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CULTURE

Unlucky Friday 17th – and other Italian superstitions to beware of

It's Friday 17th, which is considered an unlucky date in Italy. But that's not the only strange Italian superstition you'll need to be aware of.

Unlucky Friday 17th - and other Italian superstitions to beware of
Photo: UnsplashNathan Riley

Particularly among the older generation, you’ll discover that Italians tend to take superstitions seriously, often doing things ‘per scaramanzia’ – to ward off bad luck.

So if you want to ensure good fortune comes your way, here are some of the things to watch out for, according to customs in many parts of Italy.

READ ALSO: 17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy

Friday the 17th

First, the good news. Friday the 13th isn’t a bad omen as it is in Western countries — but Italy has its own date that you should be wary of: Friday the 17th.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted in Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors and so on, so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is because in Roman numerals, the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning “I have lived” — the use of the past tense suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some shops and offices closed ‘per scaramanzia’

Spilling olive oil

Thought there was no point crying over spilled olive oil? Think again. In Italy, this is very bad luck indeed.

And it’s not just because Italians don’t want to see their top quality oil wasted (though the tradition likely has its roots in a time when olive oil was a luxury), or because oil stains are tough to get out of clothes. The act of spilling the liquid is considered to bring ill fortune.

READ ALSO: Italy’s fascinating All Souls’ Day traditions

Toasting

Some Italians will tell you that you should never toast with a glass of water; the thinking behind that is that it brings bad luck because water is less expensive and flavourful than wine.

In fact, the whole tradition of toasting is a minefield. Depending on where you are in the country, you could be told it’s also bad luck to cross arms with anyone as you clink glasses, to avoid eye contact while toasting or to set down your glass before having a first sip.

Photo: minervastock/Depositphotos

The Evil Eye

The malocchio is the Italian belief that a look of jealousy can bring harm to those it is aimed at — usually in the form of physical pain, such as a headache.

Having birds or birds’ feathers in your house is also a big no-no because their patterns are supposedly similar to the evil eye.

To ward off the evil eye you should make a gesture similar to horns and point it downwards behind your back. Some Italians take things a step further and wear a lucky amulet shaped like a horn.

Touching iron

If you’re from the UK or US, you might be used to saying ‘touch wood’ or ‘knock on wood’ after saying something that might tempt misfortune. In Italy, look for some iron instead. 

Toccare ferro’ (touch iron) is an abbreviated form of ‘toccare ferro di cavallo‘ (touch horseshoe) which dates back to when horseshoes were thought to ward off devils, witches and evil spirits. These days, superstitious Italians might still carry a horseshoe charm or a simple piece of iron around with them, just in case.


Photo: virgonira/Depositphotos

Lampposts

When walking arm in arm with a friend, make sure to pass on the same side of a lamppost rather than splitting to go around it. Italian folklore warns that straying from this rule could spell the end of the friendship.

Black cats

In some cultures, black cats are thought to bring good luck, but it’s quite the opposite in Italy, where they are considered unlucky due to associations with witchcraft.

In fact, thousands of black felines are killed every year by superstitious Italians, leading animal rights’ organizations to declare November 17th Black Cats Day, in order to raise awareness of the pets’ plight and combat superstition.

Hearing a cat sneeze, on the other hand, brings good luck.

Sharp objects

If you receive something sharp such as a penknife as a gift, prick the person who gave it to you, or give them a coin in return. If you fail to do this, you risk ruining the friendship forever.

Beds

It is believed that if you put a photo of a loved one on a bed – for example while tidying, packing or doing housework – this will bring them bad luck. Placing a hat on a bed is also unlucky.

These beliefs date back to a time when beds were associated with illness and death, and priests would remove their hats when arriving to visit someone in their sickbed.

The leaning tower of Pisa

Local students avoid the monument — and not just because it’s overrun with tourists. Tradition states that if you go to the top of the famous leaning tower whilst you are at university, then you will never be able to graduate.

Several cities and towns around the country have their own version of this superstition: in Bologna for example, climbing the local tower before graduating is thought to mean you will never do so.


Photo: Patrik Stollarz/AFP

Jinx

Saying the same word at the same time as somebody else is thought to be an omen that you will never get married – but there’s a way to reverse your fortune. Simply touch your nose immediately afterwards, and the bad luck will be undone.

Seeing an empty hearse

Spotting a hearse with no coffin inside is thought to be an omen that your own death is approaching. To ward off this ill fate, men must touch their groin and women their breast as a gesture of good luck and fertility.

