes at vatican get togethers.
The Archbishop promptly closed Fontenelle cemetery to the public in the summer of 1969. not only cutting 1000s of devotees off from their beloved skulls, but also hiding one of the most beautiful and sacred memorials in Europe away from the world.
|Cardinal Ursi, Archbishop of Naples 1967-1987|
The closing of Fontenelle cemetery did not deter the devotees. Die hard skull worshipers would still visit the gates during its closure to slip petitions through the door. Others would visit the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel where they would prostrate themselves on the floor and bang with their open hand to gain the attention of the skulls. They would then whisper their petitions hoping the skulls would hear them. Lights and prayers would be offered to the skulls in the church itself.
For nearly 4 decades the skulls lay hidden in the catacombs, unseen by the living bar a local Satanic group breaking into the necropolis once or twice to perform rites of black magic (much to the excitement of the local press).
In 2006 the public was allowed back in Fontenelle for a few days of the year, after a 4 year renovation when the local council decided the place was of historic interest.
On the day of its reopening an old woman appeared at the gates, she called out; "Pasquale! Pasquale! where is my Pasquale?"
The renovators looked puzzled and asked her who Pasquale was.
She told them it was her beloved skull who she had not seen for almost 40 years. The renovators shrugged when the old woman said she could hear her beloved Pasquale calling to her amongst the thousands of skulls. But she followed his voice and to the renovators suprise headed straight to a pile of skulls and unearthed a skull sat in an ex voto with the name "Pasquale" carved upon it.
Today a bronze replica of Pasquale The Skull sits at the entrance of Fontenelle, keeping a watchful eye on skull devotees coming and going.
The local government had failed realise the skull cult hadn't entirely died out, after a few years campaigning by the bone worshipers, they finally agreed to open Fontenelle full time to the public in 2012.
|Fontanelle Skulls, not gone and not forgotten.|
Those who remembered their skulls started to come back in droves.....bringing their children and grandchildren with them.
|Modern day offerings of religious trinkets to the Dead.|
Il Capitano: (The Captain)
To be continued....
Disclaimer: Sadly I do not own any of these wonderful pictures of Fontanelle Cemetery, they are courtesy of Google. No copy-write infringement intended, if any of these pics are yours and you don't want them used, please email me and I will take them down.