[For information regarding ancient Italy, see Rome, Ancient
Religion and Magic.]
Magic and sorcery in medieval Italy centered around the
many great personalities of the church. Even several popes
have been included by the historians of occult science in the
ranks of notable Italian sorcerers and alchemists. There appears
to have been some sort of folk tradition that the popes
had been given over to the practice of magic ever since the
tenth century, and it was alleged that Silvester II confessed to
this charge on his death bed. Éliphas Lévi stated that Honorius
III, who preached the Crusades, was an abominable necromancer,
and the author of the Grimoire of Honorius, a book by
which spirits were evoked.
Bartholomew Platina (1421–1481), quoting from Martinus
Polonus, stated that Silvester, who was a proficient mathematician
and versed in the Kabbalah, on one occasion evoked Satan
himself and obtained his assistance to gain the pontifical
crown. Furthermore he stipulated as the price of selling his soul
to the devil that he should not die except at Jerusalem, where
he inwardly determined he would never go.
He did become pope. But on one occasion while celebrating
Mass in a certain church at Rome, he felt extremely ill, and suddenly
remembered that he was officiating in a chapel dedicated
to the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. He had a bed set up in the
chapel, to which he summoned the cardinals and confessed
that he had held communication with the powers of evil. He
further arranged that when dead, his body should be placed
upon a car of green wood drawn by two horses, one black and
other white. He stipulated that the horses should be started on
their course, but neither led nor driven, and that where they
halted his remains should be entombed. The conveyance
stopped in front of the Lateran, and at this juncture terrible
noises proceeded from it, which led the bystanders to suppose
that the soul of Silvester had been seized upon by Satan according
to the agreement.
There is no doubt whatsoever that such legends concerning
papal necromancers are simply inventions; they can be traced
through Platina and Polonus to Galfridus and the chronicler
Gervase of Tilbury, whom Gabriel Naudé termed ‘‘the greatest
forger of fables, and the most notorious liar that ever took pen
in hand!’’
On par with such myths is that of Pope Joan, who for several
years was supposed to have sat on the papal throne although
a woman, and who was supposed to be one of the rankest sorceresses
of all time. Many magic books were attributed to Pope
Joan. Lévi has an interesting passage in his History of Magic
(1913) in which he states that certain engravings in a life of this
female pope, purporting to represent her, are nothing but ancient
tarots representing Isis crowned with a tiara. ‘‘It is wellknown
that the hieroglyphic figure on the second tarot card is
still called ‘The Female Pope,’ being a woman wearing a tiara,
on which are the points of the crescent moon, or the horns of
But all Italian necromancers and magicians were by no
means churchmen—indeed, medieval Italy was hardly a place
for the magically inclined, so stringent were the laws of the
church against the occult. One exception, astrology, however,
flourished, and its practitioners were accepted into the highest
levels of society. A Florentine astrologer named Basil, who
flourished at the beginning of the fifteenth century, obtained
some repute for successful predictions and was said to have
foretold to Cosmo de Medici that he would attain exalted dignity,
as the same planets had been in ascendency at the hour
of his birth as at the birth of the Emperor Charles V.
Many remarkable predictions were made by Antiochus Tibertus
of Romagna, who was for some time counselor to Pandolpho
de Maletesta, Prince of Rimini. He foretold to his
friend Guido de Bogni, the celebrated soldier, that he was unjustly
suspected by his best friend, and would forfeit his life
through suspicion. Of himself he predicted that he would die
on the scaffold, and of the Prince of Rimini, his patron, that he
would die a beggar in the hospital for the poor at Bologna. It
is stated that the prophecies came true in every detail.
Although the recorded notices of sorcery in medieval times
are few in Italian history, there is reason to suspect that although
magic was not outwardly practiced, it lurked hidden in
out-of-the-way places. An excellent portrait of the medieval
Italian magician can be found in the popular myths of Virgil
the Enchanter.
