SHARE
COPY LINK

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

LA BELLA VITA

La Bella Vita: Free Italian museum tickets, Sanremo, and real spaghetti carbonara

From seeing Italy's best sights for free to avoiding crimes against Italian food, new weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Free Italian museum tickets, Sanremo, and real spaghetti carbonara

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

The cold weather and grey skies mean February is the month when I’m most tempted to stay at home and keep warm, preferably with an Italian hot chocolate. But it’s a shame to stay in when there’s so much to do and see in Italy, even at this time of year.

Carnival season officially kicks off this weekend, bringing much-needed colour and joy to towns and cities across Italy at what would otherwise be a pretty dull time of year. The most famous Carnival of all is of course in Venice, and this year’s edition promises a return to its former grand scale after three years of limited celebrations.

If you’re thinking of attending this year, here’s our quick guide to the events and what to expect:

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

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

Another reason to get out and about this weekend is Domenica al Museo or ‘free museum Sundays’, when museums and other sites open their doors ticket-free on the first Sunday of every month.

As admission to major historical monuments and museums in Italy often costs upwards of €15 per person, there are big savings to be made and the free Sundays scheme is understandably popular among both tourists and residents.

Free entry applies to hundreds of state-run museums, archaeological parks and monuments, including world-famous sites like the Colosseum, Pompeii, Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, the Reggia di Caserta and Trieste’s Miramare Castle. See further details in our article:

What you need to know about Italy’s free museum Sundays

There is however at least one good reason to stay in and watch some Italian TV: The Sanremo Music Festival returns on Tuesday, February 7th, and it will likely be the main topic of conversation all week.

If you’re a fan of Eurovision, you’re pretty much guaranteed to love it. But some people don’t find the appeal of the show immediately obvious, to put it mildly.

So what is it about the festival that pulls together an entire nation, regardless of whether they fall into the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camp? We looked at just why this 73-year-old song contest is such an Italian institution.

Why is the Sanremo music festival so important to Italians?

In the latest international Italian food controversy, Italian media reacted with anger and dismay this week to a recipe published in the New York Times for ‘tomato carbonara’, which recommended adding tomato sugo along with the eggs, and replacing pork cheek and pecorino with bacon and parmesan – an adaptation which was described as “provocative”, “disgusting”, and a “declaration of war”.

For anyone who doesn’t want to traumatise their Italian dinner guests or risk sparking a diplomatic incident, here’s the classic recipe plus a look at the rules to follow when making a real Roman-style carbonara:

The ten unbreakable rules for making real pasta carbonara

However, you might be surprised to hear that adding cream – or tomato – to your carbonara recipe isn’t actually the worst food crime you could commit according to Italians.

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study revealed which of the most common international ‘adaptations’ are seen as most and least offensive.

RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

Remember if you’d like to have this weekly newsletter sent straight to your inbox you can sign up for it via Newsletter preferences in “My Account”.

Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]

SHOW COMMENTS