horn hand agains malocchio that is evil eye in Italy

30 Lasting Italian Superstitions: Red Undies, Tocca Ferro..



Italian superstitions are my bread and butter, not because I believe in every single one, but because they are fascinating. When I was a little kid I came across a book about them, which was lying in a cupboard in my house, and I was immediately intrigued to read and learn. I find them both funny and a symbol of Italian culture.

In the same fashion, not all Italians believe in every single superstition. Which ones they choose to believe usually depends on the region, their upbringing and family, and their personality.

Regardless of whether we believe them or not, some superstitions will never go away. We will always share them with our kids, and explain them to our foreign friends.

I have selected the most popular 30 Italian superstitions for you to learn about. Let’s go through them one by one.

Here’s what to expect:

  1. A few Italian hand gestures
  2. Key Italian superstition symbols
  3. Funny bad luck antidotes
  4. Many no-nos
  5. A superstition-focused gift guide

1. Toccare Ferro: No.1 Ritual Against Bad Luck

In Italy, the superstition of “Toccare ferro” serves as the Italian equivalent of the popular “knock on wood” belief found in various cultures. Derived from the act of physically touching iron (“ferro” in Italian) to ward off bad luck or jinxes, this tradition holds deep roots in Italian folklore.

When someone expresses a hopeful wish or discusses a positive outcome, it is common for Italians to instinctively tap or touch any nearby iron object as a protective gesture. From ancient times to modern days, “Toccare ferro” continues to be embraced across the country, intertwining with the rich tapestry of Italian superstitions that still shape the beliefs and customs of its people.

I keep doing this, more so out of habit than a particularly strong belief in its efficacy. And many Italians are the same about this because it’s one of those things that we probably started doing since we were kids, from observing the adults do the same.

2. Horn Sign To Get Rid of Bad Luck

The Italian superstition of the “horn sign” or “hand horns,” is used a lot in Italy against the Evil Eye known as “Il Malocchio”. Italians use this gesture as a means of protection against malevolent forces and envy. To perform the horn sign, one clenches their fist, extending the index and pinky fingers while tucking the middle and ring fingers down, resembling a set of horns. 

By making this gesture (we call it fare le corna), individuals believe they can avert the ill intentions of others and safeguard themselves from the curse of the evil eye. This centuries-old superstition reflects the Italians’ reverence for tradition and their enduring commitment to preserving the well-being of loved ones and themselves from perceived malefic influences.

Scratching the intimate area, especially for men, and hanging chili peppers at the door are other ways to keep the bad luck or bad wishes away.

In the South: They like to hang garlic at the door. After all, if it’s good to keep away vampires, it must also be good for those evil wishes. 

black cat crossing your path while driving

3. Black Cat Crossing Your Path While Driving

In Italy, the superstition of a black cat crossing your path while driving is deeply rooted in folklore and continues to evoke a sense of caution and unease among many motorists. As in several other cultures, encountering a black cat on the road is considered an omen of bad luck and potential misfortune. 

Drivers, upon witnessing this feline interruption, may be quick to take evasive measures or perform rituals to ward off the perceived ill effects. The belief in the black cat superstition highlights the enduring influence of superstitions on the Italian psyche and serves as a poignant reminder of the country’s rich cultural heritage, where ancient beliefs and customs intermingle with modern life.

This superstition dates back to the Middle Ages and is tied to the bad effects that cats had on horses. Since then black cats have been associated with evil forces, but did you know that many would think that behind every black cat, there was an evil witch? 

This was such a strong belief that Pope Gregorio IX issued a papal letter (in Italian called ‘bolla’) expressing the Church’s belief that all cats represent evil spirits and encouraging their elimination. That’s interesting to know, but also very sad and cruel.

What to do if a black cat crosses your path?

