Andrea Vitali has recently written an essay on the number 13 in popular Italian superstition, http://www.associazioneletarot.it/page.aspx?id=873
Il 13 nei tarocchi e nella superstizione popolare
Nella tradizione italiana
(13 in the tarot and in popular superstition
In the Italian tradition)
First, he makes it clear that in medieval Italy it was 17 that was associated with death:
Che il 17, congiunto al venerdì, sia stato considerato un numero infausto è assodato fin dal medioevo, dove l’anagramma di 17 scritto in numeri romani XVII dava VIXI, ovvero vissi, vale a dire 'non vivo più'. Poiché di venerdì 17 morì Nostro Signore, l'unione di quel giorno della settimana con quella data fu fatta rientrare nel novero dei momenti da evitare per intraprendere qualsivoglia azione.
(That 17, combined with Friday, has been considered an inauspicious number has been established since the Middle Ages, where the anagram of 17 written in Roman numerals XVII gave VIXI, or vissi, that is to say 'I no longer live'. Since Our Lord died on Friday the 17th, the union of that day of the week with that date was included in the list of times to avoid in undertaking any desired action.)
But by the 19th century it is clear that superstitions about 13 had thoroughly penetrated Italian culture of superstition. The only question is about what and its origin. Rawdon Lubbok Brown, in Ragguagli sulla vita e sulle opere di Marin Sanuto, intitolati dall'amicizia di uno straniero [R.L. Brown] al nobile J.V. Foscarini
, (Venezia, Nella Tipografia di Alvisopoli, MDCCCXXXVII , p. 152), says:
“La superstizione che fa temere di sedersi a tavola in numero 13 non era partecipata da Marin. Forse il risultato della sfida di Barletta fece venire quel numero alla moda in Italia”
(The superstition that makes you fear to sit at the table in number 13 was not participated in by Marin. Perhaps the result of the challenge of Barletta brought that number in fashion in Italy.)
I am not sure who Marin is.
There is also Arturo Graf, in Letture per le Giovinette
(Readings for Girls}, Periodico Mensile della Biblioteca dell’Istituto Nazionale per le Figlie dei Militari, Volume Quarto, Fascicolo Primo, Torino, Amministrazione [Tip. G. Derossi], 1885, p. 89.
Voi avete senza dubbio sentito parlare, e forse letto nell' Ettore Fieramosca di Massimo d'Azeglio, della Disfida di Barletta. Furono tredici italiani che combatterono contro tredici francesi, e li vinsero bravamente. Si domanda: qual era, in questo caso, la potenza del 13? di aiutare gl'italiani a vincere, o di forzare i francesi a perdere? Chi lo sa, lo dica”
(You have undoubtedly heard, and perhaps read in Massimo d'Azeglio 's Ettore Fieramosca , about the Challenge of Barletta. There were thirteen Italians who fought against thirteen French, and beat them bravely. The question is: what was, in this case, the power of 13? to help the Italians to win, or to force the French to lose? Who knows, say it.)
The reasoning, Andrea says, would seem to be that even though the Italians won, there was death and injury. Whatever the case, it seems to me, the superstition clearly wouldn't have been in effect before the challenge, or they would have avoided the number 13. The Challenge of Baretta was in 1503. If anything, 13 would have had positive connotations for the Italians who chose or agreed to it.
Andrea then cites two other explanations for the superstition around 13, put in the mouth of a superstitious person in Frasario Italiano ossia Raccolta e Spiegazione di Voci, Frasi Eleganti e Proverbi con Appendice di Componimenti Varii. Pubblicato per cura di A. e C.
[(Italian Phrasebook ie Collection and Explanation of Words, Elegant Phrases and Proverbs with Appendix of Various Components. Published by A. and C] (2nd edition, Firenze, Milano, Roma e Torino by G. Paravia, 1881). The superstition would seem to relate to having 13 at a table. First:
A. Ma pure non puoi negare che il 13 è l'emblema della morte. Di fatto, nei Tarocchi o Minchiate, il 13 figura la morte.
E. Bella ragione! A conti fatti si dovrebbe aver più paura del diavolo che della morte. Ora il diavolo nei tarocchi è il 15 perchè dunque non si teme che il diavolo porti via in corpo ed anima qualcuno, quando sono in 15 a tavola? Perchè non si teme che il diavolo ficchi la coda e le corna nei contratti e nei viaggi fatti il 15 del mese, come si teme pel 13? Inoltre il 12 nei tarocchi è l'impiccato. Io non so proprio perchè non si tema l'impiccagione da coloro che siedono a tavola in 12. Non so perchè non tema d'essere impiccato chi si mette per viaggio il 12 del mese!
