Percy Blysshe Shelley
The Fontanelle is a charnel house, a Golgotha, an ossuary, a vast collection of skeletal remains in a cave in the tufaceous hillside in the Sanità Materdei section of the Naples.
Many Neapolitans insisted on being interred in their local churches. To make space in the churches for the newly interred, undertakers started removing earlier remains outside the city to the cave, the future Fontanelle cemetery.
The area, itself, was well to the north, beyond the walls of the ancient Greek and Roman city, and Greek burial chambers—called hypogea—have been found in the vicinity - the Greeks carved the original huge cavern out of the hillside north of Neapolis.
The remains were interred shallowly and then joined by the victims of the Great Plague of the 1656. Sometime in the late 17th century, great floods washed the remains out and into the streets. Then the anonymous remains were added to the bodies of the indigent of the Naples, to make a Fontanelle cemetery a vast paupers' cemetery. In 1872 Father Gaetano Barbati had the chaotically buried skeletal remains disinterred and catalogued. They remained on the surface, stored in makeshift crypts, in boxes and on wooden racks.
An entire cult sprang up, devoted to caring for the skulls, talking to them, asking for favors, bringing them flowers. Devotees paid visits to the skulls, cleaned them—"adopted" them, in a way, even giving the skulls back their "living" names (revealed to their caretakers in dreams).
Maria Santissima del Carmine was built at the entrance. Most impressive are the restored teche (plural of teca) small box-like shrines arrayed around the cavern. Each one contains at least one skull (sometimes more), representing the departed spirit of the original owner adopted by one of the many devotees of the cult. The procedure was to adopt a skull and, in exchange for small favors, pray for the spirit of the deceased to be released from purgatory; a number of votive slips of paper stuffed into the eye-sockets of skulls; the notes contain wishes of the devotee. Monday was one of the two special days of the week considered most propitious to be active at the Fontanelle since that day was, according to lore, the day favored by Hecate, the Greek goddess of the underworld and magic. Friday was the other special day since the lottery numbers were drawn on Saturday; it never hurts to get in a last-minute pitch to beseech a lucky number in a dream that night from your adopted spirit.
Folklore connected with the skulls speak of stories about their original "owners" and how they interacted with the living. The "Captain's skull" is one such tale: a poor young girl adopted a skull and knew (from a dream) that he had been a Spanish captain. She talked to him, prayed to him, and asked that she might find a husband. She did. On the wedding day in church, everyone noticed a stranger in anachronistic military garb in church. He smiled at the young bride, at which point the jealous bridegroom struck him in the face. Back in the cave, where she had gone to thank "the captain," she saw that the skull had a fresh mark, a bruise around the eye.
Alternate ending: the husband approached the captain at the wedding and asked him, "Who are you? Who invited you?!" —"Your bride did, at the cemetery," said the Captain. The husband challenged the stranger to prove that he was, indeed, who he claimed to be, at which point the Captain opened his tunic to reveal a skeleton beneath. The young husband promptly died of shock.)
The cult of devotion to the skulls of the Fontanelle cemetery lasted into the mid-20th century.
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before”. Edgar Allen Poe