Why you should care

Because despair might be the best mood for moneymaking.

Once a week, Paolo Verdi shuts down his workshop at 5 p.m. on the dot and hops right across the piazza. He’s off to see “il mago” — yes, the wizard. Verdi, a 60-year-old artisan who lives in Italy’s southern town of Bari, knocks at his door. “Come on in, Paolo,” booms a deep voice. “I have great news for you.”

The protracted recession in Italy has dealt a heavy blow to Verdi’s ceramics business, pushing him to try unorthodox strategies for business growth. Such as consulting a tarot card reader to score lucky numbers to play at the weekly lottery, the Superenalotto. A win could mean instant rags to riches. Plus, Verdi has a knack for betting on the ponies, so il mago can come in handy there too.

Fortune is blind, goes the old proverb. But Mr. Wizard claims to have the answers via winning lottery numbers. Big payoff for Verdi, then? Try a big goose egg. Although Verdi has squandered a small fortune over the past five years with the wizard, he hasn’t even won a free lotto card. (Verdi says he can’t name the wizard for fear of “eternal defeat.”)

Like the rest of Italy, the deeply superstitious south is in economic crisis. And tarot card readers, clairvoyants and fortune-tellers are flourishing — superstition has proven to be a lucrative business here and now. Growing despair over the socioeconomic outlook is pushing many Italians to seek “occult idols and easy, quick answers to their problems and dreams,” says Luigino Bruni, political economy professor at Rome’s LUMSA University.

It’s one of the few sectors, in fact, that not only is thriving but that also hasn’t decayed. Other recession winners are wine, fashion and the Mafia. The equation is simple: The gloomier the outlook and the greater the people’s despair, the higher the profits of this segment of the “black market” economy. Because no matter how broke you are, you’re always keen to buy good fortune.

Every six months the witch gets in contact with her dead mother for more insight. That’s $200 extra.

With estimated profits of up to $10.6 million made each year by tarot and palm readers, amulet sales and would-be wizards, Italy is the universal capital of superstition. According to data from leading consumer lobby Codacons, roughly 15 million Italians turn to wizards and shamans on a daily basis, up from 10 million in 2006. They get in touch through some 400,000 websites, their own contacts and word of mouth. That means roughly one out of every five Italians is gullible; more people believe in hocus-pocus than politics. (Alas, who could blame them?)

Giovanna Padovan, a 50-year-old government employee in Naples, has a fattucchiera — a female witch — on retainer. She works as an adviser to help Padovan, who says she happily pays up to $1,200 a month to improve her economic situation. Through palm reading or by looking inside a cup of coffee or olive oil, says Padovan, she gleans the right time to buy and sell vehicles, make lucrative real estate transactions and purchase or dump stocks and bonds. Every six months, she adds, Padovan asks the witch to get in contact with her dead mother for more insight. That’s $200 extra. “She’s my lucky star.”

The retainer situation recalls the religious practice of tithing, in which the faithful — Jewish, Catholic, Muslim alike — pay a tenth of their income to their church. But God’s got competition. Amulets, pocket-size red bull horns, horseshoes and chili-pepper necklaces believed to keep the devil at bay — and by extension jinxes — are the most popular items in this trend. In Naples, an entire neighborhood makes statuettes and even funny chocolate bars and cakes to fend off jella (ill omen). A few villages in the Basilicata region, famed for being cursed over a century-old event that involved occult prophecies coming true, have launched jinx festivals to lure tourists and raise cash. At the entrance, visitors are sold so-called abitini, tiny cloth bags stuffed with herbs infused with special powers.

Police have been cracking down on hundreds of rip-off card-slash-palm readers and wannabe prophets, sending dozens to jail in the past couple of years for their absurd tricks. Recently, an entire ring of fraudsters with offices all across Italy was unmasked. Thanks to the money they bilked from desperate and lonely people, the wizards were able to purchase mansions on Polynesian and Balearic islands that served as offshore paradises and holiday retreats. “Superstition is a dangerous form of idolatry that renders all humans slaves,” warns Bruni.

Even so, similar trends are playing out across the rest of Catholic southern Europe. In debt-strapped Portugal, more and more people these days are turning to a folklore “rooster” amulet, Galo de Barcelos, in the past just a tourist souvenir, to better their economic positions. Realtors on the Atlantic coast are seeking out palm readers to learn when, where and to which foreign retired expats they will sell their newly built studios overlooking the beach. Northern Protestant countries are more immune to superstition, which might also explain why the majority of saints and the frequency of mystical experiences in Christianity have occurred along the lower tier of the Old Continent. This distinction was first noted in 1728 by French philosopher Montesquieu when he visited Naples during the San Gennaro holy festivity. Struck by the trance in which people fell, even his great rationalist mind was almost overcome by the miracle of the saint’s liquefying blood.

Spain holds its annual La Fiera Magic Internacional, which lures magicians and tarot card readers from across the world. The number of visiting locals has more than tripled in the past four years, pushing the superstition and occult business to an annual profit of $3 billion, according to data from consumer groups. Nervous visitors are ready to pay whatever the “seer” will ask as long as they get an answer to the craziest questions: Will my restaurant shut, or will I make money and open a new one? When will my great-aunt die so I get to inherit her fortune? The tarot reader eyes her victims and says, “Well, these are difficult things to know, so the price is very high.”

OK, then: $500 for a two-minute glimpse of the future.

Verdi remains confident. His magician may charge him $100 for 10 minutes — $400 a month — “but I know that, sooner or later, I’ll win that goddamn Superenalotto.”

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