In any dense metropolis, prime real estate is located up high where there’s light, plenty of space, and a view. Big Italian cities are no different. The rich live on hills above town, or in penthouse atticos with a terrace.
Upper classes want the same thing when they die. While graveyards in the US tend to be flat and democratic, cemeteries in Italy are as varied as the cities of the living. There is desirable property, made up of spacious plots with breathtaking panoramas, and lower, crowded ghettos. On the scenic lots, families with money buy elaborate marble mausoleums for their deceased. Downtown, meanwhile, simple granite tombstones are crammed so close together that the flowers someone brought for her aunt’s tomb spill over onto her next grave neighbour.
My husband’s uncle, Zio Peppe, asked me recently if I was interested in going to the cemetery of the Fontanelle in one of the roughest neighbourhoods of Naples. I had heard macabre things about the place. It had no “chic” lots. There was no tomb with a view. Created in 1656 for the victims of a plague that wiped out half the city’s inhabitants, the “cemetery” is an immense cave dug into the tufa rock. Piled in it are the bones of 40,000 people, most of them poor Neapolitans who succumbed to the plague of 1656 or the cholera epidemic of 1836.
I hesitated. I’m not squeamish when it comes to skeletons, but still…wouldn’t it be more pleasant to see some of the Renaissance masterpieces at the Capodimonte museum? “Come on,” he encouraged, winking. “We’ll ask if you can adopt a skull.”