I first met Lori Bruno fifteen years ago while working as a reporter in Salem, Massachusetts’s, covering the so-called Witch City’s mix of art, maritime history along with its vibrant pagan community. At the time Bruno, 68, was introduced to me as a true Italian strega, one who practiced Sicilian witchcraft. Bruno, had just opened a new shop in town and I was asked to cover it for a story. Having grown up in a religious home where even the Smurfs were forbidden for their mystical influence, I had some negative preconceived ideas about witchcraft. But, during a sit-down visit to her home, Bruno quickly won me over. With her broad smile and Boston accent, she felt instantly familiar, like a long-lost Italian relative I’d never met. She called me, “Bella”, made me tea and we chatted for hours in her kitchen about our common southern Italian roots and strange Italian superstitions.
When my editor at Italian America recently assigned me a story on La Befana I joked that I knew the real-life Befana and offered to call her up. An online search yielded Bruno’s phone number, and soon we were chatting like no time had passed. These days- after a covid-induced hiatus- the eighty one year old witch is back to giving psychic readings and running her Salem shop Magika that sells books, candles, and other new age merchandise.
It’s no surprise the long-time witch is thriving. Bruno’s combination of grandmotherly warmth, Italian folk magic and psychic ability has garnered her much attention through the past five decades including a spread in The Wall Street Journal ten years ago during the housing crisis, when she was hired by new home-owners to perform cleansing rituals on foreclosed homes believed to hold bad vibes.
A second-generation Italian whose parents hailed from Sicily and Naples, Bruno grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s in a neighborhood rich in cultural diversity. Immigrant neighbors, many of them Italian, would regularly come to her house to visit her mother who was known for her healing powers. “She would take away headaches and say prayers for the Evil Eye,” Bruno recalls. “She would do readings and tell people about the dead.”
Bruno’s own first supernatural experience came at age 12 when she looked over at a classmate in school and suddenly experienced a vision accompanied by a cold chill.
“Her lower back looked gray,” Bruno recalls. “I went home and told my mom and she said that little girl had cancer of the kidneys.”
Over the years, Bruno has built up her psychic albitites, using them to help the community. After working for NASA for nearly ten years in the 1960’s creating technical drawings, she gave up her career and devoted herself fulltime to psychic service. Since then, she has worked with police to find missing people, counseled married couples and cast fertility spells for barren women.
Several years ago, a woman came to her unable to conceive and asked for help having a baby boy. Bruno accompanied her to a fertility treatment. “The doctor came in and I was giving her unsalted cashews,” Bruno remembers, adding, “have you noticed cashews look like a fetus?” While the doctor performed treatment, Bruno casts a spell she believes helped the woman conceive.
“She had a boy,” She concludes. “I am the child’s godmother. [The couple] is Christian but they have a Strega Nona.”
Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?
Bruno’s healing practices are a witch’s brew of cultural beliefs; Roman, Egyptian and Catholic statues all fill her Salem home. A typical work day may include prayers to Michael the Archangel, the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the Black Madonna, a dark-skinned version of the virgin Mary that many believe holds unique healing powers. Bruno keeps a lit candle in front of the Black Madonna at all times and prays regularly to “the great mother”, before performing healing rituals.
Bruno attributes her healing powers to her Sicilian roots. The island’s cultural diversity through the centuries, she says, has made it fertile ground for magic. “At one time Sicily was a mix of Jews and Italians,” she reflects. “The Jews know all about bad magic, good magic. On the kabbalistic tree of light witchcraft exists in the first three triads. Low magic works with earth currents and herbs. When you want to learn more, you climb the ladder. My family learned more.”
According to Bruno, two kinds of magic were practiced in Italy with the earliest recorded references to witchcraft dating to the sixteenth century when many -mostly peasants-were put to death for their beliefs. Benandanti, Bruno says, is magicfocused on healing and blessing people; historically, those who practiced it blessed crops, marriages, babies being born. Melandante, on the other hand, focuses on inflicting harm on others. One of the most well-known Italian superstitions, malocchio, or the Evil Eye is believed to be brought on by an insincere compliment when someone secretly envies another’s qualities or possessions. It reveals itself in the form of a headache and can only be cured by someone gifted with healing abilities, usually a woman who whispers a secret prayer.
As a healer, Bruno has often helped relieve people of malocchio. The process she says involves pouring three drops of olive oil into a bowl along with a sprinkle of salt. She then punctures the drops of oil with a lit match and waits for the oil to form a line or a circle, which indicates the gender of the person who brought on the bad luck. The person is then blessed with a secret prayer. In Italy, Bruno says, the most superstitious have learned to ward off the evil eye before it happens, wearing talismans or making the symbol of horns with their hand.
