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


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


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.


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


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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How does Italy celebrate Halloween?

Visitors from countries such as the UK and USA might be expecting to see the shops full of pumpkins, ghost costumes and mini candy, but in Italy things are a little more restrained around Halloween.

Halloween in Italy is about food and a day off.
Halloween in Italy is about food and a day off. Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash

While Halloween is less of a big deal in Italy that it is in some other countries, that’s not to say it isn’t celebrated at all.

Its popularity has increased in recent years, even if a large proportion of the population criticises the holiday for being an American import or not fitting with the country’s strong Catholic beliefs.

According to recent surveys, one in three Italians think Halloween is just a “commercial gimmick”, while a quarter of those surveyed say the event is not connected to Italian tradition and culture.

Younger Italians under the age of 45 are more likely to embrace the holiday, surveys found.

Still, Italian supermarkets usually start to stock a few ready-made decorations by mid-October, and perhaps some specially-themed candy and sweets.

Trick or treat

Unsurprisingly, Italian children have taken to the idea of roaming their neighbourhood in creepy costumes demanding sugary treats.

So while it’s not as ubiquitous as it is in the USA, you may find you get a few mini ghouls or witches knocking on your door come October 31st, shouting “dolcetto o scherzetto!“ (trick or treat).

Readers tell us they’ve found the holiday here is mainly seen as an event for young children, with shops giving out sweets and villages putting up kid-friendly displays in the piazza for the occasion.

Italian supermarkets are full of pumpkins at this time of year – though the majority of Italians are buying them to cook, not carve.

READ ALSO: Pumpkin risotto and the great wardrobe switch: How life in Italy changes when autumn arrives

One place you may find more raucous halloween parties is the city of Florence, where the city centre has a sizeable proportion of American and other international residents.

But for Italians, more adult celebrations mainly involve halloween-themed dinners. Restaurants across the country are increasingly putting on special Halloween dinner menus – which are more about seasonal produce than anything spooky.

Some customers might dress up a little, but you won’t see many going all out with fake blood and gore.

One exception to all this is the Fucacoste and Cocce Priatorje or ‘bonfire and heads of purgatory’ – a bonfire, feast, and pumpkin-carving competition held on November 1st in Orsara di Puglia, in the southern region of Puglia.

This event, which looks more than a little similar to the western-style Halloween celebrations we’re familiar with, is centuries old and many say it is connected to the true origins of Halloween.

And at some of southern Italy’s more macabre-looking churches and cemeteries, to outsiders it feels like Halloween all year round: carved stone skulls decorate the exterior, and embalmed hearts, vials of what is purported to be blood, and the mummified remains of monks are on display inside – see Rome’s Santa Maria dell’Orazione e delle Morte church, or the Capuccini cemetary in Palermo, for example.

The Santa Maria dell’Orazione e delle Morte church in Rome. (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP)

Public holidays

The good news is that Italians do celebrate the season in much more practical way – by having a day off work.

November 1st, All Saints Day, known as ognissanti or tutti i santi in Italian, is an official bank holiday.

There are absolutely no spooky goings-on, though.

In the south of Italy, where onomastici or saints’ name days are observed, November 1st is everyone’s name day at once, and so you’re supposed to say auguri (congratulations or best wishes) to everyone you meet. Many families mark the day with – what else? – a big lunch.

As in many Christian countries, November 2nd is when Italians mark their own All Souls’ Day, or Festa dei Morti, the ‘Day of the Dead’.

The festival of the dead on October 31st, which has Celtic roots, was celebrated in some parts of Italy long ago. But in 1000 A.D. the Catholic Church created All Souls’ Day on November 2nd in an attempt to replace the Celtic festival with a similar. but church-approved, tradition.

Although the date and name was changed, plenty of fascinating old traditions stuck in various parts of the country.

But there’s no day off work, and this isn’t a chance to don a scary costume, either.

Instead, it’s a much calmer day of remembrance, mainly celebrated with prayers, flowers and, of course, food.