In July 2000, the Museo Archeologico in Perugia opened a permanent exhibition of amulets collected by Giovanni Bellucci (1844-1921), a scientist and researcher who had been the Museum’s director for many years. In the first decades of the twentieth century, while Bellucci was running his investigation on the popular beliefs and religious practices of rural communities in Central and Southern Italy, he noticed that there were still strong residual cultural elements from a distant past that especially shaped the lives of societies of lower status, as the myriad of objects he conscientiously began to accumulate eventually testified.
He identified the items he had gathered as markers of social class, and a barrier for the less educated and the poor who seemed unable to escape from a world of superstition and false beliefs. While over the centuries the official state religion has always been Catholicism, Bellucci realized that for people of the lower strata there had been a gradual process of melding of pre-Christian practices and even Paganism with religious practices, and that this was a widespread phenomenon. In a context such this, where the lives of people were scarcely touched by ‘progress’, deep-rooted traditions and enduring practices had determined the daily life of many over centuries.
The amulets are displayed on tables, grouped according to criteria such as the materials of which they were made, but also according to the functions and uses of each item. Thus the collection opens with amulets dating back to the Neolithic, such as the flints (it. selci), which were believed to protect against extreme and adverse weather events, such as lightning or hail, which would have been perilous to the soil and the crops. There are also amulets related to the fundamental transition phases of human life, like engagement, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and death. The exhibition continues with amulets against the evil eye (it. malocchio), therapeutic objects, amulets for good luck, and for protecting pets and animals used for work in the fields. Relevant to our research, are three types of objects, that have particularly caught my attention: the Agnus Dei , the coral branches (rami di corallo) and peculiar types of amulets called brevi. All items are traditionally associated with the religious life: in fact, they are imbued with syncretism between religious practices and magical beliefs, the latter in particular.
Agnus Dei were objects of devotion that were blessed with a special rite by the Supreme Pontiff, bearing the imprint on one of the faces of the paschal lamb. The Agnus Dei were made from the candle burned during the Easter celebration of the previous year; the wax was first melted with heat, then oil was added, the mixture blessed and poured into molds to create an oval shaped white wax disk, like the ones you can see in the photos next to some wax crosses.
At the edge of the oval the formula: ‘Ecce Agnus Dei, qui tollit peccata mundi’ was written. The other side was used to imprint image of one or more saints, but it is not infrequent to find inscriptions, sacred symbols, or even the coat of arms of the pope. The Agnus Dei were then distributed during the Octave of Easter, and were believed to have not only the properties to remit sins and confer upon the wearer any grace he/she wished to ask, but also to protect from the evil anyone that with true faith and devotion would carry them on his/her own person.
The branches of coral collected by Bellucci were mounted in silver and are examples of amulets par excellence. In popular belief they were regarded as being particularly effective against common fears, such as the evil eye.
The idea that the eye could convey every good and bad feeling, but also particularly ominous and envious feelings towards one person’s good look, or health, prosperity, or happiness formed the basis of this belief. The origin of specific critical states of some people hit by these destructive ‘flows’ was thus attributed to an evil desire, which was realized through an envious glance. It was believed that coral interrupted this evil spring of feelings.
Other charms presented in the display in considerable quantity are those linked to the preservation of health, especially several ‘therapeutic bags’ (it. sacchettini terapeutici), and other propitiatory trinkets like the ones you see in the picture above.
However, the objects that most intrigued me, in conjunction with the fact that they represent the perfect syncretism between popular beliefs, magic and religion are the contents of the sacchettini terapeutici.
Made of different shapes, colours and materials the sacchettini were small cloth bags which could be attached to one’s neck by means of a thin string, containing amuletic objects as well as strips of paper or similar material on which were written brevi, brief formulas that should protect the person who carried them.
As a written note, often containing a prayer, or passages from the Holy Scriptures, kept rolled up or folded, the breve is akin to the various magic-religious writings of the medieval West. But the distinctive feature of the breve is the fact that for its contents to be truly effective, it must not be read; in fact, a breve must not be opened, and such bans were reinforced by sealing systems, so to read a breve always meant to ‘profane’ it.
The specimen that has mostly struck my imagination is a fragment of the so-called Nail of the Great Beast (it. Unghia della Gran Bestia), which is in truth a fragment of an elk’s hoof engraved in silver, featuring Christian inscriptions on the edges. In the Middle Ages the hoof of the elk was reputed to have therapeutic characteristics, almost exclusively related to the treatment of epilepsy (it. mal caduco). It is known that the Emperor Charles V (the same one on whose empire ‘the sun never sets’) – who in his youth had notoriously suffered from seizures – at the entrance to Naples in 1537, wore on his chest, next to the skin, a amulet that contained some pieces of elk’s hoof against the ‘falling sickness’.
(Images courtesy of Alessia Meneghin, all rights reserved)