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Italy’s most haunted

We have looked at spooky houses and chilling castles, told their stories about ghosts, death and paranormal activities. But ethereal creatures and demonic presences are all for infesting every place they can put their deadly hands upon, so it comes as no surprise to know there are monasteries, hospitals, islands (!) considered cursed.

Of course, the US have plenty of these places… I do have a passion for the paranormal and the spooky, so I am pretty familiar with loads of American ghosts hunting series, yet my favorite moment in ghost-centered television comes from a UK show which, I believe, also aired in the US: Most Haunted. A bunch of years ago, the crew came to Italy for a seven days live investigation, during the week leading to Halloween. It hit on Turin, a city I love and know well (as you guys know, I am a proud Piedmontese), as well as Lucedio. Shortly after, they visited Poveglia, in Veneto. Those were *amazing* television moments, I am telling you.

Go ahead, you can judge my poor tastes in tv. I will not get offended.

Fact is those Most Haunted episodes investigated the very places we will explore together today: Turin is universally considered a cradle of both white and black magic, and a power hub of esoterism, with plenty of spooky places to confirm her fame. Poveglia has a tragic history behind its supposed demonic haunting and even a possible vampire buried on its grounds. Lucedio has been tied to nothing less than Satan and the mental asylum of Aguscello, near Ferrara, has a tragic and mysterious history, rooted in a sad, heartbreaking reality. The case of our last location, the church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio in Rome, is a bit different: it is not a haunted place, but rather, home to a peculiar and slightly unsettling museum.

Let us take a closer, creepier look…

Piemonte: Torino, città magica

The river Po and La Gran Madre di Dio church, in Turin. The latter is considered a powerful esoteric spot
The river Po and La Gran Madre di Dio church, in Turin. The latter is considered a powerful esoteric spot (angel/flickr)

It is not simple to condense in a couple of paragraphs all that has been said and written about Turin and her relationship with the occult. Those believing in the magical characteristics of the city, say her origins and her geographical location are behind them and that Turin has always been a hub of occult energies.

Since the very beginning of her millennial history, Turin has been associated with magic and mystery. Legend says it was founded by the son of the goddess Isis, Phaeton, to honor the cult of Apis, which had the features of a bull, the animal that was to become the very symbol of Turin. Built at the confluence of two rivers, the Po and the Dora, it absorbs all the liminal energy that comes with water: while running through the city, the two rivers form a “Y” and this is of some relevance to Turin’s magic city cred, because the letter symbolizes the Good-Evil duality in both Nature and Man.

For these reasons, Turin found itself at the centre of good and evil esoterical powers and became part of both the triangle of black magic, formed by Turin, London and San Francisco, and that of white magic, with Turin, Lyon and Prague at its edges.

Specific locations around the city are associated to stories and legends, all related to the supernatural. The Gran Madre di Dio‘s church, for instance, is surrounded by mystery and curious anecdotes: its architecture is highly reminiscent of pagan temples, reason for which many believed the building was, in fact, dedicated to a pagan deity and not to the Mother of God, as its name says. The fact the statues by its façade have classical features only appeared to proof the rumour. Those very same statues are at the centre of another legend, which sees the Holy Grail buried in the city. The presence of the Grail in Turin seems to be connected with that of the Holy Shroud and the statue on the left hand side of the Gran Madre is, apparently, looking towards the place where the Grail is hidden. This is, believers say, proven by the fact the figure holds a cup in her hand.

The black heart of Turin is said to lay around Piazza Statuto: this beautiful square has a history of death and gloom behind, as it used to be where executions would take place. It is also on the western part of the city, the west being considered where light ends and darkness begins. Here, underneath an obelisk (that has three twins in specific locations around the city), the doors of Hell open. At the very centre of the piazza is the Fontana del Fréjus, dedicated to the creation and the Fréjus tunnel: nothing creepy, you think? Well, what about the fact many believe the angel standing on top of it is, actually, Satan?

Last, but not least in this oh-so-brief excursus on the magical and the spooky of Turin are the Grotte Alchemiche (Turin’s Alchemic Caves). Situated right underneath Palazzo Madama, in Piazza Castello, these caves are supposed to be where all the esoterical energies converging on the city meet. According to the legend, there are three of them and they are almost impossible to reach, because Turin’s underground repletes with tunnels and secret passages (this is, in fact, true), in part created to confuse people and protect the caves. If you were lucky enough to find one of them, you would see your thoughts, hopes and – alas – fears materialize. It is said that Prince Umberto of Savoia managed to reach the first one and, once there, thought about his biggest fear, being assasinated. He was killed in Monza a bunch of days later.