(A. But you also cannot deny that 13 is the emblem of death. In fact, in the Tarot or Minchiate, 13 is death.
E. Beautiful reason! On balance one should be more afraid of the devil than of death. Now the devil in the tarot is 15 so why is it not feared that the devil will take away someone in body and soul when there are 15 at the table? Why are we not afraid that the devil will stick his tail and horns in contracts and trips made on the 15th of the month, as we fear for the 13th? Furthermore, 12 in the tarot is the hanged man. I really don't know why those who sit at the table at 12 are not afraid of being hanged.)
Then, about 13 at table, we have:
A. Almeno non mi negherai che il 13 è il punto di Giuda.
E. - Il punto di Giuda dovrebb'essere il 30, perchè per 30 denari tradì il suo Maestro. Eppure il 30 non è mai stato creduto numero infame e funesto.
A. Oh! si dice il punto di Giuda perchè era il 13° a tavola nell'ultima cena.
(A . At least you won't deny me that 13 is Judas's place.
E. - Judas' place should be 30, because for 30 denarii he betrayed his Master. Yet 30 has never been believed to be an infamous and fatal number.
A . Oh! the place of Judas is said because he was the 13th at the table at the last supper.)
The dialogue continues with a discussion of whether that belief is rational, the skeptic holding that any apostle could be 13th, depending on where one starts counting, and that St. Augustine said that St. Paul was the 13th apostle. But the main point, for the present discussion, is that by 1881 in Italy 13 at a table is associated by some with Judas as the 13th apostle at the Last Supper. As to when that superstition arose, we cannot say.
Related to the foregoing is a passage in a 19th century book about Christian morality, which discusses the following example:
John refuses to sit down at the table when thirteen are the guests, because he fears that one of them will have to die within the next year.
Here Judas is not mentioned, and there is the added information that one will die within a year. This "within a year" is of interest. This same component of the superstition is affirmed by Graf, in another passage from his work, and now not just that 13 at table means one of them will die within a year, but that this is because of Judas,
Nella superstizione del numero tredici non si mette innanzi nessuna proprietà misteriosa del numero; ma si tira in campo l'ultima cena fatta da Cristo cogli Apostoli, e si ricorda il tradimento e la fine disperata di Giuda. A quella cena furono appunto in tredici, e nel numero tredici, che non aveva colpa veruna, Giuda trasfonde tutta la diabolica perversità dell'anima sua. Per colpa di Giuda il numero tredici diventa un numero insidioso e maligno, da cui bisogna guardarsi appunto come da un traditore.
(In the superstition of the number thirteen no mysterious property of the number is put forward; but the last supper made by Christ with the Apostles, and we remember the betrayal and the desperate end of Judas. At that supper there were precisely thirteen, and in the number thirteen, who had no guilt, Judas instilled all the diabolical perversity of his soul. Because of Judas the number thirteen becomes an insidious and malignant number, from which one must beware precisely as of a traitor.)
Graf is writing in 1885. Before that, the earliest source is 1835, and in 1503 there appears to have been no such superstition.
One more piece of evidence is earlier, from Chronoprostasi Felsinea, Overo Le Saturnali Vindicie del Parlar Bolognese, e Lombardo, Dove le origine erudite di molte voci, e forme di dire di lui proprie si svelano da ben fondate ragioni, ed autorità valevoli approvate. E con chiudesi, che quell'istesso Idioma non deve posporsi à qualunque altro d’Italia più celebrato, Discorso di Ovidio Mont’Albani
[Chronoprostasi Felsinea, or the Saturnian Avengers of Bolognese and Lombard Speech, Where the erudite origins of many words, and forms of speaking are revealed by well-founded reasons, and valid approved authorities. And with closing, that that same idiom must not be postponed to any other more celebrated in Italy], Speech by Ovidio Mont'Albani (Bologna, by Giacomo Monti, 1653), p. 34.
Cercar il tredici in disparo è proverbio Bolognese, e vuol dire andar dietro al suo peggio, e non contentarsi dell’honesto. E ciò per essere in numero 13. quel numero appunto, che raccorda l’empietà del Popolo Hebreo, e l’ingratitudine di lui grande verso Iddio, doppo la sua liberatione dalla schiavitudine Egittiaca; come nel Salmo 13. di Davidde si può vedere.
