Fun with smiling death in Naples and Rome
Reminders of death are everywhere, but never more so than exploring the past in churches and graveyards, and especially in Italy.
Before I went to Naples recently I understood the phase "See Naples and Die" as an encouragement to enjoy everything Naples has to offer, and posted in excited preparation. So death was on my mind, but I found it everywhere as a reminder of our mortality, smiling out at us from endless skulls.
And I mean endless. Consider the Fontanelle cemetery. Four millions skulls. Yes four million! Stacked up logically and beautifully within deep tufa caves, the relocated bones from hundreds of years of plague and cholera. And yet it is a fascinating and beautiful site. It's in a dangerous part of town, Matadei, where the locals told us the police are afraid to go, but being English we went anyway.
Deep at the back of the caves we learned about the cult of skull devotion. Locals adopt a skull and care for it, bringing it flowers and gifts and asking for favors. Some skulls are even celebrities with small piles of offerings including rosaries, candles, food, books, ribbons, hair, everything a well dressed skull needs.
But it didn't stop there. Everywhere we went we were reminded of our mortality through the art of skull symbolism. From the crypt under the Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome (famously featured as a murder site in Angels and Demons)
to the beautiful inlaid marble and floor brass of the Church of St Luigi del Francesi.
Even the Romans in Pompeii (buried in AD79) remind us that death is the great leveler between rich and poor: Memento Mori - a fine, detailed mosaic you can see in the Naples Archaeological museum.
All good fun, but probably the most dramatic reminder we found was not in Italy at all, but in Westminster Abbey in London at the grave of Lady Elizabeth Nightingale who died young at 27. Her grave was erected in 1761 (same approximate era as the Fontanelle cemetery). Death comes lunging out from his underworld to throw a spear at the young lady to kill her! Macabre high drama - and distinctly creepy.
I'm not usually a morbid person, but after a week of endless skulls, images of dying saints, image of the dying and dead Christ, I had to find some humor in the situation. And as the immortal Maximus (Russell Crowe) says (in Rome) in my favorite film, Gladiator: "Death smiles at us all, all a (wo)man can do is smile back!"