Walking through the Christmas market in Piazza Navona a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see several small children clustered around one of the stalls, captivated by small puppets of witches on broomsticks.

Photograph: Square 87

Photograph: Square 87

‘They’re befana,’ my friend explained to me. ‘She’s like Father Christmas. Only instead of a sleigh, she rides a broomstick.’

Rome may host the headquarters of the Catholic Church, but belief in the efficacy of spells, witches and the evil eye are undiminished even in the shadow of the Vatican. Scratch an Italian and you find a superstition.

It is this connection to the pagan past that Mirella Patzer captures so wonderfully in her historical romance, The Orphan of the Olive Tree.

Even today most Italian friends I know have an equivocal relationship with the dark side. They still believe in the power of the strega; it’s a fear that predates Christianity.

Emperors like Augustus and Tiberius had seers and necromancers banished or executed while retaining astrologers and fortune tellers in their retinue, consulting them whenever they had to make an important decision.

As Mirella Patzer’s novel opens, Felicia Ventura believes she is barren. In desperation she seeks out a local wise woman and asks her help to conceive. The old lady recommends a mammetta, a fertility doll made from a mandrake root.

But not just any mandrake:

Cosma halted at the foot of a large oak on the outskirts of the village.

Felicia recognized the tree where executioners hung local criminals.

 “The mandrake root grows best beneath such trees.” Cosma bent, set

down the cage, opened the door, and leashed the dog before releasing it.

The creature sniffed the ground.

“Why?” Felicia detested being in such a forbidding place, particularly

at night. A wind whirled around them, stirring up leaves and debris and the

scent of moss. An owl hooted in the distance. Felicia clutched her cloak

tight in an attempt to retain what remained of her fading valor.

 “When a man dies at the end of a rope, in the seconds before he

perishes, it is said he lets loose a final, uncontrolled ejaculation. This last

semen is the richest. It fertilizes the ground beneath his swinging limbs and

causes the mandrake root to spring up.”

cornicelloThe mammetta works its magic and Felicia gives birth to twins. But her success only antagonizes a jealous neighbor, and Felicia falls victim to the ‘evil eye’.

You will still hear Italians speak of the mal’occhio (mal means bad, and occhio – the eye). It is bad luck or even a curse caused by the bad thoughts of other people – especially envy. My friend was especially wary and wears an amulet. You will see others make signs against the evil eye or wear cornetti, like the one on the left, to protect themselves from its effects.

So the scenario Ms Patzer describes is not only historically compelling, but anyone who has mixed in southern Italian communities will know that even today narratives such as this persist.

When Felicia gives birth to her twins, her rival, Prudenza, revives another ancient superstition – that twins are only born when a woman has bedded another man at the same time as her husband. The power of this mordant belief in the medieval Tuscan village where they live is strong enough to ruin Felicia’s marriage.

photograph: Roberto Vicario

photograph: Roberto Vicario

The novel is about two generations of women and the secrets they keep, played against the backdrop of the medieval Tuscan countryside around Sienna – famous for its horse races through the Piazza del Campo, which even today attracts massive crowds.

She exactly captures the mind-set of people living in a country and an age when a man’s blood oath was binding and a paradoxical belief in the power of the strega and fear of the Church ruled everyone’s lives.


The intricately woven plot rips along at breath taking speed, and the short chapters give the book great read-on appeal.

Mirella is passionate about her subject and her characters and this oozes through every page. Highly recommended.

See The Orphan of the Olive Tree on Amazon.


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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. Colin, what a fun post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel. Can’t wait to read Stigmata.

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