(Looking for the thirteen in disparo [the disparate?, desparation?] is a Bolognese proverb, and it means going after his worst, and not being satisfied with the honest. And this in order to be number 13, that number precisely, which links the impiety of the Hebrew People, and its great ingratitude towards God, after its liberation from Egyptian slavery; as can be see in Psalm 13. of David. )
This is another dubious derivation, since Psalm 13 says nothing about the ingratitude of the Jewish people after their liberation from slavery. But it may be a reference to Judas, as the impious disciple, or to the Last Supper in general (with 13 people) as a sorrowful event and ignoring its positive aspect.
The first documented reference to the unluckiness being the 13th at the table in popular culture remains Montaigne in 1580, in the context of a French superstition,
I think myself excusable, if I prefer the odd number; Thursday rather than Friday; if I had rather be the twelfth or fourteenth than the thirteenth at table; if I had rather, on a journey, see a hare run by me than cross my way, and rather give my man my left foot than my right, when he comes to put on my stockings. (Cotton translation, from the essay "On Conferences")
Otherwise, there remains the Modena Perceval,
or the late 13th or early 14th century, but if it had some influence in the early 15th century, there is no documentation. Even here, the reference is in one place Judas and another place "Our Lord". But it is here that the reference to dying "within a year" is of some significance, as in some versions the Grail Quests were expected to last one year, even if in practice Perceval spends many years. So it is likely that the "siege perilous" is indeed at the origin of the superstition. But when it became part of Italian culture remains undetermined.
Andrea confirms that Judas was considered the 12th disciple:
Giuda - considerato universalmente il dodicesimo apostolo il cui tradimento viene ricordato attraverso la figura dell’Appeso, dodicesima carta nell’ordine dei Trionfi – viene identificato dal personaggio del dialogo come il tredicesimo nell’Ultima Cena.
(Judas - universally considered the twelfth apostle whose betrayal is remembered through the figure of the Hanged Man, the twelfth card in the order of the Triumphs - is identified by the character in the dialogue as the thirteenth in the Last Supper.)
There is also this, from Andrea in a private communication:
First, from Dictionary of Symbols
, by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gherbrant (I am translating from the Italian translation)
1. In ancient times the number thirteen was considered a bad omen. Philip of Macedon, who had added his statue to that of the most important Twelve Gods, during a procession, died shortly afterwards. In the Last Supper. of Christ with the apostles, the guests were thirteen. The Kabbalah defined the thirteen [the] spirit of evil. The thirteenth chapter of the Apocalypse is that of the Antichrist and the Beast.
2. However, the thirteenth in a group is often, even in Antiquity, the most powerful and the most sublime. Such is the case of Zeus in the procession of the twelve gods among which he sits or advances as thirteenth, according to Plato and Ovid, distinguished from the others by his superiority. Ulysses, thirteenth of his group, escapes the devouring appetite of the Cyclops.
So it is like Jesus vs. Judas. I would add that 13 was also associated with Epiphany, the 13th day after Jesus's birth.
And from Lexicon of Symbols
by Olivier Beigbeder
On the tympanum of Saint-Ursin in Bourges the calendar of the monthly works is not inscribed under twelve arches, but under thirteen: What allows us to reach this number is the double arch under which the man bent by the hardest work is inserted, that of the harvest. And therefore it is to the curse of work that this number thirteen sends us back.
These are both French sources. I cannot find the interpretation of the second confirmed elsewhere on the Web. Work is the usual theme of the "calendar of the months", whether 12 or 13.
So for now I continue to hold it most likely that Death is 13 because the Hanged Man is 12 (as shown in the defamation poster of Muzio Attendola) but now perhaps also because of ancient traditions associating 13 with Death (and its opposite!). The superstition about 13 at table and Judas is probably from the Arthurian "siege perilous" - perilous seat - which references the Last Supper. Since the Last Supper was on Thursday, there is an association to Judas that way, too, "Jeudi" in French. "Giovidi" in Italian sends us elsewhere, to a more positive association. At this point, given the positive choice of 13 by the Challenge of Barletta, the association with Judas in popular Italian supserstition seems most probably borrowed from France of the 16th century, despite its presence in the Modena Perceval
of c. 1300 (plus or minus 20 years or so).