The Legend of Virgil
The fame of Virgil the Poet was so great in ancient Italy that
in due time his name became synonymous with fame itself.
From that it was a short step to the attribution of supernatural
power, and Virgil the Roman poet became in the popular mind
a medieval enchanter. His myth is symptomatic of magic in medieval
Italy as a whole and is therefore described here at some
When the popular myth of Virgil the Enchanter first grew
into repute is uncertain, but probably the earliest conception
arose about the beginning of the tenth century and each succeeding
generation embroidered upon it some new fantastic element.
Soon, in the south of Italy (the necromancer’s fame was
of southern origin), mysterious legends of the enchantments he
had wrought emerged.
Thus Virgil was said to have fashioned a brazen fly and
planted it on the gate of fair Parthenope to free the city from
the inroads of the insects of Beelzebub. On a Neapolitan hill
he built a brass statue and placed a trumpet in its mouth. When
the north wind blew a roar so terrible came from that trumpet
that it drove the noxious blasts of Vulcan’s forges back into the
sea. At one of the gates of Naples, Virgil supposedly raised two
statues of stone and gifted them respectively with the power of
blighting or blessing the strangers who passed by one or the
other of them on entering the city. He constructed three public
baths for the removal of every disease afflicting the human
body, but the physicians, in a dread of losing their patients and
their fees, caused them to be destroyed.
Other wonders he was supposed to have wrought were
woven into a biography of the enchanter, first printed in
French about 1490–1520. A still fuller history appeared in English
as ‘‘The Life of Virgilius,’’ about 1508, printed by Hans
Doesborcke at Antwerp. It set forth with tolerable clearness the
popular type of the medieval magician, and is drawn upon in
the following biographical sketch
‘‘Virgil was the son of a wealthy senator of Rome, wealthy
and powerful enough to carry on war with the Roman Emperor.
As his birth was heralded by extraordinary portents, it is no
marvel that even in childhood he showed himself endowed with
extraordinary mental powers, and his father having the sagacity
to discern in him an embryo necromancer sent him, while
still very young, to study at the University of Toledo, where the
‘art of magick’ was taught with extraordinary success.’’
‘‘There he studied diligently, for he was of great understanding,
and speedily acquired a profound insight into the
great Shemaia of the Chaldean lore. But this insight was due
not so much to nocturnal vigils over abstruse books, as to the
help he received from a very valuable familiar.’’
The story goes on to say that Virgil’s father died and his estates
were seized by his former colleagues, so his widow was
sunk into extreme poverty. Virgil accordingly gathered together
the wealth he had amassed by the exercise of his magical skill
and set out for Rome to put his mother in a position proper to
her rank. At Toledo he had been regarded as a famous student;
but at Rome he was a despised scholar, and when he asked the
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. ITALY
emperor to execute justice and restore his estate to him, that
potentate, ignorant of the magician’s power, simply replied,
‘‘Methinketh that the land is well divided to them that have it,
for they may help you in their need; what needeth you for to
care for the disheriting of one school-master. Bid him take
heed, and look to his schools, for he hath no right to any land
here about the city of Rome.’’
Four years passed, and only such replies as this were given
to Virgil’s frequent appeals for justice. Growing at length weary
of the delay, he resolved to exercise his wondrous powers in his
own behalf. When the harvest came, he accordingly shrouded
the whole of his rightful inheritance with a vapor so dense that
the new proprietors were unable to approach it, and under its
cover his men gathered in the entire crop with perfect security.
This done, the mist disappeared.
Then his angry enemies assembled their swordsmen and
marched against him to take off his head. Such was their power
that the emperor fled out of Rome in fear, ‘‘. . .for they were
twelve senators that had all the world under them, and if Virgilius
had right, he had been one of the twelve, but they had
disinherited him and his mother.’’ When they drew near, Virgil
once more baffled their designs by encircling his patrimony
with cloud and shadow.