I’m not sure how I feel about the Evil Eye, but I know I carry superstitions of my own. The last time I saw Lori Bruno for our kitchen interview, I remember being surprised when at the end, she took down a painted Italian pitcher from a shelf and handed it to me as a parting gift. Convinced the vessel may hold some secret spell, I left it on the “free” table in the newspaper’s employee break room.
These days, I like to think I’m a little more open-minded. Having never experienced a psychic reading, I decided recently to give it a try and asked Bruno for a phone consult.
The results were amazingly right-on. After giving a creepily good read of my love life, she honed in on other things, saying “You will always be creative. I see things growing all around you.” Then, at the end, in typical Strega Nona style, she added, “I love you, Honey. God Bless.”
La Befana, Italy’s Witch of Winter
Who needs Santa Claus, the stodgy old man on the sleigh when there’s an Italian witch on a broomstick to brings presents to the bambini? La Befana, according to age-old Italian legend and tradition, makes her appearance on January 6, the day the Wise Men are believed to have arrived at baby Jesus’ manger. This day, known as The Feast of the Epiphany, is a national holiday and marks the end of twelve days of Christmas and New Years’ festivities.
The Night of La Befana was mentioned as early as 1549 in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola where she was portrayed as an ugly old woman flying over houses on a broomstick, entering through the chimneys and leaving sweets for good children, or garlic and coal for bad ones.
La Befana’s roots are a mix of pagan and Christian beliefs. Some scholars believe her story originated with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a pagan celebration starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans went to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their fortunes read by an old crone.
Others point to her Christian roots. “Her name derives from the word for epiphany, Epifania,” says Art History professor Rocky Ruggiero. “Legend has it that she showed the three magi hospitality on their way to Bethlehem.”
According to folklore, La Befana was invited to join the Wise Men on their journey to find the Christ child, but declined their invitation, choosing to stay home and attend to her housework. Later, when she realized the child’s importance, she regretted her decision. Legend has it that ever since she’s roamed the earth searching for the Wise Men, rewarding good children and gently admonishing the bad.
Unlike Santa Claus (Or Babbo Natale as he’s called in Italy) La Befana has been a holiday tradition in Italy since the 13th century. Though some Italians embrace the American tradition of Santa Claus, Christmas in Italy is far less commercialized, and La Befana remains a more popular figure. Her arrival on January 6th is celebrated with traditional Italian foods such as panettone and special cakes and cookies called befani. In honor of the Three Wise Men, Italians go to church and enjoy spending the day with family. Children who have been good receive candy, and those who’ve misbehaved get lumps of coal – or these days, more likely, black rock candy.
La Befana is most associated with Rome and central Italy but the custom spread to the rest of the country during the 20th century. Today there are festivals throughout Italy, including a four day festival from January 2-6 in in Urbania in Le Marche region, and a large Befana Christmas market in Rome’s Piazza Navona.
Salem strega Lori Bruno feels a special kinship to La Befana, reaching out to her when she encounters a mother or child in need. “Now that I’m a grandmother I talk to her; I say Befana we need you to help the children.”
Am I the only one who finds this phrase liberating? A tyranny of choices reduced to the lowest common denominator, a frosted cake cut in half, then in half again, and again until all that’s left is one manageable slice.
My body, a restless cat always pacing, is forced to rest for the first time, an epitaph floating like a silent film caption over my head: She did not find, she created her own happy place.
For me it’s like someone just gave me one square of an endless rolling lawn and asked me to plant on it a vineyard, winding clusters of plum and gold that call me up, up like Jack’s beanstalk closer toward dreams, showing me my ideas don’t need acres to grow, only inches, not weeks of sunlight or exotic soil, just the dim glow of a 75 watt light bulb in a familiar room.
Shelter in place to me is a challenge: If I can’t leave my country, my state, my house, what world can I create for myself? Like Aslan breathing life into Narnia, I conjure up an oak tree for shade, a lemonade to cool, a book to comfort with words touching in paragraphs, that defy social distance, that step in line together without fear even as supermarket clerks count bodies like apples, placing them in cleanly spaced rows.
