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On the relationship between occult, faith, and economy in Neapolitan Lotto.

  • Aug 16 2023
  • Elisa Giuliano
    is a curator, researcher and theater maker. In 2022, she co-curated with Anselm Franke, Denise Ryner and Claire Tancons, and Zairong Xiang the exhibition Ceremony (Burial of an Undead World) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. At Het Nieuwe Instituut, TBA21 and Matera 2019 she developed projects on religious history, folklore, and myth-making in modern Italy.


n. 48 

‘O muorto che parla

Sciorta e morte, addereta ‘a porta. [1]


In Naples, the passion for gambling is said to be “as old as the world.” At the banquets of Saturnalia feasts, ancient Romans were already playing “lotto,” a game where numbered cards are distributed at random, corresponding then to monetary or material prizes. With the decline of the ancient world, gambling lost its popularity, only to return in the fifteenth century, when European states rediscovered its financial benefits. It was during this time that the lottery was reintroduced to Naples by the Republic of Genoa, becoming enormously popular—especially among the poor. The mirage of making a small fortune spread through the city like an epidemic and lotto became perceived as a “tax of hope,” (of winning), that people were happy to pay. 

In the fifteenth century, the figure of the assistito (assisted) also began to appear: those who established an oneiric communication with the souls of the dead, particularly those situated in purgatory, from whom they received winning lotto numbers. The assistito  presented themselves as spokespersons for the extra-human entities who appeared to them in dreams announcing a social and cosmic palingenesis and promising liberation from oppression. Because of their apocalyptic and renewing character, they were considered religious figures, but their preaching was also economic, social, and political. Their divinatory system resisted the strain of empirical contradictions and its purposes extended beyond the lotto’s material results. Their messages were codified in the Smorfia Napoletana, which is a form of “gambling science” based on stories told by the encountered souls in dreams. The stories of the dead corresponded in their various elements to numbers: have you dreamed of the dead? then number 47—and were they talking? — then 48 — or crying? — 65 — and did this scare you? — 90. In Naples, the afterlife is thus a continuum of existence in dreams, and the encounter between the living and the dead gives form to a specific knowledge that rejects the dialectic between the hegemonic and the hegemonized.



n. 16

Critta: n’ammore vero

Requia materna, 

erona romine,


lucia ‘nterna

schiatte in pace.

Amen. [2]


Over the course of centuries, the Neapolitans gave a real and mythically validated location to the seat of the dead within their own cosmos: somewhere between Lake Avernus and the active eruptions of Vesuvius.  Historically, it was assumed that the dead enter the underworld and communicate with the outside world through all those points on the Earth’s surface that emit sulfurous vapors, bubble up with lava, or open into gloomy sinkholes. Volcanic eruptions, moreover, with their torrential outpouring of fire from the earth’s bowels onto its cities, conjure up a catastrophe with the imaginary force of a hell realized on earth; one that has the power of consuming everyday life. 

The direct and physical relationship with the risk of dying, and with death itself, has become an experience that allowed the inhabitants of Naples to transcend the time of life and to penetrate that of the afterlife. The extensive system of critte (crypts), that still runs through the city, is one of the most tangible examples of this relationship to death. The underground became a truly temporal crossroads: both a place of burial and a meeting point for the dead. These spaces beneath the churches of Naples are, in fact, home to those who no longer belong to life, whose remains we can see and touch, but who are not considered completely dead, as they are positioned in a zone of passage, a liminal space, in the third place of purgatory. It is a transitional zone from which one can fly to the heavens, but where nothing is discarded because everything returns, or can return, into a swirling whirlpool of time. The below thus becomes the place of waiting and hope, one that feels very similar to life in the city.



n. 85 

Ll’aneme d’o priatòrio

Reque, refrische, repuose, sullievo e pace

A chest’ aneme appestate mie rilette;

Venite a casa mia ca v’aspetto;

E paura nun me ne metto. [3]


The system of catacombs, scattered throughout Naples, is filled with the remains of anonymous people who lived and died in the city over the ages. But while unknown and unnamed, their skulls and bones have been approached by the Neapolitans with as much piety as those of minor saints—a long tradition of osteological veneration specific to the city, which continues today as the worship of the anime del purgatorio (purgatorial souls). A syncretic merger of Neapolitan beliefs, many of which are pre-Christian, and official Catholic doctrines surrounding purgatory, the worship of these souls is tethered to their anonymity: that is, to the absence of burial rites following their deaths. For the faithful, this failure to apply any ceremony to the physical body has left these souls adrift. This is why the living adopt a capuzzella (skull), considered the seat of the soul,and care for it: cleaning, decorating, and placing the skulls in scaravattoli (niches or boxes). In this way, the displaced souls attain a special status that enables them to intercede and grant graces on a par with saints. 

Alongside this economy of care, dreams also have a central role in this belief system as they allow for the encounter with the souls and their identification, through which the devotees can constitute a non-biological family within a broader social system situated between the living and the dead. In listening to the stories of the dead in dreams, and in caring for what remains of their souls, the Neapolitans thus take care of both their community and themselves. For them, dreams, crypts, and death are means through which to access the unknown and unworldly and to request direct intercession in the material reality of life, both by praying and gambling. Most importantly, however, dreams are a means through which to break down and invade a dominant system that has adversely affected their lives in the city, particularly in modern times.



    [1] In English: 

    n. 48

    The talking dead

    Fortune and death, behind the door


    In English: 

    n. 16

    Crypt: a real love

    Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,

    and let perpetual light shine upon them.

    May they rest in peace. Amen.

    [3] In English:

    n. 85

    The purgatorial souls

    Calm, refreshment, rest, relief and peace

    To these plagued beloved souls;

    Come to my house that I wait for you;

    Cause I have no fear.



    Images from Grazia e numeri (1962) by Luigi Di Gianni. Courtesy of Lucio Di Gianni.



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