The emperor, with surprising inconsistency, now joined
forces with the senators against Virgil, whose magical powers
he should have feared far more than the rude force of the senatorial
magnates, and made war against him. But who can prevail
against the arts of necromancy Emperor and senators
were duly beaten, and from that moment Virgil, with marvelous
generosity, became the faithful friend and powerful supporter
of his sovereign.
It may not be generally known that Virgil, besides being the
savior of Rome, was supposed to be the founder of Naples. This
feat had its origin, like so many other great actions, in the
power of love.
Virgil’s imagination had been fired by the reports that
reached him of the surpassing loveliness of the sultan’s daughter.
Now the sultan lived at Babylon (that is, at Cairo, the ‘‘Babylon’’
of medieval romancers) and the distance might have
daunted a less ardent lover and less potent magician. But Virgil’s
necromantic skill was equal to magically raising a bridge
in the air, and, passing over it, he found his way into the sultan’s
palace and into the princess’s chamber. Speedily overcoming
her natural modesty, Virgil bore her back with him to
his Italian bower. There, he enjoyed his fill of love and pleasure,
then restored the princess to her bed in her father’s palace.
Meanwhile, her absence had been noted, but she was soon
discovered on her return, and the sultan, hastening to her
chamber, interrogated her respecting her disappearance. He
found that she did not know who had carried her off, nor where
she had been carried.
When Virgil abducted and restored the princess on the following
night, she took back with her, by her father’s instructions,
some fruit plucked from the enchanter’s garden, and
from its quality the sultan guessed that she had been carried to
a southern land ‘‘on the side of France.’’ These nocturnal journeys
being several times repeated and the sultan’s curiosity
growing ungovernable, he persuaded his daughter to give her
lover a sleeping draught. The deceived magician was then captured
in the Babylonian palace and flung into prison, and it was
decreed that both he and his mistress should be punished for
their love by death at the stake.
Necromancers are not so easily outwitted. As soon as Virgil
was apprised of the fate intended for him, he made, by force
of his spells, the sultan and all his lords believe that the mighty
Nilus, great river of Babylon, was overflowing in the midst of
them, and that they swam and lay and sprang like geese, and
so they took up Virgil and the princess, tore them from their
prison, and placed them upon the aerial bridge. And when they
were thus out of danger, Virgil delivered the sultan and all the
lords from the river, and when they recovered their wits they
saw the enchanter bearing the beautiful princess across the
Mediterranean, and they marveled and felt that they could not
hope to prevail against such supernatural power.
And in this manner Virgil conveyed the sultan’s daughter
over the sea to Rome. He was infatuated with her beauty, and,
‘‘Then he thought in his mind how he might marry her [apparently
forgetting that he was already married] and thought
in his mind to found in the midst of the sea a fair town with
great lands belonging to it; and so he did by his cunning, and
called it Naples. . .’’
After accomplishing so much for his Babylonian beauty, Virgil
did not marry her. He did endow her with the town of Naples
and its lands, and gave her in marriage to a certain grandee
of Spain. Having disposed of her, the enchanter returned
to Rome, collected all his treasures, and removed them to the
city he had founded, where he resided for some years and established
a school that speedily became of illustrious renown.
Here he lost his wife, by whom he had no issue, built baths and
bridges, and wrought the most extraordinary miracles. So
passed an uncounted number of years, and Virgil at length
abandoned Naples forever and retired to Rome.
Italian Witchcraft
In his Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches of Italy (1899) folklorist
Charles Godfrey Leland gives a valuable account of the life
and practice of the Italian strega, or witch, as described by a
Florentine hereditary witch named Maddalena. He states
‘‘In most cases she comes of a family in which her calling or
art has been practiced for many generations. I have no doubt
that there are instances in which the ancestry remounts to medieval,
Roman, or it may be Etruscan times. The result has naturally
been the accumulation in such families of much tradition.
