When one thinks about Italy, art, history and of course food come to mind. However, there is so much more that lies beneath this rich culture. For the past seven months I have immersed myself in la dolce vita (the sweet life) and unearthed the unique realm of Italian superstition, a practice I didn’t realise is deeply embedded in their cultural norms.
When one thinks about Italy, art, history and of course food come to mind. However, there is so much more that lies beneath this rich culture. For the past seven months I have immersed myself in la dolce vita (the sweet life) and unearthed the unique realm of Italian superstition, a practice I didn’t realise is deeply embedded in their cultural norms. During my travels, I learned about various superstitions and quickly became intrigued as to where they originated and why. Some of these superstitions may cause you to raise an eyebrow due to their peculiar and perhaps far-fetched nature, but rest assured, you will come to appreciate these enthralling beliefs.
As a foreigner living in an Italian share house, I have observed cultural behaviours that in my opinion have seemed a bit bizarre. One day I noticed that my roommate, Matteo, had a green leaf on the back of his phone case. He explained that when a student graduates in Italy, they give a leaf from their corona di alloro (laurel crown) to their friends as it is meant to bring good luck with their studies whilst symbolising that they will also graduate. However, only the graduate can wear the crown as it is believed if someone else does, they won’t graduate. This superstition has become a source of mockery and sarcasm among students, “don’t put on the crown otherwise…” Matteo explained that “Italians continue to say and follow these superstitions for tradition rather than because they think it's necessarily true.” Another graduation superstition that originated from the city of Bologna warns students not to climb their city’s tower until after they graduate, otherwise, it is believed they won’t graduate. So, if you ever have the chance to study in Italy, don’t climb your city’s tower until you have your results!
Whilst having lunch with my neighbour Ivana, she said to me in a disheartened voice, “I just saw a black cat crossing the road in front of me.” I asked her why that worried her and she replied, “they will bring misfortune into your life.” In some countries, a black cat crossing your path is a symbol of good luck, but not in Italy as cats were associated with witchcraft in the middle ages. However, Ivana rationalised that perhaps this superstition derived from when the Turks invaded Italy and brought black cats with them. Hence, if someone saw a black cat lingering around, they knew the Turks had arrived and therefore it was a sign foreshadowing that there would be tough times ahead. “C'è sempre un fondo di verità (there is always some truth to it) these superstitions don’t come from nothing, they all have a historical, cultural or religious significance,” Ivana said. It seems that perhaps superstitions were created to provide an explanation for irrational behaviour which in turn fostered a false sense of security.
During the new year period, I met a lady, Cristina from Urbino in the region of Marche. She informed me that if one wants to know how their year will pan out, on the first day of the new year, it is a tradition from her region to kick your slippers from a height, such as a staircase (I know, strange!). She elaborated that if both slippers land on the flat side, you will have a good year, if one slipper is flipped upside down, your year will be average and you can see where I’m going with this, if both slippers land upside down, you my friend, are in for a challenging year. Cristina said that there is some validity in most Italian superstitions and proposed that perhaps they were created to give people hope in times of darkness. Nowadays it has become a folkloristic phenomenon that is used in a sarcastic manner allowing for mysticism outside of rationality. While Cristina doesn’t take superstitions too seriously, she mentioned, “one year, on New Year’s Day, one slipper was flipped upside down and I got a bit worried.”
While I have only just touched the tip of the iceberg, there remains a plethora of superstitions that Italians continue to use and believe in today. Although these superstitions may be used in a satirical manner, it is apparent that they remain fundamental and rooted in Italian culture. As seen in the case of Cristina, they are still connected to regional identity. I think that even though it may sound fantastical, superstitions are still culturally relevant to Italy as they have become a traditional practice that preserves century-old ways of thinking and culture that continue to be passed down from generation to generation. So, remember next year, on new year's day, launch your slippers down the stairs to gain insight into what the year entails!