Thirteen’s a crowd

Although in general the number 13 isn’t as spooky as in other countries, at a dinner table it is meant to be very bad luck indeed. ù

The superstition stems from the Last Supper and the fact that Jesus’ traitor, Judas Iscariot, was the 13th and final person to be seated, so if you find yourself at a table of 13, watch your back.

A reproduction of Caravaggio’s The Last Supper. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

A version of this article was first published in 2017.

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CULTURE

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

After three years of toned-down celebrations, Venice's famous Carnival is finally set to return to its former grandeur. Here’s what you need to know about this year’s edition.

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you're attending in 2023

The historic Venice Carnival – a tradition which dates back to the late 14th century – will be back in all of its splendour this year as the upcoming edition of the festival will be the first one without pandemic-related restrictions since 2019. 

As the undisputed queen of Italian Carnival, Venice will once again put on a full programme of water parades, masked balls, fine dining experiences and street art performances spread over 18 days of sheer carnevale fun.

If you’re planning on taking part in the city’s Carnival celebrations, here’s a quick guide to this year’s main events.

What are the dates?

The Venice Carnival will officially start on Saturday, February 4th with a night parade streaming down the city’s iconic Grand Canal accompanied by music, dance performances and light shows.

READ ALSO: Nine ways to get into trouble while visiting Venice

The parade will kick off two weeks of events, unfolding both in the centro storico (city centre) and on the smaller islands of the lagoon.

As always though, celebrations will peak in the six days between giovedì grasso (‘Fat Thursday’, falling on February 16th) and martedì grasso (shrove Tuesday, falling on February 21st). 

A masked reveller wearing a traditional carnival costume In St Mark's Square, Venice

The 2023 Venice Carnival will start with a floating parade down the Grand Canal on February 4th. Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

The most popular and widely anticipated events of the Venice Carnival are scheduled to take place during those days. However, that will also be the time when the city’s calli and squares will be most crowded. 

What are the main events?

Celebrations will start with the above-mentioned floating parade on Saturday, February 4th, and continue on the following day with another water parade involving traditional Venetian vessels and captained by the beloved Pantegana (a boat shaped like a giant sewer rat).

Apart from that, the Festa delle Marie – a historic beauty pageant during which 12 young local women are dressed up in Renaissance costumes, paraded throughout the city, and then subjected to a vote as to which of them makes the best Maria – will start on Saturday, February 11th. 

The winner of the contest will be announced in Saint Mark’s Square on shrove Tuesday, the final day of the festival. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Venice has delayed its ‘tourist tax’ – again

Original Signs, a music and dancing show performed on six floating stages set within the iconic Venetian Arsenal (the former seat of the Venetian navy), will begin on Friday, February 10th, with performances running on a nearly daily basis until the end of the festival.

Original Signs will run alongside Original Sinners, a fine dining experience followed by a masked ball at the magnificent Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a 15th century palace facing the Grand Canal which is also the current seat of Venice’s Casino. 

As with Original Signs, the event will be available to the public on multiple dates.

Masked revellers wearing a traditional carnival costume pose in St Mark Square, Venice

The historic ‘Flight of the Angel’ will not take place this year due to ongoing work in St Mark’s Square. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Aside from major events, street art performances, workshops, exhibitions and seminars will take place at various venues across the city for the entire duration of the festival. Some of these require booking in advance, which you can do on the Venice Carnival official website

On a rather sombre note, the Volo dell’Angelo (‘Flight of the Angel’), the traditional ceremony in which a costumed woman ‘flies’ down a cable from the bell tower in Saint Mark’s Square to the centre of the piazza, will not be performed this year due to ongoing repair work

How busy will it be?

The 2023 edition of the Venice Carnival is expected to mark a “final return to normality”, according to local media.  

And, with just a couple of days to go until the official start of the festival, it looks like the floating city is about to experience pre-pandemic numbers of visitors – current estimates indicate that around half a million people will visit the city over Carnival.

According to Claudio Scarpa, president of Venice’s Hoteliers Association, local hotels “will soon be all but fully booked for weekends”, though large numbers of bookings are also being registered on weekdays, especially those in “the last stages of the festival”.

Given the expected turnout, local transport operator ACTV will enhance their services for the entire duration of the Carnival to avoid overcrowding on buses and water buses. 

For more details about the Venice Carnival and bookings, see the festival’s official website

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