But in Northern Italy, as its literature indicates, though
there has been some slight gathering of fairy tales and popular
superstitions by scholars, there has never existed the least interest
as regarded the strange lore of the witches, nor any suspicion
that it embraced an incredible quantity of old Roman
minor myths and legends, such as Ovid has recorded, but of
which much escaped him and all other Latin Writers. . .Even
yet there are old people in the Romagna of the North who
know the Etruscan names of the Twelve Gods, and invocations
to Bacchus, Jupiter, and Venus, Mercury, and the Lares or ancestral
spirits, and in the cities are women who prepare strange
amulets, over which they mutter spells, all known in the old
Roman time and who can astonish even the learned by their
legends of Latin gods, mingled with lore which may be found
in Cato or Theocritus. With one of these I became intimately
acquainted in 1886, and have ever since employed her specially
to collect among her sisters of the hidden spell in many places
all the traditions of the olden times known to them. It is true
that I have drawn from other sources but this woman by long
practice has perfectly learned what few understand, or just what
I want, and how to extract it from those of her kind.
‘‘Among other strange relics, she succeeded, after many
years, in obtaining the following ‘Gospel,’ which I have in her
handwriting. A full account of its nature with many details will
be found in an Appendix. I do not know definitely whether my
informant derived a part of these traditions from written
sources or oral narration, but believe it was chiefly the
latter. . .
‘‘For brief explanation I may say that witchcraft is known to
its votaries as la vecchia religione, or the old religion, of which
Diana is the Goddess, her daughter Aradia (or Herodias) the female
Messiah, and that this little work sets forth how the latter
was born, came down to earth, established witches and witchcraft,
and then returned to heaven. With it are given the ceremonies
and invocations or incantations to be addressed to
Diana and Aradia, the exorcism of Cain, and the spells of the
holy-stone, rue, and verbena, constituting, as the text declares,
the regular church service, so to speak, which is to be chanted
or pronounced at the witch meetings. There are also included
ITALY Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
the very curious incantations or benedictions of the honey,
meal, and salt, or cakes of the witch-supper, which is curiously
classical, and evidently a relic of the Roman Mysteries.’’
Briefly, in discussing the ritual of the Italian witches, Leland
reports that at the Sabbath they take meal and salt, honey and
water, and say a conjuration over these, one to the meal, one
to the salt, one to Cain, and one to Diana, the moon goddess.
They then sit down naked to supper, men and women, and
after the feast is over they dance, sing, and make love in the
darkness, quite in the manner of the medieval Sabbath of the
sorcerers. Many charms are given connected with stones, especially
if these have holes in them and are found by accident. A
lemon stuck full of pins we are told is a good omen. Love spells
fill a large space in the little work, which for the rest recounts
several myths of Diana and Endymion in corrupted form.
Leland’s interesting book was one of the major sources used
by Gerald B. Gardner in his reconstruction of witchcraft in the
1940s and served as a model for the Book of Shadows, which
modern witches claim as a traditional descent in their covens.
An early indication of the rise and spread of Spiritualism
in Italy was surveyed in an article published in Civitta Catholica,
the well-known Roman organ entitled ‘‘Modern Necromancy.’’
It concluded,
‘‘1st. Some of the phenomena may be attributed to imposture,
hallucinations, and exaggerations in the reports of those
who describe it, but there is a foundation of reality in the general
sum of the reports which cannot have originated in pure invention
or be wholly discredited without ignoring the value of
universal testimony.
’’2nd. The bulk of the theories offered in explanation of the
proven facts, only cover a certain percentage of those facts, but
utterly fail to account for the balance.
‘‘3rd. Allowing for all that can be filtered away on mere
human hypotheses, there are still a large class of phenomena
appealing to every sense which cannot be accounted for by any
known natural laws, and which seem to manifest the action of
intelligent beings.’’
The famous medium D. D. Home visited the principal cities
of Italy in 1852 and was so active in his propaganda that numerous
circles were formed after his departure. Violent journalistic
controversies arose out of the foundation of these societies,
with the result that public interest was so aroused that it
could only be satisfied with the publication of a paper on the
subject. It was titled Il amore del Vero, issued from Geneva and
edited by Pietro Suth and B. E. Manieri. In this journal accounts
of the spiritual movements in the various countries of
Europe, and the United States were published although the
church and press leveled anathemas against the journal.
