Due to its millenary history, Italy offers many esoteric places: among castles, villages and abbeys, here are the most mysterious and fascinating ones
The Italian territory boasts a millenary history, written by the different peoples and cultures that have passed through it over the centuries.
By building castles, underground cities, villages, parks and churches, these peoples have made Italy one of the most esoteric, mysterious and fascinating countries in the world.
We at VisitItaly have put together a list of our favourites, including places, myths and legends. Here then are the 20 most esoteric places in Italy.
20. Turin between white and black magic
The Great Mother, Torino
When speaking of esotericism, one cannot fail to mention the Piedmontese capital: Turin is well known in the world for its mysteries linked to alchemy and magic, and the myths and legends surrounding religious and secular buildings.
A meeting point between the White Magic triangle (Turin-Prague-Lyon) and the Black Magic triangle (Turin-San Francisco-London), a visit to its streets and squares is not to be missed in the travel plans of the mystery enthusiast.
19. The Masonic village of Rosazza
Considered the most mysterious village in Italy, Rosazza, nestled in the Biellese pre-Alps, owes its fame to Federico Rosazza, philanthropist and dreamer, Senator of the Kingdom and Grand Worshipful Master of Biellese Freemasonry. Thanks to his friend Giuseppe Maffei, architect and also a Freemason, he donated works and buildings to the small village with clear references to the mysteries of the lodge and different historical periods, such as the battlements of the Guelfa tower, the colonnades of the temples of Paestum and the Etruscan arch of the city of Volterra.
18. The Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan
Detail of the Ossuary wall, San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milano
In the centre of Milan you will find one of the city's strangest and most surprising churches: in the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa - literally St. Bernardine at the Bones - you will find a small chapel decorated with skulls, vertebrae and bones of all kinds. No, we are not on the set of a horror film, in the Ossuary of the church where the remains of the bodies of the now-destroyed Brolo Hospital, dedicated to the care of lepers, and the bodies transferred from the suppressed seventeenth-century cemeteries are kept.
A real memento mori in the centre of Milan, incredibly fascinating.
17. The Devil's House in the Gorge of Bellano
If you are planning a trip to Lake Como, a walk to the Orrido di Bellano is not to be missed on your list of things to see: the orrido is a gorge that was formed millions of years ago by the Pioverna torrent, forming beautiful caves that can be admired thanks to the footbridges that connect its banks.
At the beginning of the path leading to the Orrido is the Casa del Diavolo (House of the Devil), a turret built close to the river: it is thought that in the 17th century it served to control lake navigation, but its name is linked to the mythological figures, including a satyr, that decorate the façade on the top floor. Given the esoteric symbols present, many are ready to swear that satanic or pagan rituals were celebrated there until recently.
16. Triora, the village of witches
In Liguria's hinterland hides a village famous for the largest witchcraft trial that took place in Italy: at the end of the 16th century, more than 300 women were accused of witchcraft in Triora, tried, tortured and killed, so much so that the village was given the name 'Italian Salem'.
Now the village is home to the Ethnographic Museum of Witchcraft, and on the first Sunday after Ferragosto (mid-August), a festival is held in its honour, the Strigora.
15. Dragon's rib in the Sanctuary of Sombreno
The Sanctuary of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Sombreno (Bergamo) is one of the sacred places in northern Italy that guards a little mystery: in fact, hanging from a chain from the ceiling is a gigantic rib (almost 2 metres long) belonging to an animal, the Tarantasio dragon.
Legend has it that around 1000 A.D., near Milan, there was Lake Gerundo, inhabited by a ferocious dragon that fed on anyone who dared to approach the lake to fish, and with its pestilential breath, made everyone in the area sick. It was defeated by the valiant Umberto Visconti, who decided to depict the dragon on the herald of his family, which later founded the city of Milan.
Legend has it that Tarantasio's skeleton was split into several parts and kept in various places in northern Italy. The rib found in Sombreno is still a mystery to all scholars and palaeontologists.
14. The Devil's Bridge in Pavia
Devil's Bridge in Pavia
Travelling around Italy, it is easy to come across villages and small towns crossed by rivers and with numerous bridges that create beautiful landscapes; it is also easy to bump into the legend that one of these bridges was erected with the help of the Devil.
For Pavia, the bridge in question is the scenic Ponte Coperto (Covered Bridge) over the Ticino river. The city shares the legend of the Devil's hand with other cities, a legend born in the Middle Ages, a time when these structures marked a milestone in ancient architecture. These bridges were considered so complex and daring that it was thought that their construction was only made possible by an artifice of the Devil, or by a gift from the Devil in exchange for the souls of the locals.
