Seeing gleeful clots of tiny vampires and witches at a Turin mall tonight, I was pleased to see the local youth honoring its patrimony. After all, the mountains of Piedmont have long been prime witching ground.
Sadly, witches have not always been appreciated by country people, who feared for the safety of their families, livestock and goods. In their eagerness to keep malignant spirits away (or at least at bay), they resorted to a variety of interesting rituals and precautions.
According to Antonio Zampadri’s book Magia e Leggenda in Valle di Susa, Alpine cowherds incised crosses on cowbells, villagers nailed twigs in the shape of a cross to their front doors, and the clothing of newborns was taken inside before dark, lest someone cast an evil spell over them. They didn’t make butter on Friday or Saturday since this was too close to the Witches’ Sabbath. In the village of Chianocco, the Evil Eye indicated a very particular procedure. A group of men and women entered the afflicted house and, in a secret ceremony, boiled water in a big pot with seven mallow leaves and other mysterious aromatic herbs while the oldest woman present uttered ancient spells of white magic. Another cure-all ritual involved closing all the doors and windows of a house, getting a terracotta vase and putting into it an iron key and a fragment of wax taken from an Easter candle after being blessed by a priest. The belief that iron was a lucky metal is preserved in a local saying ‘toccar ferro’ – similar to our ‘touch wood’.
There are records of particular women accused and convicted of witchcraft. In Avigliana 1444, Giocometta, wife of Pietro Bordaro, was arrested for various crimes by the Dominican priest Giacomo di Albano. In 1471, the Dominican Inquisitors of Piedmont (who had their headquarters here in Turin), tried a woman from Miagliano by the name of Giovanna Monduro, wife of Antoniotto Marandolo. According to executedtoday.com , a website devoted to people executed for their crimes, Giovanna’s neighbors accused her of being a ‘mascha’ (witch) and said they had seen her in ‘mascara’ (going to the sabbath). She was interrogated four times. In the first two interviews, she denied everything; in the third, torture was introduced into the proceedings and she ‘admitted’ belonging to the sect of witches, participating in shapeshifting (turning into a hare and killing two hunters) and in transvection (flying around on a broomstick); in the fourth interview she offered names to get her tormentors off her case. It didn’t work and she was burned at the stake on 17 August.
Legend has it that in the thirteenth century a Piedmontese woman nicknamed ‘Clerionessa’ had a reputation for preparing philtres and lotions including potions ensuring youthfulness. Unfortunately an old lady died after ingesting one of these concoctions–Clerionessa had assured her it would take decades off her and restore her youthful vigor. The poisoner was arrested and put in prison. There she refused to eat anything but certain herbs brought from her house. Mysteriously, after fifteen days, her cell was found empty except for the ashes of burnt herbs.
My favorite suspected spellbinder is Maria Gotto from Rubiana, accused in 1620. Stregoneria in Valle di Susa e dintorni by Massimo Centini, explains the case. It all started when one big fat fibber, Giovanni Ludovico, claimed she was one of seven witches who flew around cavorting with the devil and creating storms. These witches supposedly had wolves as lovers and got up to all sorts of mischief. Of these seven witches, however, Maria was the only one accused because she had also (allegedly) killed a baby. Maria is said to have looked at the baby and said “Oh, praise God, make sure you wrap your little one up, he looks ill.” Sure enough, the baby died that night. Furthermore, one autumn day an eyewitness saw Maria in the road with a little pig “even smaller than a chicken.” As they chatted, the pig suddenly disappeared, proving her magic powers. When 70-year-old Maria was asked to make a statement during the trial, she said with admirable bluntness, “I don’t know what these rumors are based on, but if I’m a witch I’m also the Queen of France.”
In the cemetery of the Abbey of Novalesa, several skulls were found with nails hammered into them (post mortem). This was often done, according to Professor Renato Grilletto, to let evil spirits escape or to destroy the spirit of the dead so they couldn’t bother the living. You perforated the cranium of the cadaver, usually on the left side which is the evil side. In Piedmont they often talk about revenants, which are not just ghosts, but the real beings of the dead who, as the name suggests, return among the living.