Colobraro, an ancient hilltop town in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, is reputed to be the nation’s unluckiest village.
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Was it a hex?
According to legend, this folklore dates back to the 1940s, when Biagio Virgilio, then mayor of Colobraro, proclaimed at a meeting in the nearby city of Matera: “May this chandelier fall down if I’m not telling the truth!”
With those words, the chandelier plummeted from the ceiling, and Virgilio’s village quickly became synonymous with bad omens.
Today, Colobraro is still largely considered a place whose name is better not mentioned. Residents of neighbouring villages call it ‘Cudd Pais’ (‘that village’ in the local dialect), and are quick to touch wood when they hear the name as a good-luck charm to drive away any misfortune.
Where superstition reigns
Located between Calabria and Puglia, Italy’s southern Basilicata region is dominated by untamed wilderness and a lunar landscape, where ghost towns like Craco (pictured) are not uncommon and there are still strong links to tradition and superstition.
A land of sorceresses
In addition to the chandelier myth, generations of Colobraro residents have long passed down tales of witches and wizards, as well the masciare, powerful women famous throughout southern Italy in the 1950s who were said to maintain control of their village through magical arts, casting curses and brewing potent spells. Due to these stories, the village has become notorious across Italy for having a hex on it and bringing bad luck to everyone around.
Fun and games
To capitalise on these superstitions and legends, in 2011 Colobraro residents organised an annual street show ‘Dream of a night… in that village’.
Every August, visitors come from across the region to watch a play starring witches, masciare and other creepy characters that takes place along the streets and squares. On arrival, guests are given an amulet against the village’s misfortune: the abitino (or cingiok in Colobraro) contains three grains of salt against incantation, three grains of wheat as a symbol of fertility, three needles of rosemary to favour love and beauty and fight evil spirits, and lavender flowers as a symbol of virtue and serenity.
One of the characters you’ll see darting through the village festival is the Monachicchio or Monacello (literally ‘Little Monk’), who, according to local legend, is the spirit of a child who died before receiving baptism.
Although gentle looking, the red-hatted spirit has a playful sense of humour. His favourite pranks include ripping off bed sheets to tickle unsuspecting feet and whispering sweet words in girls’ ears. The only way to repel his pranks is to grab his little hat, since he cannot live without it.
Wolves in the night
Another iconic sight at the festival is the werewolves that are known in the region as ‘Lupumanare’. Legend says these are normal men, born on Christmas at midnight. But on nights when the moon is full, they become wolf-like creatures that terrify whole villages.
They are victims of a curse and can only be liberated by the sting of a pin: the small loss of blood allows the men to return to normal.
Tightly guarded secrets
Despite the street fair’s light-hearted fun, villagers tightly guard Colobraro’s mystical secrets, passing them down through their families.
"I encountered a sort of reluctance while I was investigating to collect material for the show," said Giuseppe Ranoia, art director of the festival. "Those rituals lose their value the moment you talk about them."
For this will always be a land of myths and legends – and some of those tales might even be true. The only thing we know for sure is that Colobraro is once again becoming famous for its misfortune.
Drone: Gaetano Virgallito Camera: Elisabetta Abrami and Kami Fares Sound recording: Kami Fares Sound postproduction, mix: Carlo Purpura