In the spring of 1863, a society was founded at Palermo
named Il Societa Spiritual di Palermo, which had for its president
J. V. Paleolozo, and such members as Paolo Morelle, professor
of Latin and philosophy.
It was about the autumn of 1864 that lectures were first
given on Spiritualist subjects in Italy. They were started in Leghorn
and Messina, and although of a very mixed character and
often partaking largely of the lecturer’s peculiar idiosyncrasies
on religious subjects, they served to draw attention to the upheaval
of thought going on in all directions, in connection with
the revelations from the spirit world.
In the year 1870, over a hundred different societies were
formed, with varying success, in different parts of Italy. Two of
the most prominent flourishing at that date were conducted in
Naples, and according to the French journal Revue Spirite, represented
the two opposing schools that have prevailed in Spiritualism,
namely, those who accepted the idea of reincarnation—associated
with the Spiritism of Allan Kardec from
France—and those who looked for the continued upward
progress of the soul, known in America and England merely as
About 1868, the cause of Spiritualism was energized (at least
in the higher strata of Italian society) by the visit of Samuel
Guppy and his wife Agnes Guppy-Volckman to Naples, where
they took up residence for two or three years. Guppy-Volckman
was known throughout Europe for her physical mediumship.
Drawing upon Guppy’s wealth and social standing, she was able
to place her performance at the command of the distinguished
visitors who crowded his salons. It soon became a matter of notoriety
that the most exalted individuals in the land, including
King Victor Emmanuel and many of his nearest friends and
counselors, had become convinced of the truth of the phenomena
exhibited through her mediumship.
About the year 1863 Spiritualism began to enjoy the advantage
of positive representation in the columns of a new paper
named the Annali dello Spiritismo (Annals of Spiritualism). This
journal was published in Turin by Niceforo Filalete. The columns
of the Annali recorded that a Venetian Society of Spiritualists
named ‘‘Atea’’ elected General Giuseppe Garibaldi their
honorary president, and received the following reply by telegraph
from the distinguished hero, the liberator of Italy,
‘‘I gratefully accept the presidency of the Society Atea. Caprera,
23rd September.’’
The same issue of the Annali contained a verbatim report of
a ‘‘grand discourse, given at Florence, by a distinguished literary
gentleman, Signor Sebastiano Fenzi, in which the listeners
were considerably astonished by a rehearsal of the many illustrious
names of those who openly avowed their faith in Spiritualism.’’
The years 1863–64 appear to have been rich in Spiritualist
efforts. Besides a large number of minor associations, (their existence
was recorded from time to time in the early numbers of
the Annali and Revue Spirite), about this time the Magnetic Society
of Florence was formed. It would continue for many years
to exert a marked influence in promoting the study of occult
forces and phenomena. Seymour Kirkup, well known to the
early initiators of Spiritualism, resided in Florence and contributed
many records of spiritual phenomena to the London Spiritual
Magazine. Nearly ten years after the establishment of the
Magnetic Society of Florence, Baron Guitern de Bozzi, an eminent
occultist, founded the Pneumatological Psychological
Academy of Florence, but it was discontinued after his death.
