The dead and dying in Naples

If you have any fascination with death whatsoever, Naples is totally the place for you.

Naples has catacombs.  In fact, there are at least three different catacombs you can visit in Naples.  We chose to visit the catacombs of San Gennaro.  These catacombs probably opened in the 2nd or 3rd century and were probably active burial sites until the 9th century or so.  There are nearly 2000 burial recesses and 500 stone coffins in the San Gennaro catacombs (and more than one body was most likely put in each recess).  Neapolitan bishops were even buried in the San Gennaro catacombs.


San Gennaro catacombs.  Each of those rectangular holes is a burial site.  And, the rectangular things on the ground are also burial cites.

But, you know what you won’t find at the San Gennaro catacombs?  Skeletons!  That’s right, there isn’t a single skeleton to be found there.  Raiders took some of them throughout the years.  But, apparently, most were moved to Fontanelle cemetery.


Bones at Fontanelle cemetery.

This isn’t your typical cemetery.  Rather, it is basically a cave inside a hill in the city of Naples.  And, it is filed with bones.  Fontanelle cemetery started as a secondary cemetery when other, more desirable cemeteries were overflowing — old bodies would be moved to Fontanelle to make room for new bodies.  Then, the plague hit Naples in 1656 and many more bodies were added.  Indeed, I read that half of the population of Naples (something like 150,000 people) died in the plague epidemic and bodies were pretty much just tossed into the cemetery left and right.  And, a cholera epidemic hit Naples in 1837, resulting in even more bodies being added to the cemetery.


More bones at Fontanelle cemetery.

Then, in 1872 a priest decided to catalog all of the bones and make things a bit neater.  Thereafter, a “cult of the dead” arose.  Women would visit the cemetery and pray over certain skulls, sometimes placing written wishes in the skulls or decorating them with money, flowers, or jewelry.  Skulls that were adopted and prayed over were thought to protect the people doing the praying.  It was even thought that the skulls could provide winning lottery numbers.  Anyway, the Catholic Church shut down the cemetery in 1969 in an effort to put a stop to the skull worship.  That said, the cemetery is open today for tourists.  I’m not sure if anyone still prays over the skulls or not — there are flowers and decorations, but everything is very dusty.


More bones at Fontanelle cemetery.

If that isn’t enough for you, and want to spend a really cheesy, corny hour or so, there is also the Museum of Torture.  If you want to feel sick to your stomach, you can learn all about the myriad ways humans have developed to torture other humans.  Oddly, many of them are vaguely sexual in nature — try sitting on something resembling a saw horse with a blade on top while weights are put on your legs, or having a pole stuck up your butt and along your spine and out the back of your neck so you die a slow, agonizing death, or being dropped repeatedly on a different saw horse type thing.  Disgusting!


One of the many ways people were tortured during the Inquisition.  They would be raised by ropes and then repeatedly dropped on this thing.  Ouch!

You can also see the dead of Herculaneum and Pompeii.  Herculaneum has skeletons in the boat houses.


A skeleton at Herculaneum.

And Pompeii has casts of bodies.  As Pompeii was buried, bodies were encased in layers of pumice and ash.  The decayed bodies left a void in the hard stone and a scientist discovered that by pouring plaster in the voids he could recover the bodies.  Scientists have since performed CT scans of some of the plaster casts and the results have been incredible.  They can even see the clothes the victims were wearing.  The scans show that many of the victims had severe head wounds, most likely from falling debris.  And, interestingly, they show that the victims had nearly perfect teeth — thought to be due in part to a high chlorine content in the water.


A plaster cast of a victim at Pompeii.

Finally, if that still isn’t enough for you, you can check out the “anatomical machines” at Cappella Sanservo.  These are a male and female skeleton to which an incredibly complex circulatory system made of beeswax, iron, and silk has been added.  To this day, nobody knows how the 18th century doctor who made these “anatomical machines” knew the details of the circulatory system.  Rumor has it that the doctor may have injected people with a quicksilver like material….Anyway, Cappella Sanservo has an absolutely absurd “no photo” policy and if you even look like you are going to take a photo a guard will scream “no photos” at you — we saw it happen (but not to us).  So, you will have to google it if you want to see these pretty cool skeletons.

About theschneiduks

Lisa has a degree in biology and another in law and has spent the last 20 years working as a patent litigator. She is a voracious reader of young adult dystopian fiction and watches far too much bad tv. She loves pretty much anything to do with zombies, and doesn’t think there is anything weird about setting an alarm at 6 am on a weekend to stumble to a pub to watch her beloved Chelsea boys. Robert has had many professions, including a chef, a salesman, an IT guy and most recently, a stay at home dog dad. He speaks Italian and hopes to learn Spanish on this trip. He loves nothing more than a day spent sailing, hopes to do more scuba diving, and rues the day he introduced Lisa to football (i.e., soccer).
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