The very superstitious Italians usually try to turn their car, hopefully by quickly turning into any nearby side roads, to avoid the black cat fully crossing the road in front of them. That also applies to a similar situation happening while you are walking.

breaking mirror superstition in Italy

4. Breaking Mirror Superstition

In Italy, the superstition surrounding a breaking mirror is steeped in ominous beliefs and is widely held across the country. According to this belief, shattering a mirror brings seven years of bad luck to the unfortunate soul responsible for the mishap. 

This superstition is rooted in ancient times when mirrors were considered powerful tools that could reflect one’s soul, and breaking one was thought to disrupt the person’s spiritual harmony. As a result, great care is taken to avoid accidentally breaking mirrors, and if such an incident occurs, rituals or amulets may be used to counteract the perceived curse.

That’s not it when it comes to mirror superstitions in Italy. Here are the other 2, although not as widely observed.

Covering Mirrors After a Death

In Italy, it is a common tradition to cover mirrors in a house where someone has passed away. This is done out of respect for the deceased and to prevent their spirit from being trapped in the mirror or from being seen in the mirror’s reflection.

The bride shouldn’t look in the mirror unless..

We all know that it’s considered bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding, especially if she’s wearing her wedding dress. That goes as far as keeping the wedding dress secret until the walk to the altar. However, in Italy, we take things a step further, as there’s a superstition that it’s also bad luck for the bride to see herself in her bridal dress.

Brides who believe in this avoid looking at themselves in the mirror unless they remove something, which could be a shoe, the gloves, or the veil.

Could you imagine walking down the aisle without checking yourself in the mirror at least once? I couldn’t, and that’s why I didn’t follow this credulity.

5. Number 13 In Italy vs Number 17

In Italy, the number 13 is indeed considered an unlucky number, as it is in many other cultures around the world, but for a different reason.

Italians don’t see the number 13 as a date a problem, so Friday the 13th is not a source of concern in Italy. The 13 is only seen as a sign of bad luck when it’s related to the table. Let me explain.

The fear of this number in dining situations is connected to the Last Supper, where 13 individuals were present, with one of them, Judas Iscariot, betraying Jesus. As a result, the number 13 has been associated with betrayal and misfortune, and for that reason, Italians usually try to avoid inviting 13 people over for dinner.

Having said that, rest assured that if a guest were to show up with a friend, knowing how friendly and hospitable we are, we surely would welcome him, seat him, and feed him independently of this superstition. We are not that crazy, I promise.

Friday 17th in Italy

Interestingly, while 13 isn’t considered generally unlucky, the actual unlucky number in Italy is 17. This is because, in Roman numerals, the number 17 is written as XVII, which can be rearranged to form the Roman numeral VIXI, meaning “I have lived” or “I am dead.” This eerie association with death has led to a pervasive belief that the number 17 brings bad luck. 

This belief is sustained by the book called La Smorfia Napoletana, which speaks about the meaning behind the different numbers when they appear in dreams, to play them to win the lottery. This is another of those books I was mesmerized by as a kid.

PS: Did you know that.. even Napoleon moved the date of his coup d’etat or ‘colpo di stato’ in Italian because it was going to fall on the 17th of the French Republican Calendar?

Considering the above, it follows naturally that the unlucky day on the Italian calendar is Friday the 17th, not the 13th.

birthday superstitions in Italy

6. Italian Birthday Superstitions

One common belief is that it is bad luck to wish someone a happy birthday before the actual day, as it may bring about ill fortune. Additionally, blowing out candles on a birthday cake should be done in a single breath to ensure that the celebrant’s wish comes true. Another charming tradition involves giving symbolic gifts – such as a small amount of money, known as “tanti auguri”, to bring prosperity and ward off any financial woes.

Personally, this is one of those superstitions I have grown to embrace, so I dislike it when someone who’s not Italian tries to wish me a happy birthday before the actual day.

