This house is full of ghosts, spirits, and the souls of ancestors; gods, ancient and immortal beings made of air. They live in every dusty corner, under the tables that host the many altars, in each squeaky crack of the wooden stairs and creak of the old chairs. They live in the kitchen, in the music room, in the bedroom where Joe Black—the first black pitcher to win the World Series, in 1952—had his first child.
They are older than this brownstone, older than Bed-Stuy, older than Brooklyn and New York City itself. There is a woman who lives in the garden. Nobody has seen her, but everybody knows she is there. Tiziana brought her here, and she will never leave.
The first time I set foot into the house, I was carrying two huge bags I had brought with me on a delayed flight back from Italy. Tiziana—the landlady that a friend of a friend put me in touch with, knowing I was looking for a place to stay for a few months—is fifty, but she looks younger. She has a head of curly hair that is midway between a lion’s mane and a blackberry bush, perpetually busy hands, and a fast way of talking. She was on the phone when she came to the door and let me crawl into my room. She excused herself and disappeared downstairs, in the kitchen, leaving me alone to snoop around the living room.
Everything seemed very old and very fragile. There were statues made of wood or porcelain, boxes full of jewelry, coins and keys, candles, flags, and cloths. There was an old trumpet—a gift, I later came to know, from one of the many maestros that spent time in these rooms—and a cello, broken in half by the excitement of one of the four cats that inhabit here. There are ornaments from other cultures and traditions: Native American medallions, Hindu holy pictures, an old European straw hat. Everything was piled together, but not in a messy way. There was a reason those things were there.
View of the living room, on the left one the altar of Obatala, the main god. Photo: Giulio D’Antona
“What’s all this?” I asked Tiziana when she came back. “Altars,” she answered casually as she casually told me about the ghosts. I didn’t believe her. Every sound can be mistaken as the result of some paranormal activity: one of the cats that goes for a night run, a squirrel that nibbles the branches of a tree outside the window, the slamming of a door that does not shut well. It might be unsettling at first, but once I got used to it I found no reason to lose any sleep thinking about the spirits. Instead, I grew more interested in Tiziana’s religious rites, which occupied the larger part of her daily routine.
Tiziana is Italian, and a priestess of an ancient African religion called Ifà, but better known by the name of the tribe that follows it: the Yoruba, a group of about 25 million people from southeast Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. In the new world, the religion takes a number of names and different paths from the original African cult of the dead and spirits. In Brazil, it is called Candomblé or Umbanda; Lucumì in Cuba, Santeria in Puerto Rico. Every time the cult mixed with another belief, it found a way to integrate its vast set of gods, rituals, traditions, and prayers. Santeria and Candomblé have been profoundly influenced by Christianity, which was pressed on African slaves forced to leave their homeland by Spanish and Portuguese colonialists. Almost every Catholic saint has earned a place in the pantheistic cult, their images—and, according to believers, their essences—syncretizing with the African god Orisha. Yoruba is a way to travel back to one’s origins, finding the road back home.
A vial of the saint’s desiccated 1,710-year-old blood is kept in a small container
Tiziana was eighteen when she left Sala Consilina—a small village in southern Italy, not far from Naples—in 1984, aiming for a new life in the United States and looking for the cult she had been reading about for years. Although she was raised in a liberal and secular environment, and not guided by the rules of a strict Roman Catholic education, she was nonetheless influenced by a strong religious tradition focused on the “mystery of faith” and a cult of saints responsible for miracles. In parts of Italy, this tradition has evolved very little from medieval fundamentalism. She was thirsty for spirituality and mysticism, and she firmly believed in magic.
To understand the profound Italian relationship with the magical aspects of faith, the cult of San Gennaro in Naples is instructive: a vial of the saint’s desiccated 1,710-year-old blood is kept in a small container, expected to liquefy every year before thousand of anxious devotees lest something terrible should occur. In 1980, the failure of the prophecy was considered the harbinger of the devastating Irpinia earthquake that killed 3,000 people. Or consider Father Pio of Pietralcina: millions of pilgrims in the far south of the Apulia region journey to witness the healing bestowed by the hands of the saint’s statue.
Or simply listen to stories about the many crying Madonnas, the exorcisms, and the unfathomable power of rites. Tiziana was fascinated by the opportunity to get closer to a cult that could bring Western monotheistic religions back to their pagan essence. She wanted to find magic so profoundly connected with nature that it has the ability to bend chance to the human will: to witch it, in the original sense of the word.