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When I was a young boy in the 1950's, my Italian, (both my parents' families lived for many generations in old pre-Roman villages in Latina province),  mother and my grandmothers all wore amulets under their bodices.  The amulets were in specially woven fabric bags which were tied with ribbons to their bras. They contained what I later knew as Roman "bullae."  The contents of the amulet bags were fertility symbols as well as items like gold or semi-precious stone "hounds teeth" to ward off the evil eye.  For example, my maternal grandmother's bag had a golden metal "hand" with the index and little finger pointed upward to ward off the evil eye, a satanic figure mounting a female form (fertility), a carnelian tooth, (vs. evil eye),  a couple of tiny golden bells, (protection against evil spirits), a phallus (fertility symbol) and some other tiny silver and gold items of unusual craftsmanship and meaning--I forget what.  (One hung bells under the bed, or put a bag of salt there to deter evil spirits.) The spirits would have to count the salt crystals and of course that would take so long they would be discouraged from bothering you.  Some women placed straw brooms behind the front doors because again in an attempt at deterrence, the spirits would have to count each straw before entering the dwelling.  It was frowned upon to live ostentatiously.  For example, the exterior of most Italian homes in New England where we lived were not especially noteworthy or lovely.  However, the interiors were always as elaborately decorated as financially possible, and much of the furnishings were lovely per the taste of the times.  I learned in my cultural Anthropology class in 1960's that it is considered unwise in peasant cultures to be ostentatious, thereby inviting envy. Notice the parallel between the early to mid-20th century Italian-American habit of avoiding architectural ostentation in personal dwellings and the same Roman practice.  It was quite common to hear the (mostly) females in the family curse others for transgressions. It reminds one of the Roman practice of enscribing curses on (tin?) tablets and pinning them on the intended's dwelling or frequented spot.  For example, the Italians I lived amongst  would curse people for being greedy, for not sharing, (there was a strong emphasis upon community ownership and "commonwealth" thinking), for being mean or sneaky.  The Italians I grew up with were not in their bones religious. They of course went to church, took the sacraments, honored the clergy, and were proud to be Roman Catholic.  However, I believe the majority did not actually "believe," except in the sense of hedging one's bets; and perhaps more importantly, were sub-consciously honoring the late Roman religious (cultural not spiritual) traditions and contribution to civilization.  They were actually more superstitious, and so prayed to St. Anthony for one thing, St. Jude for another--you know the drill. The saints got more air time than God!  If you look around the cemeteries, there are a lot of St. Francis statues, not so many of Jesus.  That didn't deter them from cursing the saints when bad luck occurred.  I believe now that many of the old Italian traditions I observed as a child and a young man were carryovers from Roman times.  For me, there is no better example than patronage.  Even today the old Italians will speak about who (the client) is someone's patron.  I had patrons at various stages in my life when I was younger.  If you wanted something done in the community, you never went to the government, you went to a patron. There is a patron-client relationship deeply embedded in the culture, at least the culture I observed growing up in Rhode Island, at a time when about 60% of the population were Italian.  Most of them were from the greater Formia and Caserta areas, with a thin scattering of Sicilians, whom the other Italians considered "Moors," not really Italian.  My ancestors were exceptionally nuanced people, and I wish I could still experience the world I had experienced when young.  Oh the delicious and affordable Zeppolas on St. Joseph's Day! Things today have gone into the crapper, but that is another story.  Please excuse the nostalgic musings of an old man....


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  • Map of the Roman Empire