Shelter in place. To me it’s a call to root, and root I do, using my Covid check to buy a new couch, the first couch I’ve ever bought for the first place of my own in half a decade. It’s a teal couch, a vintage Chesterfield with silver pins along the arms that sparkle like marquesite, a couch that invites a body not just to shelter, but to lounge like Rita Hayworth in a red dress on her belly, high heels kicked up, the way starlets lounged on the screen before women traded in livelihoods for careers. Before Instagram and instant messages captured everyone’s deliciously idle moments and families started spreading out across the country, leaving each other in search of what? Adventure? Change? The American Dream?
Shelter in place. Another way to say build a nest. Gather up bits of colored string, all the precious things of past and present, weave them together, then crawl inside, button down the hatches and hunker down.
Shelter in Place. To me it’s a license to stretch out like a cat in a pool of sunlight, eyes closed. Not an order so much as a wish whispered between lovers in darkness God bless. Sleep tight. Sweet dreams.
That first winter in Vermont, how dark and quiet the streets were in the small town. How unkind. Winding off without sidewalks into desolate fields of snow, coyotes wailing just beyond the widow’s lonely backyard grave. One night, cloaked in solitude like a traveler from another land, I followed one small sidewalk through the town center, past the general store, the toy shop, the B and B, sliding my boots into the crisp footprints of others, past houses with sleeping children tucked behind closed doors like angels in an advent calendar until I came to a church lit up in the night, a creche of painted figures beckoning. Mary’s face beneath the blue veil was so inviting. I stood there along with the shepherds for nearly a half hour, watching the baby with arms outstretched as if to receive my winter prayer.
At 26 years old, having finished a five-month stint working as a nanny in Salerno, I celebrated my newfound freedom by renting a Fiat with a friend and heading south. The rocky Amalfi Coast’s bustling port towns gave way to verdant hills dotted with olive trees and farmhouses. My companion, a cheerful New Zealander named Arian- na, was also a nanny whom I’d met just a few weeks earlier when we were both flirting with the same Italian guy at the local tourism office. No romance came out of our efforts, but a much- needed friendship formed. Finally, after a long summer of raucous family dinners where my Italian vocabulary ran out before the pasta was served, I had found an English-speaking friend to share the joys and challenges of navigating Italian culture.
Our first stop was Alberobello, a UNESCO site known for its 14th century limestone houses—or trul- li—whose conical rooftops resemble mushrooms. Thousands of trulli filled the narrow streets, forming a white- washed wonderland, each one bearing its own rooftop symbol painted in white on the gray stones. Suns, hearts, and moons decorated the rooftops. What did they mean? During my brief visit, I never learned.
Arianna and I rented a trullo for the night—the perfect cozy setting for sharing stories. Red wine flowed along with tales of failed romances and pointed remarks on Italian families.
“Why do they call it a matrimonia bed anyway?” I asked, plopping down on one of the full-sized beds. “It’s not just for couples. In the house where I lived the entire family slept together every night. Two parents, one cat, and three kids!”
Late into the night our laughter filled the one-roomed chamber, echo- ing off the round stone ceiling. For the first time in five months, I felt warm, connected, and at home.
Now, nearly two decades later and cooped up during the pandemic, my memories of this road trip spark wanderlust. What would a road trip through the south be like these days? What other architectural wonders lay waiting to be discovered? To shed light on my wonderings, I consulted Art and Architecture Professor Rocky
THE CAVE CHURCHES OF MATERA
The south is unique, D’Andria says, because it forms a crossway between East and West. Many cultures have dominated this area through the cen- turies—Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Ottomans, Germans, and Spanish. All have left their mark on the south’s art, culture, and traditions.
No visit to the Deep South would be complete without a visit to Matera, situated in the Basilicata region on the instep of the boot’s heel. Narrow streets climb up to this otherworldly city built on a hill, its houses formed within ancient caves. Matera’s re- semblance to Jerusalem has earned it a place in many Biblical films and Classical with North-European Cistercian Gothic. The majestic build- ing is a testimony to Frederick’s fas- cination with astronomy and science. Shaped like an octagonal prism, the castle is located in a carefully chosen manner to invite symmetries of light during the winter and summer sol- stice. Frederick’s love of numbers is also evident, as both of the castle’s floors contain eight rooms and an eight-sided courtyard forms the heart of the castle.
No one knows exactly why Frederick constructed Castel del Monte. It has no moat, no arrow slits, and no drawbridge—it was not built to serve as a fortress. With its octagonal union of a square inside a circle, some specu- late it was built to be a celebration of the interconnecting relationship between humanity and God.
throughout the years. The city’s cave dwellings, or sassi, date back to the Paleolithic period more than 2.5 mil- lion years ago. Despite unseemly living conditions, up to 12 family members lived together in one room. The sassi were inhabited up until the 1950s, when the government stepped in and forced people to leave their homes and move into a newly constructed neighborhood. In later decades, the sassi received a facelift, and now most of its 3,000 caves serve as home for the city’s inhabitants while many oth- ers function as restaurants and hotels.