7. Throw Salt Over the Shoulder

The Italian superstition of throwing salt over the shoulder is a widely practiced ritual aimed at averting bad luck or the evil eye. When an individual accidentally spills salt, it is believed that it attracts malevolent spirits or misfortune. To counteract this perceived negativity, the person quickly tosses a pinch of salt over their left shoulder, symbolically blinding the lurking evil spirits and diverting any potential harm away from them

For this to work, you must throw 3 dashes of salt behind your left shoulder right away after it happens.

This superstition was born from the reality of salt being extremely pricy back then, and losing any of it was seen as losing money.

This act of throwing salt over the shoulder is also a good way to dodge any bad luck you think is coming your way, whether that’s when someone puts the hat on the bed or sweeps your feet.

PS: This is similar to the knock on iron ritual, but while that one is done to avoid bad luck when mentioning plans, throwing salt is all about avoiding misfortune when you feel it’s already coming.

Toasting superstitions

8. No Cin Cin With Water When Making a Toast

In Italy, toasting holds significant cultural importance, but it is not without its share of superstitions. The biggest of the toasting superstitions is that you should never toast with water; wine is the preferred drink of choice. 

Another belief involves making direct eye contact with each person present during a toast. It is considered crucial to lock eyes with every individual while raising the glass, as failure to do so might result in seven years of bad luck. 

Additionally, it is customary to avoid crossing arms with others while clinking glasses, as it is believed to bring about bad luck and is seen as a symbol of discord. Furthermore, to ensure good fortune, one should always take a sip after the toast and avoid leaving any wine in the glass

9. Never Put These On The Bed

The most popular of the hat superstitions holds that if you put a hat on the bed it brings bad luck and even potential harm to whoever does it. The origins of this superstition are tied to the fact that when someone was sick, and many times about to die, either the doctor or the priest would be called in quickly and he would put his hat on the edges of the bed. 

Want more bed superstitions? Here’s another one.

In Italian folklore, the bed is considered a sacred and intimate space, and placing items with sharp edges like scissors or objects related to partings, like a hat on a bed, is thought to disrupt the peaceful energy and invoke negative spirits. 

However, doing the opposite can bring good luck. It is said that putting a pair of scissors under the mattress can keep away negative energy and unwanted visits at night.

10. I Guess Patrick’s Swayze Wasn’t Wrong

Remember that iconic moment in the film Dirty Dancing, where Johnny comes in and tells Frances’ parents that no one can put Baby in the corner of a table?

Well, single ladies that applies to all of you, at least according to us Italians. That’s because there’s a superstition that if a single lady sits at the corner of the table, especially where there are legs, she’ll never marry.

PS: While I love this one, as it amuses me, I sat plenty of times with the leg of the table touching mine, and I still got married.

broom superstition

11. Sweeping Feet Superstition

Here’s another one for the single ladies and the single chaps too. Never let anyone nor yourself touch your feet with a broom, or can you guess it?..

..yes, you’ll never marry.

You can see how important marriage was to Italians back then when these superstitions started to form; no one wanted to become a ‘zitella’ or spinster, let alone have their daughter be one.

Thankfully, now that’s no longer seen with the same bad eyes.

12. Get Yourself a Red Italian Horn

The Italian superstition of the red Italian horn, known as “Cornicello” or “Corno” is a powerful symbol believed to protect against the evil eye and bring good luck to its wearer. This amulet, typically made of red coral or other materials, resembles a twisted horn or chili pepper and has been revered in Italian culture for centuries. It is believed to ward off negative energy and malicious intentions, acting as a talisman of protection. 

The Cornicello’s origins trace back to ancient Mediterranean civilizations, where horns were associated with fertility, strength, and protection against malevolent forces. Today, this cherished symbol is still widely worn as a pendant, bracelet, or charm, embraced by Italians and even adopted by those outside the country who seek its protective properties. 

Next time you are in Italy don’t forget to ask your partner or friend to gift it to you. In fact, similar to the Turkish blue eye protection charm, this is better if it’s gifted and it must be rigorously handmade for it to work.

