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The Fèscina

here are many tombs, crypts and catacombs from ancient times in Naples. Such repositories of intact human remains may give the impression that cremation was not practiced at the time of the Greeks and Romans. That is not the case. Cremation in the days of ancient Greece and Rome was common and did not fall out of favor in Italy and elsewhere in Europe until well into the Christian era. In ancient Rome, both burial and cremation were common, and the choice was apparently a social one; the upper classes preferred cremation.  [Related entry here.]

Cremated remains were stored in cinerary urns; these in turn were placed in a columbarium, a sepulchre having in its walls niches to hold the urns. Columbaria could be both below and above ground, or even have both an underground and a surface part. The name "columbarium" comes from the Latin word for "pigeon" since the structures, indeed, looked like dovecots, even down to the "pigeon holes" for the urns. A mausoleum, on the other hand, is an above-ground edifice built as a memorial to the deceased and containing the remains in whatever form—cremated, skeletal, mummified, etc. The word mausoleum comes from the grand tomb of Mausolus of Caria (a satrapy of ancient Persia); it was erected by his queen Aremesia in the middle of the 4th c. BC at Halicarnassus (the site of modern-day Bodrum in Turkey) and became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

I have seen the Fèscina (photo, above) called both a columbarium and a mausoleum. Dated to the 1st c. BC, it is a free-standing column topped by a pyramid-like hexagonal cusp; it is located in the necropolis of via Brindisi in the town of Quarto, near Naples. This type of architecture is particular; the Fèscina is the only example of it in the Campi Flegrei or the entire Campania region of Italy, at the very least. This kind of structure was, however, widespread in the Hellenic Age in the eastern Mediterranean, which has led to some speculation that the family that built this one was from Asia Minor. (There are a few other pyramid mausoleums in Italy, most notably the tomb of Gaius Cestius in Rome, built in c.15 BC. That one is large—37 meters high—and is a true pyramid; it was almost certainly modeled on Egyptian pyramid tombs during the so-called "Cleopatra craze" in ancient Rome. It seems to have little in common with the Fèscina. I am tempted to say that the Fèscina may be unique in all of Italy, but I would be happy for some clarification.)

The term fèscina* is from the local vocabulary of the grape harvest and is a nickname hung on the monument by farmers in the area who noticed its similarity to the conical basket (photo, right), the fèscina, carried by those picking grapes from ladders along the higher vines in a vineyard. In any event, it is built in opus reticulatum* brick-work and has two floors, one of which is underground and the plastered walls of which contain eleven niches for the cremation urns. There are also three reclining couch-beds known as triclinia; they are of brick and were intended for ritual banquets. Two slit openings higher up allowed light and air to enter. The part visible above ground appears to be about 6-7 meters high. The area was excavated in the 1970s and 80s. The Fèscina was part of a larger Necropolis.

[update: Nov. 2012] A local archeology group has cleaned up the site such that it is now visible and visitable.]

*Opus reticulatum: Roman brick-work that placed the pointed ends of diamond-shaped bricks into cement such that the square bases formed a diagonal pattern on the surface of a wall. The pattern of mortar lines resembled a net or reticulatum in Latin.

  • -fèscina etymology: The word is a dialect variation of fascina (accent on the second syllable). The English term is "fascine"—i.e., a cylindrical faggot of brush or small wood, bound together and used in construction for such things as filling in ditches. It is a cognate of fascio, a bundle or sheaf of grain, which then became a political symbol and has given us the term Fascism.
  • photos: top photo of the fèscina from Museo Diffuso, provincia di Napoli.
               basket photo from S. Salvi, Napoli Underground.

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