Reviews / February 5, 2018
Guide to Legendary, Mysterious, Unusual, Fanciful Italy
By Mario Spagnol and Giovenale Santi
Sugar, 1966; Mondadori Publishing, 1971
Being home to the Roman Catholic Church means that much of Italy’s spectral pomp and terror of the incomprehensible is already spoken for. The remaining quota of mystery and conspiracy is filled out by the country’s myriad crypto-political shenanigans and unsolved crimes. Despite the obsession of the Etruscans and ancient Romans with the shades of their ancestors, the Italy of the the ‘60s and ‘70s was an altogether more pragmatic place as regards the supernatural—the economic boom that followed World War II gave precedence to earthy testicle-touching peasant superstition as opposed to a wholly unproductive terror of ghosts.
The Guide to Legendary, Mysterious, Unusual and Fantastic Italy (Guida All’Italia Leggendaria, Misteriosa, Insolita, Fantastica) was first published in 1966 to capitalize on a national phenomenon analogous to those in the UK and US, in which thriving economies and opportunities for self-advancement allowed baby boomers from proletarian (or, in the case of Italy, sometimes virtually peasant) backgrounds to climb the ladders of class and culture. These beneficiaries of post-war affluence now had the leisure time and expendable income to indulge themselves in amused examination of the picturesque absurdities of the beliefs and superstitions of their parents and grandparents, across a generational divide that must be one of the widest in recent history. Calling itself a “whimsical” guide to the country, the Guide to Legendary, Mysterious, Unusual and Fantastic Italy set out to describe some of the more peculiar aspects of Italy’s physical and psychological landscape.
Originally released in a hardback edition by publishing house Sugar, it was republished as a paperback in 1971 by Mondadori, which, though later dirtying its credentials with excursions into cheap mass-market bestsellers, at the time still enjoyed a reputation as a quality publisher. The Guide is clearly something of a medium-prestige product, consisting as it does of a durable cardboard container hosting four volumes, soberly decorated, each of which covers several of Italy’s 20 regions, working their way down from the north to the south of the country.
In the introduction, the editors—Mario Spagnol and Giovenale Santi (a pseudonym of journalist and puzzle-writer Giampaolo Dossena)—quote psychotherapist Carl Jung’s description of a dream he once had about descending from his uncle’s snooty parlor to a downstairs grotto littered with prehistoric artifacts and human skulls: a metaphor for the weird junk that litters the cellars of the mind. This, they say, sums up their approach: not credulity but a jaunt through the national subconscious. Nor does the book aim to be comprehensive, they warn. Much has been summed up in a few words or left out altogether simply for reasons of space—a complete study of the field would require not four volumes but an entire library, so the Guide should therefore be viewed simply as a sample cross-section of Italy’s paranormal mantle.
An arbitrary opening of the Guide‘s roughly 1,500 pages reveals—among, it must be admitted, many dull levitating saints, devil’s hoofprints, and bizarre votive offerings—such delights as a miraculous elixir known as the Balsam of Jerusalem, allegedly sold in the old Piazza San Giovanni pharmacy in Turin and described as smelling like “wilted flowers next to dead children” (and also recommended as an after-dinner liqueur); the story of how the heroic women of Cuneo broke the French siege of 1691 by climbing up onto the battlements in their thousands and mooning the bivouacked French, who, in the moonlight, mistook the bared arses for healthy faces and decamped, thinking themselves outnumbered; Friuli’s Pamarindo, a hugely fat supernatural creature less than three feet high that delights in hurtling thrown stones back into the thrower’s face and leading flocks of sheep off cliff tops; methods for curing hemorrhoids (touching them with cypress cones chief among them); Macerata’s Mazzamurelli, spirits that bang on the walls of houses where a death is imminent or a murder has been committed; the gigantic phalluses once sculpted into the walls of the town of Alatri; the witchcraft school of Baselice and the story of violin teacher Mario Signorelli, who, in the 1950s, claimed to have met the last surviving Etruscans, now living in caves and devoted to eluding the modern world.
The whole thing is written in a wry, breezy tone that makes this curiosity a pleasure to dip into and an interesting insight into the bizarre, broiling broth of superstition, fable, religion, and the supernatural that lurks beneath—and to some extent still conditions—the glossy waters of contemporary Italy.