Lovers of antiquity will no doubt enjoy simply wandering the city’s many serpentine alleys and climbing its winding staircases. But to get the full experience, one must duck inside one of many cave churches. With their shadowy stone chambers rich in frescoes, they are a mix of haunt- ing and holy, beautiful and beatific. The largest of them, San Pietro Bari- sano, dates back to the 12th century and is particularly spooky as its altar was plundered in the 1970s and the surrounding statues were rendered headless. Visitors are greeted at the church entrance by frescoes of the Annunciation and the saints. Explor- ing the underground area where a
labyrinth of stone niches forms an ancient catacomb, one can say they’ve truly experienced Matera—the Citta Sotterranea, or Underground City.
FREDERICK II’S CASTLE
The Puglia region’s culture and architecture have been greatly shaped by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Though he had German and Nor- man blood, Frederick II lived in Bari for many years and considered Italy, particularly Puglia, his home. During his time as emperor, he transformed Puglia’s landscape by having numer- ous castles constructed throughout. By far, the most magnificent of these is Castel del Monte, located northwest of Bari.
Frederick II, besides being a skilled hunter and passionate traveler, was a great lover of art and science.
“He was an enlightened man,” says Art and Architecture Professor Rocky Ruggiero. “The fact that he settled in Bari meant that artists and musicians came there. There was a 13th-century flowering in that area because of the presence of the imperial court.”
Castel del Monte, which is pic- tured on Italy’s one-cent Euro coin, is unique because it combines diverse styles of architecture, mixing Islamic
Southern Italy may not contain Tuscany’s Renaissance treasures, but it boasts its own version of Florence and a cathedral that rivals Florence’s finest frescoed churches. The city of Lecce has been called “The Florence of the South” with its baroque old town adorned with noble palaces, charming squares, baroque churches, and Roman monuments.
The Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina, a town south of Lecce, has an array of vibrant 14th-century frescoes. The church was built by the Franciscans, whose patron was Frenchwoman Marie d’Enghien de Brienne. De Brienne was married to Raimondello Orsini del Balzo, a wealthy noble who traveled to Mount Sinai to visit the relics of Santa Cateri- na. After kissing the dead saint’s hand, he bit off a finger and brought it back to the basilica as a holy relic. Though the finger has since disappeared from the basilica, del Balzo remains—as it is where he’s buried.
The cathedral exhibits a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Norman, and Byzantine architecture. Its interior is entirely covered in frescoes painted by Neapolitan artists, which are said to rival Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. One of the most unique frescoes depicts angel musicians holding an array of medi- eval instruments—the oldest recorded depiction of harps, double flutes, and lutes in Europe.
THE TRULLI OF ALBEROBELLO
But what about Alberobello’s mystical dwellings and their strange symbols? According to Ruggiero, the
houses began as small agricultural con- structions built by shepherds tending their flocks in the fields. Constructed by placing rock over rock, the impro- vised huts protected them from the blazing southern sun.
“Later,” D’Andria continues, “the town’s peasants adopted the trullo’s construction when the King of Naples imposed a tax on new constructions.”
“It was then necessary to build something temporary, easy to dis- mantle, that could not be considered a regular permanent home,” D’Andria points out. The townsfolk adapted the shepherds’ trullo to their needs, the weather and everyday life. Being superstitious, the homeowners added symbols on the conical rooftops to protect them from the evil eye and bad luck.
“The symbols can be very differ- ent,” D’Andria says. “A cross, a dove, a sun, moon, star, menorah, a letter, a tree, but they all have the same aim: to protect the trullo and its inhabitants.”
Architecture aside, the regions of Puglia and Basilicata offer many gas- tronomical treasures for foodies and wine lovers. Ruggiero, who lived in Tuscany for 20 years, said he prefers to buy his olive oil from Puglia. In Tuscany, olive trees are trimmed to a smaller size yielding a more refined taste, whereas in Puglia they’re al- lowed to grow wild resulting in a fruitier, spicier flavor. Dotting the southern landscape, the olive trees are architectural gems all their own.
“Giant, gnarly, centuries old … they’re like works of art,” Ruggiero says. “The form they take is breathtaking.”
Click the link below to read Caves to Castles in Italian America’s Summer 2021 issue