The Ponte Coperto di Pavia, to ward off all evil forces, has a small religious chapel in the middle.
13. The Scarzuola and the union of the sacred and profane
Umbria is famous for its esoteric places, and in the province of Terni you can find a place that combines religion and mysticism: on the land surrounding the monastery that St Francis founded in 1218 stands Tomaso Buzzi's Ideal City, a symbolic and alchemic journey of surrealist architecture, with staircases branching off in all directions, buildings and monuments piled high, monsters and deliberate disproportions.
The Scarzuola create a bond between the sacred city constituted by the Franciscan monastery and Buzzi's profane city, a link made even stronger by the flow of sacred water made to gush from a rose and laurel bush by Saint Francis.
A mystical and surreal journey not to be missed!
12. The underground cities of Camerano and Osimo
A short distance from the city of Ancona are two treasures of inestimable value: we are talking about the Camerano and Osimo caves, veritable underground cities that extend for kilometres below the surface.
Dating back to the period of the first settlements of the Picenes, over the centuries they have been used for a variety of purposes, from a refuge for the populations to a place of preservation for food and wine. But in this maze of labyrinths that have wonderfully survived the passage of time, it will be easy for you to come across pagan and religious altars, tombstones, decorations, friezes and ornamental motifs, as well as remnants of Masonic temples and symbols of the Templar Order.
11. San Galgano Abbey
San Galgano Abbey, Chiusdino, Tuscany
The legend of King Arthur becomes reality a few kilometres from Siena: in the Abbey of San Galgano, in Chiusdino, you can see the real Excalibur!
The beautiful Gothic church built in the 13th century is dedicated to the saint who abandoned a life of violence and debauchery after receiving his vocation, and did so with a very symbolic gesture: he drove his sword into a rock to transform it into a cross and thus begin his life as a hermit.
The atmosphere of the Gothic complex is made even more magical by the absence of the Abbey roof, which brings heaven and earth together in a breathtaking spectacle.
10. Bomarzo's Monsters Park
Orcus mouth in the Monster Park in Bomarzo
In Lazio's most mysterious village, Bomarzo, you will find the beautiful Sacred Wood, part of the Palazzo Orsini estate: known today as the Monster Park, it was commissioned by Prince Orsini in the 16th century as a tribute to his late wife.
The park is a veritable magical labyrinth, with statues, boulders and symbols of unknown meaning that stimulate the curiosity and imagination of many, who enjoy finding the hidden connections between the statues. Let yourself be bewitched by the Monsters of Bomarzo just as Salvador Dali did!
9. The Alchemical Gate of Rome
Near Piazza Vittorio in Rome in the 17th century stood Villa Palombara, the home of the Marquis of Pietraforte, a well-known alchemist, on the Esquiline Hill.
After the destruction of the villa, the Porta Alchemica is the only one that has survived of the villa's five doors, perhaps because of the magical aura that surrounded it: legend has it that a doctor went to this villa in search of miraculous herbs, but he disappeared through the door, leaving only a few straws of pure gold and some notes with scribbled symbols at the entrance.
The symbols are those that can now be seen engraved on the door to be handed down to posterity and especially to those who would sooner or later decipher them by solving the riddle of the doctor's experiment.
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8. Rocchetta Mattei and electrohomeopathy
If you are passing through Bologna and are looking for a surprising place to visit, Rocchetta Mattei is for you: built by Count Mattei in the mid-19th century, the structure was modified several times, making it a labyrinth of towers, monumental staircases, reception rooms, and private rooms that recall different styles: from neo-medieval to neo-Renaissance, from Moorish to Art Nouveau.
But it is not so much the architecture that attracts the attention of the curious, but the secrets behind the Count's medical practices: in fact, he is known throughout the world as the inventor of Electrohomoeopathy, an alternative medicine that took its cues from homeopathy, Chinese medicine and herbalism, to which he added a touch of alchemy.
Even today, his fomulations are still the subject of study and discussion.
7. The painting of the damned soul in the Church of the Mission to the Virgins in Naples
Strolling through the streets of one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world, the Rione Sanità in Naples, you will find the Church of Santa Maria dei Vergini, a masterpiece by Luigi Vanvitelli and a reference model for religious architecture in Naples. The painting of the damned soul is kept in this church.
The legend tells of the adulterous passion between a young knight and a noblewoman who died without being able to repent her actions. The knight prayed unceasingly until, one day, the woman appeared, accusing him of being the cause of his descent into hell and that God had sent her to tell him so, leaving an indelible mark of his damned soul: the woman's soul touched the painting with its hands, leaving the fiery imprints that can now be seen in the painting depicting Christ crucified.
