Common Grave: A Painting Project

Part I: How it all started

In January 2013, I had the good fortune of visiting the Fontanelle Cemetery ā€“ “Il cimitero delle Fontanelle (in napoletano, ‘e Funtanelle)” in Naples, Italy. This fantastic cemetery — really an ossuary — a repository of tens of thousands of human remains, is one of the more unique and bizarre attractions in an ancient city full of the unique and bizarre.
It appears that Fontanelle got its start in the early 16th century when neighborhood churchyards in the city, the preferred location for burials, were overflowing with the deceased. Older bodies were moved to an artificial cave carved into the volcanic bedrock of the Neapolitan hills, then just beyond the city limits.

At the entrance to the Fontanelle Cemetery, January 2013.

These bodies were added to over the succeeding centuries: plague victims found their final resting place here along with those too poor for a proper burial.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the cave was an unsightly, disgraceful mess. In 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati had the remains organized and a small church was constructed at the entrance to the cave.
A cult of devotion sprung up around the skulls and bones, reaching its apogee by the mid-20th century. Feeling that the whole thing had descended into fetishim, Cardinal Ursi of Naples closed it down in 1969. It remained closed until the 21st century.
Fortunately, it was restored and reopened. What restorations were actually undertaken, I don’t know. When I visited in early 2013, the remains appeared as if untouched for decades.

Inside Fontanelle
Human remains as objects of devotion

I must have taken hundreds of photographs (digital photography just makes this too easy), and soon conceived a desire to make art from my experience. Following a long period of gestation, I finally began working on my Common Grave polyptych toward the end of 2017. The first two canvases were completed by mid-2018.

Panel III of the polyptych, the first completed, mid-2018 (but not yet signed until all the panels are complete).
Common Grave, panel IV, oil on canvas.

Further delays ensued, but finally I am on the verge of completing the project. My plan is to have this project complete in time for this year’s Gowanus Open Studios.

Common Grave, panels III and IV together on the easel, summer 2018.

Coming Next: details of the project and final steps.