Psychical Research and Parapsychology
In Italy, the divisions between Spiritualism and psychical research
have tended to be blurred. Many eminent psychical researchers
were sympathetic to Spiritualism if not actually endorsing
its beliefs. One of the most famous investigators was
the psychiatrist and criminologist Cesare Lombroso
(1836–1909) who was convinced by the evidence for survival
after death. Marco Tullio Falcomer, who conducted experiments
with the famous physical medium Florence Cook, was a
Spiritualist, as was also Enrico Morselli (1852–1929) who had
investigated the phenomena of the medium Eusapia Palladino
Among other Italian psychical researchers were Giovanni
Batista Ermacora (1869–98), Enrico Imoda (who investigated
the phenomena of Linda Gazzera), P. B. Bianchi, Angelo Brofferio
(who became a Spiritualist), Ercole Chiaia, Philippe Bottazzi,
Augusto Tamburini, and Rocco Santoliquido
(1854–1930), who played a part in the founding of the Institut
Métapsychique in Paris. Later researchers were Ernesto Bozzano
(1862–1943), Giovanni Pioli of Milan, Lidio Cipriani of
the University of Naples, William McKenzie of Genoa, Count
Cesar Baudi De Vesme (1862–1938), Ferdinando Cazzamalli
of Como, Fabio Vitali, G. C. Trabacchi, and Sante de Sanctis.
In 1901, the Società di Studi Psichici (Society of Psychic
Studies) was founded in Milan. It was responsible for investigations
of the mediums Augustus Politi, Eusapia Palladino and
Lucia Sordi.
In 1937, the Società Italiana di Metapsichica (Italian Society
of Metapsychics) was founded in Rome, in memory of Charles
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. ITALY
Richet, the noted French psychical researcher. In 1946, one
group from the society headed by Ferdinando Cazzamalli
formed the Association di Metapsichica, in Milan; at a later
date the name was changed to Società Italiana di Parapsicologia,
replacing the older term ‘‘metapsychics’’ with ‘‘parapsychology.’’
It is currently headed by Emilio Servadio, at Via
de Montecatini 7, 00186 Rome. The quarterly journal Metapsichica
Rivista Italiana di Parapsicologia is the official organ of the
Associazione Italiana Scientifica di Metapsichica headquartered
at Via 5 Vittore, 19-20123 Milano.
Another active organization is the Centro Studi Parapsicologici
(Center for Parapsychological Studies) established in
Bologna in 1948, directed by Piero Cassoli. Other organizations
include the Facoltà di Scienze Psichiche e Psicologiche
(Faculty of Psychic and Psychological Sciences) of Academia Tiberina,
established in 1960 (which may be reached at Via del
Vantaggio 22, Rome), the Centro Italiano di Studi Metapsichici
(Italian Center of Metapsychic Studies) founded in Pavia in
1968, which has conducted studies in psychic healing (and may
be reached at Via Calascione 5A, Naples), and the Centro
Studi Parapsicologici de Bologna, Via Tamagno 2, Bologna.
Among periodicals the oldest is Luce e Ombre (Light and
Shadow) founded in 1900 in Rome, edited from January 1932
from Milan under the title Ricerca Psichica. The journal Uomini
e Idee (Men and Ideas) was launched in Naples in 1959 and in
1965 it was replaced by Informazioni di Parapsicologia (Parapsychology
News) as a publication of the Centro Italiano di Parapsicologia.
Since then, Luce e Ombra has been published quarterly
by dell’Associazione Archivio di Documentazione Storica
della Ricerca Psichica. Address Bozzano-De Boni, Via Orfeo,
15, 40214 Bologna. The Fondazione Biblioteca Bozzano-DeBoni,
with the Bozzano-DeBoni Library Foundation, is located at Via
Guglielmo Marconi, 8-40122 Bologna. The website for the
foundation is httpwww2.comune.bologna.itfbibbdbsiti.htm.
The foundation and research library is devoted primarily to
psychical research and parapsychology, and was initially collected
by Ernesto Bozzano (1862–1943) and Gastone De Boni
(1908–1986) who were both recognized scholars in paranormal
phenomenonology. It is a nonprofit association. DeBoni was
responsible for reviving Luce e Ombra following the interruption
of the war years from 1940 to 1946. In 2000, the publication
celebrated the hundredth anniversary, and four volumes containing
several of the articles throughout the hundred years
were being published. A congress was held on June 3, 2000 also
in celebration of this long pursuit.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical &
Parranormal Experience. San Francisco HarperSan Francisco,
The Wonderful History of Virgilius The Sorcerer of Rome. London
Daure Nutt, 1893.