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6. The sunken city of Baia
Have you ever thought of visiting an underwater archaeological park?
Well yes, just a few kilometres from the centre of Naples, in Campi Flegrei, lies the sunken city of Baia, which in Roman times was a centre of holidaying, entertainment and recreation, as well as famous for its curative thermal springs.
Plundered and then abandoned, slowly the remains of the luxurious city were swallowed up by the sea, but now you can admire the city's crumbling structures and incredibly well-preserved statuary with glass-bottomed boats, snorkelling or diving to swim among the marvellous ruins.
5. The Entrance to the World of the Dead at the Archaeological Park of Cumae
From Virgil to Dante, from Leopardi to Galileo, there are many men of letters and philosophers who have thought that one of the gates to hell was located here, in the Archaeological Park of Cumae next to the waters of Lake Avernus, near Pozzuoli. Here, in fact, you can enter a tunnel of over 130 metres dug into the tuff between the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the same tunnel that Virgil made Aeneas pass through in the epic poem to enter Hades and find his father Anchises.
What fuels the ancient belief are the natural phenomena linked to Lake Avernus, literally 'without birds': in fact, even on the brightest days, no birds are seen flying over the lake or nesting in the surrounding foliage. Could it be the sulphurous vapours from the infernal cavern below that disturb the birds' flight?
4. The symbolism of Castel del Monte in Andria
Castel del Monte in Andria, Apulia
A castle built in the 13th century by Emperor Frederick II, set on high ground in apparent nothingness, without a road to protect or a farm to administer: if it was initially thought that Castel del Monte in Andria, Apulia, was built as a hunting lodge, more careful studies of the symbolism it embodies have led to think otherwise.
One of the peculiarities of the place is the recurrence of the number eight: the building has an octagonal plan with an octagonal tower in each corner, contains eight rooms, housed an octagonal basin and contains numerous decorative elements in a series of eights. Certainly an unusual shape for a castle, but the octagon would seem to be rich in symbolism, thanks to its intermediate shape between the square (the earth) and the circle (the sky), and would represent the passage from one to the other.
Furthermore, by observing the shadows that the building casts at particular times of the year, such as solstices and equinoxes, it seems possible that the castle is actually a massive gnomon, i.e. the pole that the ancients planted in the ground to measure the hours of the day according to the length of the shadows.
3. Castle Ursino in Catania
Originally guarding the Gulf of Catania, Ursino Castle is the oldest monument in the city. Built by Frederick II of Swabia to assert his supremacy over the people and discourage any revolt, the castle shows in its construction the emperor's passion for physics, astronomy and mathematics, considered at the time to be the only way to enter into perfect harmony with the universe: the square shape chosen for the castle's plan, in fact, alludes to the earth and to dominion over earthly and physical manifestation.
The mysterious fascination of the Ursino Castle is given above all by the metaphysical symbols that decorate it, such as Solomon's Knot visible on the cross in the courtyard, or the five-pointed star, located on the eastern balconies, whose internal pentagram symbolises the five metaphysical elements of water, air, fire, earth and spirit.
But the monument attracts paranormal enthusiasts for the phenomena that occur very often within its walls: doors opening or creaking, screams, sinister noises witnessed by insiders and visitors.
2. The Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
Mummies of the Catacombs of the Capuchinis, Palermo
Dating back to the 16th century A.D., the catacombs of Palermo are a unique site and one of the most impressive in the world. On your walk through the tunnels you will be accompanied by more than 2,000 mummies, standing or lying, richly dressed and divided by age, sex and social category.
Initially the burial place of the Capuchin friars, when the excavations were extended, the friars realised that some of the bodies had mummified naturally. Later, burial was officially granted to all those who could afford the cost of embalming. Here you can find the 'most beautiful mummy in the world', that of Rosalia Lombardo who died in 1920 at only two years old.
1. The Devils of the Palace of the Zisa, Palermo
Palace of the Zisa, Palermo
The palace of the Zisa (from the Arabic El-Aziz, meaning 'Splendid') stood outside the city walls of Palermo, within the Norman royal park, the Genoardo, with bright pavilions, verdant gardens and pools of water.
Apparently, inside the palace was the treasure of an Arab sultan protected by a spell and by the devils portrayed in the fresco in the fountain room: the only way to access the riches would be to count the exact number of demons, arranged in a circular fashion to make calculation almost impossible.