Piemonte: Lucedio, the Abbey where demons are imprisoned

Lucedio is today well maintained and welcomes tourists
Lucedio is today well maintained and welcomes tourists (Marco Frisio)

Some kilometers north of Turin, in the province of Vercelli (itself believed to be a place with some close attachments to the unknown) is the Principato di Lucedio. Today, this old abbey has been transformed in an “azienda agricola” (an organic farm) which also opens to the public for visits, receptions and cooking classes: a far cry from the legends and stories surrounding the place since medieval times.

Let us start with some short notions of history: the Abbazia di Santa Maria di Lucedio was founded at the beginning of the 12th century by cistercian monks coming from France. The lands upon which the complex was to be built were donated by the marquis of Monferrato: these were boggy, wild terrains called locally locez, from which comes the very name of the village and the abbey, Lucedio. I mention this because many believe “Lucedio” comes from “Lucifero,” Lucifer, hence finding a link between the place and the Devil in its very toponym. Things went well for the abbey until the end of the 18th century when heavy issues with the diocese eventually brought to its closure.

And now prepare to get spooked. According to legends, the reason the diocese was not happy with the monks at Lucedio was they were a lascivious bunch of Satan worshippers. Apparently, about a century earlier, a group of witches held a sabbath in the nearby cemetery of Darola, today abandoned but still extant, during which the Prince of Darkness materialized himself. Realizing there was a peaceful place of worship nearby (Lucedio) he decided to make it his own. He did so by possessing the young novices of the convent of Trino Vercellese, not far from Lucedio itself. These managed to seduce the monks, giving origin to a century of perdition, sin and satanism at the abbey. It was, eventually, Pope Pius IX to close it for good and, if the reasons mentioned in the documents are to be believed, some seriously sick stuff went on at Lucedio: torture, black magic, sexual abuse, rape, you name it.

Even though historians tend to believe these accusations were carefully crafted to destroy a community which had become too powerful and too rich for its own good, rumors about Lucedio’s ties with the Devil became soon stronger than reality itself.

The legend says the demonic presence which created havoc at Lucedio was eventually captured and imprisoned in a secret crypt underneath the abbey’s church of Santa Maria. Four monks, who kept themselves pious and chaste, were placed guarding its entrance. Their mummified bodies are said to be still there, sitting on four chairs.

Not far from the Abbey of Lucedio, on the road to Trino Vercellese, is the deconsacrated Santuario della Madonna delle Vigne, where the fresco of a sheet of music has been found. It is said that the melody recorded on it has the power to summon Satan himself. The church is a notorious hub for black magic rituals.

One last thing: speaking too much about Lucedio is said to bring misfortune and death to those doing it. Let us all forget about this place right now.

Veneto: Poveglia, the island of vampires and souls in pain

The island of Poveglia, not far from Venice, has been put up for sale by the State
The island of Poveglia, not far from Venice, has been put up for sale by the State (tedlum/flickr)

Poveglia‘s long history was not always linked to pain and evil. At the beginning, it was refuge for a number of Venetian families who fled the city for political reasons in the 9th century. For a long time, the island thrived thanks to commerce and crafts. Things changed for the worst when, in the 14th century, Poveglia was confiscated for military reasons during the war between Venice and Genoa. Quickly, it turned from florid and lively, to dark and empty. Vestiges of its main fort, the Ottagono, are still visible today.

When Poveglia lost military relevance, people came back to it, but things had dramatically changed: erosion and geo-physical events had diminished its dimensions and the wealth and comforts it once enjoyed were only a far memory. Poveglia’s true tragedy began then. Towards the end of the same century, the 14th, bubonic plague hit Venice and the diseased were isolated on the island. More than 160 thousand people were buried in mass graves, some of their remains unhearted recently by archaeologists. It is, as an incise, during one of these excavations that the corpse of a woman with a brick stuck in her mouth was discovered: historians agree that placing stones or bricks in a cadaver’s mouth was a common medieval way to stop vampires from rising, which means the people of Poveglia thought that woman was a… vampire. Soon, the souls of those buried in Poveglia started roaming its grounds, or so the people of Venice say.

The island kept pretty much empty, surrounded by this aura of sorrow and gloom until the beginning of the 20th century, when another disturbing chapter of its history was written: a new building was created, but nothing much was said about what it was used for: officially, it was an elderly people’s home. Some even denied its existence. In truth the building, which was abandoned in 1946, was very likely a mental asylum, kept hidden because of the less than orthodox medical practices carried out within its walls. Proof of it seems to be the presence of abandoned medical equipment and Reparto di Psichiatria (psychiatry ward) signs scattered around the place.