13. Don’t Go Walking Under A Ladder

The ladder superstition is rooted in a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. From a practical standpoint, walking under a ladder can pose a safety hazard, as there is a risk of objects falling or the ladder itself being unstable. Symbolically, the shape of the ladder leaning against a wall is reminiscent of a triangle, which has long been associated with the Holy Trinity in Christianity. Consequently, passing through this sacred shape was considered disrespectful and inviting misfortune

Additionally, the ladder was once seen as a portal connecting the physical world to the spiritual realm, and disturbing this passageway was believed to disrupt the natural flow of energy and attract negative forces. As a result, many Italians still avoid walking under ladders as a gesture of caution and respect, preserving this age-old superstition and its place in their cultural beliefs.

Italian umbrella superstition

14. The Italian Umbrella Superstition

Opening an umbrella indoors is believed to bring misfortune upon the household, inviting negative energy and potential calamities. According to Corriere.it, opening an umbrella inside was seen as a disrespect to the God of the Son, Apollo, by challenging the natural elements and disrupting the harmonious balance between the outside and inside worlds. Consequently, doing so was thought to bring misfortune to the family living in the house.

To this day, many Italians refrain from opening umbrellas indoors, me and my family included.

15. In Bocca Al Lupo: Saying Otherwise Could Bring Bad Luck

The superstition behind the expression ‘in bocca al lupo’ is twofold. I will explain in a minute, but first, let me give you the in bocca al lupo meaning.

“In bocca al lupo,” which translates to “in the mouth of the wolf,” is a common Italian expression used to wish someone good luck, particularly before an important event or undertaking.

It is considered bad luck to wish someone buona fortuna instead of in bocca al lupo. And it is equally considered to bring misfortune when the person answers with grazie. The correct way to answer when someone wishes you in bocca al lupo is ‘crepi il lupo’, meaning may the wolf die.

As you can understand, the meaning behind this is that you are telling someone good luck because you are going to be facing an arduous job or day, and he should then answer confidently that he hopes he conquers the task or day by metaphorically saying may the wolf die.

This is a widely spread custom and not just a superstition.

16. Red Underwear for New Year’s Eve

In Italy, the tradition of wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is a cherished superstition believed to bring good luck and prosperity for the upcoming year. As the year draws to a close, Italians don festive red undergarments as a symbol of love, passion, and vitality, which are thought to attract positive energies and new opportunities. 

The color red is also associated with warding off the evil eye and protecting against malevolent forces, adding an extra layer of significance to the custom. Whether donning this vibrant hue for romance or simply to ensure a bright start to the year ahead, the red underwear superstition is embraced with enthusiasm by Italians of all ages, a delightful way to ring in the New Year with hope and optimism.

There are many other old customs linked to the start of the year. You can read about them here.

17. Don’t Gift Chrysanthemums to an Italian

Considering that chrysanthemums mean death, it’s not a surprise that they are traditionally associated with funerals and cemeteries, and as such, they symbolize mourning and grief. Therefore, presenting chrysanthemums as a gift is considered highly inappropriate and inauspicious, as it is believed to bring bad luck and even foretell a premature death. 

Instead, Italians offer chrysanthemums as funeral flowers to pay their respects to the deceased. To express good wishes and positive sentiments, Italians opt for other vibrant and cheerful blooms like roses for celebratory occasions, ensuring that their thoughtful gestures align with cultural beliefs and traditions. 

Italian gift superstitions

18. Common Italian Superstitions Re: Gifting

In Italy, gift-giving is steeped in cultural superstitions, and certain items are considered inappropriate or even ill-fated to present as gifts. For instance, brooches are believed to bring bad luck, and gifting a necklace with pearls is avoided as it resembles tear drops, symbolizing sorrow. Sharp objects like knives and scissors are considered inauspicious, as they can sever relationships or invite negative energy. 

Giving tissues implies the receiver will cry or is burdened with sadness. Empty wallets or piggy banks may suggest financial struggles, making them inadvisable presents. Even shoes are avoided as gifts for the very superstitious ones, as they might symbolize the desire for someone to walk away from your life. 

