Very Supertitious: Some Italian Folk Beliefs

Most Italians are not very religious, but they can be strangely superstitious. Purple and black are the colors of mourning, so wearing purple is considered bad luck. Bad luck for me – I happen to like wearing purple, but I know that, whenever I do, someone will comment. (Wearing black is okay – black is always in fashion.) Italians also have a bad luck day, Friday the 17th. The number 17 in general is considered somewhat unlucky, but Italians don’t take things as far as Americans, who sometimes omit 13 when numbering floors or rooms in a building.

My husband, a very rational man in most things, can’t stand to see a hat left on a bed. It’s obviously a reflex with him, and by dint of repetition has become a reflex with me. I come in on a winter’s day and throw my coat, hat, and scarf on the bed, but feel immediately compelled to move the hat somewhere else, even if Enrico is nowhere in sight. But I find myself wondering about the exact terms of the curse: when exactly is a hat considered to be ON the bed, and what kind of hat? If I hang a hat on a bedpost, is that the same as putting it on the bed? What about a hat resting on top of something else that’s on the bed? Or a hat inside a coat pocket or backpack that’s on the bed? Is it only a brimmed hat that’s dangerous, or does the risk apply to anything in the hat category? Ski hat? Balaclava?

Jan 25, 2007 – My friend QT was driven to do some research on this, and found the probable origin of this superstition:

I preti, almeno sino ad alcuni decenni fa (e i piu’ tradizionalisti e/o anziani ancora oggi) portavano sempre quel loro strano cappello e non lo toglievano entrando in un edificio, pero’ se e quando si recavano da un moribondo per l’estrema unzione e confessione devono toglierselo per mettersi i paramenti ed ecco che il prete, che a questo punto e’ in genere seduto o in piedi accanto al moribondo nel suo letto, si toglie il cappello e lo posa sulla superficie piana piu’ vicina, il letto, appunto!

Ecco quindi spiegato l’arcano, un cappello sul letto richiamerebbe una scena di morte imminente o appena avvenuta.

“Priests, at least up to a few decades ago (and the more traditional and/or old ones still today) always wore that strange hat of theirs, and never took it off even inside a building. However, when they went to the beside of the dying for extreme unction and confession, they had to take it off to put on their vestments. Then you would see the priest, who at this point was usually seated or standing next to the dying person in their bed, take off his hat and put it on the nearest flat surface – the bed!

This explains the arcane: a hat on the bed recalls a scene of death (imminent or just occurred).”


There are also medical superstitions. The colpo d’aria (“punch of air” – a draft) is considered extremely dangerous, causing anything from a cold to paralysis. One friend claims to have suffered a day-long stiffening of one side of her face and neck, due to riding in a fast-moving car with the window down so that cold air was blowing on her.

In the early years of our relationship, Enrico and I argued about whether a window could be left open, even during the hottest summer nights, because it would allow a draft to blow onto our heads, with possibly fatal consequences. I was scornful of this, having grown up in Bangkok sleeping under a window air conditioner set so cold that it would freeze solid at night. We finally solved the dilemma by moving the bed away from the windows. Early on in Milan, he never wanted a fan to blow on him, but with the increasingly hot summers we’ve been having, we moved from a standing fan to a ceiling fan, and I guess he’s gotten used to it. Some nights this summer, we had BOTH fans blowing full on us – there was no other way to sleep in the heat.

The funny thing is, the colpo d’aria never seems to strike below the waist. An Italian woman who would cringe from the slightest draft coming in a window will go out in January’s worst winds, wearing a miniskirt, sheer stockings, and skimpy high heels.

3 thoughts on “Very Supertitious: Some Italian Folk Beliefs

  1. Tom

    Good article. Certainly people are more superstitious in the south of Italy, mind you the colpo d’aria seems to be prevalent throughout the country. Quite frustrating really!

    Another common one, which extends from not swimming after eating (probably sensible if you are swimming the English channel and want to avoid cramps – as opposed to doing acqua-gym in knee high water in Sardegna), is the superstition of not taking a shower after a meal. I recently got told to ‘change my habits’ by my father-in-law when I went to take a shower after eating a small sandwich at lunch.

    Oh.. and finally.. the belief that seatbelts aren’t necessary in the back of a car. There was a terrible road accident on the news one night in which all occupants were not wearing seatbelts, and all died. I said, “see, even those in the back died”. The explanation from my in-laws was: “they probably would have died even if they were wearing them”.

    Oh well. Italy (and Italians) have a lot going for them, so I won’t hold it against them 🙂

  2. gianna

    I remember when i was younger i noticed that my father and uncles and aunts and such used to (and still does) freak out when a hat was left on the bed. When i had confronted my Dad about it he told me it was because back in the day when italians had funerals at the house the person would usually either be placed on the table or bed with their garments on. So when a hat is left on the bed it symbolises death and or the comming of death. And to answer your question no leaving a hat on the bed post does not count, infact thats wear all my dads hats are . 🙂

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