The island of Poveglia today belongs to the Italian State, which put it up for sale a couple of years ago in an attempt to rehabilitate it and, well, get some money off it. Offers received did not reach the minimum asked and Poveglia still lays empty, abandoned, alive only with its ghosts.

Emilia-Romagna: Aguscello, a mental hospital for children

Abandoned mental asylums are often considered haunted. The first example that comes to my mind is, actually, in the US: the Richardson Olmsted Complex in Buffalo. Italy, though, has its own share of spooky hospitals, too. That of Aguscello is, if possible, creepier than any other because specifically designated to host mentally ill children. The earliest written attestations of the existence of this large building date from 1870. It served as private residence to a series of nobles and businessmen until 1933, when it was bought by Amelia Guerra and her husband, doctor Giovanni Bernardi, who transformed it in a TBC hospital. In 1940, it was sold to the Croce Rossa Italiana (the Italian Red Cross), which turned it into a mental asylum for children under the age of 13. That is already creepy, because there is something very unsettling in the idea of a child suffering from a mental illness so debilitating s/he needs to be hospitalized for good. Things get creepier still, because the hospital was abandoned all of a sudden in 1970, without any apparent reason: full documentation related to the years it operated are available to whomever is interested at the Ferrara Provincial Archives, but nothing about its end is recorded.

This, of course, made the legend around “il pedagogico,” as the Aguscello mental hospital is commonly known in the area, thrive. Apparently – as it is often said of mental asylums – patients were mistreated and abused throughout the three decades the asylum was operative, and their souls still inhabit the decadent and crumbling vestiges of their last earhtly dwelling. But what is even more mysterious is the end itself of the hospital: lack of official documentation related to its closure, along with the scattered remains of a large amount of equipment seem to point at the rather sudden abandonment of the place: for some, an epidemic, badly treated by medical staff, killed all the patients and staff fled to avoid ripercussions. For others, it was a fire who killed all the hospital’s inmates, who had been locked on the building’s top floor and perished dreadfully. But the most frightening and disturbing of all versions has 12 year old Filippo Erni as its protagonist. Suffering from an extremely serious form of schizophrenia, Filippo lost his mind because of the violent treatments he underwent and killed part of his mates. The medical staff managed to lock him on the top floor of the building; here, Filippo killed himself by jumping off a window. His ghost is said to linger in the area, along with those of his victims.

Whether you believe to these stories or not, the abandoned mental asylum of Aguscello has been home to creepy stuff for real including satanic rituals, the marks and instruments of which are often found around its empty rooms.

Lazio: the church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio and its museum of souls

Some of the exhibits at the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio, in the church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio's vestry, in Rome
Some of the exhibits at the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio, in the church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio’s vestry, in Rome (Bolando/flickr)

This neo-gothic church dedicated to Jesus’ Holy Heart is in the well known historical neighborhood of Prati, in central Rome. The church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio is home to a peculiar museum, which is not frightening per se, but can be rather unsettling. The Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio collects objects allegedly marked by contact with a death person’s soul. The museum came into existence after a fire destroyed a chapel of the church and its priest at the time, Victor Jouët, thought to have seen the image of a sorrowful man impressed by the fire in a wall. He became conviced that was the face of a soul of the Purgatory attempting to get in touch with this world. Fascinated by the idea, Jouët began collecting accounts of events where souls (aka ghosts) from Purgatory had tried to contact the living; he became especially interested in objects carrying visual signs of such contact. For those not familiar with Christian escathology, the Purgatory is that otherworldly place where souls go to expiate their sins before accessing Heaven. In other words, you go to Purgatory for a while when you are not evil enough to go Hell, but need to do some thinking about your actions before heading to Paradise.

Jouët managed to collect a small, yet fascinating collection of objects and photos: from money left to pay for masses by a deceased priest, to  fiery hand marks on people’s clothing and prayer books, these are all supposed signs of the possibility of contact between this world and the next. The church and its museum are on Lungotevere Prati 12. The museum is open to  the public for free, every day.

I do not know about you, but I really feel like finding out about more spooky places and stories, even if I am a tiny bit disturbed by some of this stuff. If I find anything interesting, I will let you know.

Until then… Sleep tight…

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3 years ago

Ciao Francesca, could you elaborate on this part of your article or point me to further readings about it? “… in the province of Vercelli (itself believed to be a place with some close attachments to the unknown) …” What are the occult details on Vercelli?