Instead, thoughtful alternatives can be chosen to ensure well-wishes and positive vibes. A pendant in the shape of a four-leaf clover (quadrifoglio) represents luck, while a horseshoe (ferro di cavallo) is a powerful talisman for protection and good fortune. By adhering to these gift superstitions, Italians honor their cultural beliefs and ensure that their gestures of goodwill are filled with positivity and blessings.

19. Don’t Drive Behind A Hearse Without A Coffin

In Italy, a prevalent superstition warns against driving behind a hearse without a coffin, as it is believed to bring bad luck and potential misfortune. The hearse, typically used to transport deceased individuals to their final resting place, is considered a solemn and sacred vehicle. To drive behind an empty hearse is seen as tempting fate and inviting death or ill fortune upon oneself or loved ones. 

The superstition dates back to the 500s when the plague was the cause of many deaths, and people would see empty hand carts passing all day long to collect the deceased. That obviously would cause a lot of fear among the neighbors because it was likely that they could be next. To feel a little better they would touch iron, as per the toccare ferro superstition above.

20. Make Sure You Don’t Spill Any Of Your..

Olive oil is a staple in Italian cuisine and plays a significant role in daily life, so spilling it is seen as wasteful and unfortunate. Beyond practical considerations, superstition carries symbolic meaning, as olive oil has long been associated with prosperity, health, and good fortune. To accidentally spill this precious liquid is believed to attract negative energy or the loss of blessings, prompting Italians to act with extra caution around it. 

I love my extra virgin olive oil so much I am always careful I don’t waste any of it. What about you, do you use Italian extra virgin olive oil?

21. It’s Equally Bad Luck To Drop These

Accidentally dropping a pair of scissors is believed to bring bad luck and potential harm, even death. To avoid this ill fortune it’s necessary to put one foot over the sharp object, and only after you can pick it up.

The same doesn’t apply to falling forks and knives. The first indicates that a woman might be visiting your house, while the second predicts a man will be coming.

22. New Home Superstitions

This age-old tradition is rooted in the notion that the right side is associated with positivity, good luck, and protection. By stepping into a new residence on the right foot, individuals are believed to invite blessings and harmonious energies into the space, ensuring a prosperous and auspicious beginning. Conversely, entering with the left foot is seen as inauspicious and might bring negative energy or misfortune. 

peacock feathers are bad luck

23. Peacock Feather Superstition

In Christianity, peacocks were once considered symbols of pride and vanity, which led to negative connotations being attached to their feathers. Furthermore, the eye-like patterns on the feathers are reminiscent of the “evil eye” symbol, reinforcing the belief that they might attract malevolent forces or curses.

What about other feathers? 

Other than the peacock ones, finding a feather gives you a chance to make a wish, and there’s a strong chance that wish will come true. This is how you should do it: take the bird feather in your hand, close your eyes, think of a wish, then open your eyes and blow the feather up in the sky. I wonder whether this is something also practiced within other cultures..

24. Another Bad Luck Wedding Superstition

No wedding on a Friday, no matter the date, that is no matter if it falls on the 17th or not.

This Italian superstition of avoiding weddings on a Friday is deeply rooted in the proverb “Né di Venere né di Marte, non si sposa né si parte.” This saying, which translates to “Neither on Friday nor on Tuesday, one should neither wed nor start a journey,” encapsulates the traditional aversion to scheduling weddings on Fridays

With its association with bad luck and sorrow, Fridays are considered unsuitable for beginning a lifelong journey of love and commitment. Instead, superstitious Italians favor Saturdays for weddings, seeking to ensure that their union is blessed with happiness and prosperity.

If you were to follow that proverb you shouldn’t marry on a Tuesday, either. That’s because Tuesdays are associated with Marte, the God of war; Fridays are associated with Venere, the God of Beauty, and also lust and deceit. Moreover, Friday is said to be the day when the evil spirits came into being.

