Apotropaic sun.Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

In the 21st century, protecting our homes means, more often than not, installing a top notch alarm system, one of those we regularly set off by mistake in the morning when, before our first coffee, we open the kitchen door to let the cat out. Our fear for intruders, unfortunately well justified, is quite specific: it’s people we’re afraid of and it’s against them that modern technology offers a plethora of protective solutions. 

In the  centuries past, people had  quite a different vision of the dangers their abodes could be subjected to: it wasn’t only a matter of burglars entering the house and stealing property, it was  a matter of negativity, karma, bad energies. It was a matter of spiritual evil. 

Examples of apotropaic masks. Photo: Alessandro Canova/Dreamstime

Walking around Italian villages and cities, regardless to the area or the region, you’ll notice it: when you least expect it, here is a small votive niche with  a statue of the Virgin Mary, a fresco with the local patron saint, a stone angel looking down from the top of a door frame. This, of course, is far from surprising: anthropologists tell us it is quite natural for Humankind to seek protection in the spiritual and the otherworldly, especially against all those evils we cannot see with the eye: even the Romans used to do it, with their lares familiares and the penates.

What many may not be familiar with, however, is that in our beautiful country the sacred and the profane, which mix quite naturally here and there throughout its history, worked together to fight evil away from our homes, too. In Rome, Venice and Florence, you may see the famous mascheroni, stony, monstrous faces, that watch people in the street menacingly, from ancient palaces’ façades: they, too, were placed there to scare off negativity and evil and to protect households from harm. 

Apotropaic lion. Photo: Georgiakari/Dreamstime

In our South, the need to protect the household took curious forms, especially in Calabria.  Here, lion-shaped sculptures and seashells were often placed near doors and windows, along with horse shoes — this a very common  propitiatory symbol all around the world — horns, brooms nailed to the walls, all the way to practices as ancient as they were gruesome, such as the ritual, of Roman origins, of nailing night birds to doors, as described in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. The idea behind such an awful act was even more despicable: the animal, through its own pain and sufferance, would expiate the negativity it brought to the household by flying by (owls and other night birds were believed to bring misfortune, back then). 

Thankfully, there  were also other, cruelty-free methods to protect one’s home, and some became a real form of art, like the creation and production of apotropaic terracotta masks. The word apotropaic comes from the Greek apotropao which means “to send or to keep away,” so these creations, much like the mascheroni and the religious depictions we mentioned before, had the aim of keeping evil spirits, negativity and even malocchio  away. 

Photo: Georgiakari/Dreamstime

These masks, made in terracotta, ceramics or stone, had the duty to keep the negative at bay, and they did  so just fine, thanks to their fearsome appearance. Grotesque and wild-eyed, they inherited their looks from ancient anthropomorphic representations of Greek and Roman origin: of course, we think immediately to the curious, yet unsettling faces of the Satyrs, whose stone icons were often placed at the entrance of temples.

And indeed, their use in Calabria is very ancient, as archaeological findings seems to testify, even if their looks changed through the centuries: they started to become more and more grotesque, with horns like demons and provocative expressions. They usually have strongly  emphasized characteristics that make them caricatural and, for this reason, even more powerful: protruding tongues and eyes,  large ears, big crooked noses, scruffy hair, and of course, as we said, horns. Popular were the so called nasocchi, with their long noses, large eyes  and exclusively made in terracotta: they were placed inside the house, to attract wealth and luck. Those with horns and their tongues sticking out were believed to be particularly efficient against the envious.  

Today, these masks are a known product of Calabria’s craftsmanship and they have a mostly decorative function: they are often painted in bright colors and find a place on the roofs, walls and doors of Calabrian homes. Seminara, in the Reggio Calabria province, is known for its production of apotropaic masks, so much so they are often simply called maschere di Seminara. 

In the 18th century there were 23 pignatari (masks makers) at work in Seminara and, the following century, the number rose to 28. In the 20th century, there were 30, among them the famous Ferraro and Condurso, whose work impressed even Pablo Picasso. 

Today, Seminara’s pignatari keep the tradition of apotropaic masks alive, if not as an instrument against negativity, certainly as a form of traditional art that needs, just like so many other popular expressions of the country’s knowhow, to be loved and protected. 

Receive more stories like this in your inbox