In an underground chamber in the Italian city, the skulls of plague victims are stacked high but the traditions surrounding their preservation are ultimately uplifting, telling us a lot about the human capacity for caring
Given the choice, most people would not enter a shadowy underground chamber stacked high with human skeletons. However, with an understanding of the Neapolitan fetish for skull iconography, a visit to Cimitero delle Fontanelle provides an unlikely calming and reflective antidote to Naples’ frenzied street life. The vast cemetery, dug deep into soft tufo stone, intersects with Neapolitan traditions of religion, folklore and pagan ritual – and is indicative of the many strata of the city’s history. The former quarry became a makeshift burial site in 1656 when a plague reduced the population from 400,000 to 150,000. According to tradition, being buried away from the consecrated soil of their parish church rendered the souls unable to reach heaven. Eternally dislocated from the afterlife, the chamber appears to embody the earthly manifestation of purgatory.