25. No Speaking At The Same Time

If you speak at the same time as the person in your company, you may not marry. To avoid the latter, whenever this happens you should both touch the tip of your nose.

26. It’s OK if You Wear Your Shirt Inside Out!

Wearing a shirt inside out is considered a positive omen. When this happens you are likely to receive good news.

bed superstitions in Italy

27. Never Make a Bed in Three

This Italian superstition says that making a bed in 3 might imply someone will be getting sick. That’s mostly tied to the Italian habit whereby multiple family members of the deceased help prepare the home for the wake.

28. Do This To Keep Bad Spirits At Bay

  1. Always make the bed in the morning
  2. Always wash the dishes at night

While I am not sure whether these were made up by angry parents who wanted their kids to help (haha), I can tell you that the superstition says that not doing these can attract negative energy and bring bad luck.

29. Who Laughs On Friday, Will Cry On Sunday

Here’s another Italian bad luck proverb: “Chi ride il Venerdì piange la Domenica”, and it’s one of those superstitions I grew up with. If you giggle too much on a Friday that might imply bad things are about to happen. This one might have foreign origins; in fact, it is said to come from Jean Racine’s comedy, titled Les Plaideurs which in Italian translates to ‘I Litiganti’.

30. No Upside Down Bread on the Dinner Table Please

Don’t place the bread upside down on the table. It symbolizes bad luck and disrespect for the other diners. To be fully safe, also avoid placing bread rolls on top of the other.

Final Thoughts on Superstitions in Italy

I’ve taken you on a long journey through Italian superstitions. You are now an expert!

Throughout this article, we’ve delved into a fascinating array of Italian superstitions, from avoiding gifting chrysanthemums to wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve for luck. These superstitions highlight the profound influence of ancient folklore and historical associations on Italian customs. Each belief carries its unique symbolism and serves as a testament to Italians’ deep-rooted respect for tradition and their desire to safeguard against ill fate

If you managed to read this far, ‘tanto di cappello’. The latter means chapeau in Italian. You now have a lot to share during your next Italian theme dinner or just a catch-up with a friend who loves Italy.

Looking for more Italian insights? If so, I suggest this article about Italian Holidays.

Frequently Asked Questions about Italian Superstitions

What does the horn hand sign mean? 

The Italian hand horn or “mano con le corna” symbol is believed to ward off the evil eye. It’s made by extending the index and pinky fingers.

Is it bad luck to cheer with water? 

Yes, according to Italian superstition, you should never make a toast with water, only wine, or it’s bad luck. 

How to reverse bad luck from walking under a ladder? 

After walking under a ladder, Italians recommend throwing salt over your left shoulder three times to reverse the bad luck.

Which food should not be placed upside down on the table in Italy? 

Bread should never be placed upside down on the table in Italy as it’s considered bad luck and disrespectful. 

Can I buy myself a cornicello? 

No, to gain its protective benefits, a red Italian cornicello charm should be given to you as a gift.

Why do Italians say touch iron? 

The phrase “toccare ferro” tells someone to touch iron to avoid bad luck after discussing hopes for the future. It’s the Italian version of “knock on wood.”

What does malocchio mean? 

The Italian word “malocchio” refers to the evil eye curse. The mano con corna, or horn sign is used to ward it off. 

What should you not do at an Italian dinner table? 

Don’t place bread upside down, cross your arms during a toast, or put olive oil directly on bread, according to Italian dinner superstitions.

What does “crepi il lupo” mean? 

When someone says “in bocca al lupo” for good luck in Italy, you should answer “crepi il lupo” meaning “may the wolf die” to avoid bad luck.

Why is purple considered bad luck in Italy?

The color purple is considered bad luck in Italy, but only for artists. This stems from the Middle Ages during the period of Lent when priests wore purple stoles. During Lent, theatrical performances were banned so actors and performers were forced into inactivity. As a result, the color purple became associated with a lack of work and bad luck for those in the arts in Italy.

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Alessia Spampinato