What is Ferragosto? Arguably the second most popular holiday in Italy (next to Christmas), Ferragosto is on August 15th. While the official holiday is just one day, it is generally accepted that the whole month of August is holiday season in Italy. Families head to beaches, mountains, or vacation homes. Celebrations are marked with traditional foods and festivals, complete with fireworks and bonfires, depending on the specific region of Italy.
The term Ferragosto derives from the Latin expression feriae Augusti (Augustus’rest) indicating a festivity set up by the Emperor Augustus 18 BC. Ferragosto was an addition to the existing ancient Roman festivals, which fell in August, like the Vinalia rustica or the Consualia, which celebrated the harvest. The ancient Ferragosto had the purpose of linking the main August festivities to provide a suitable period of rest, also called Augustali, necessary after the hard labor of the previous weeks. It was a time when everyone felt they could relax after the hard work of the harvest and, unusually, a period when the nobility mixed with the laboring classes. The Romans feted the gods of agriculture and those associated with the change of seasons. Roman women feted Diana, goddess of hunting but also, because of her association with the phases of the moon, of maternity. The festivities included horse racing, and the labor animals like oxen and donkeys were rested and decorated with flower garlands. The horse racing tradition survives today in the guise of the Palio Dell’Assunta, which takes place on August 16thin Siena.
The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption on August 15th. This is a Roman Catholic feast day celebrating the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the end of her earthly life, was assumed physically into heaven. It is interesting to note that the origins of this feast day itself have been lost in time. It’s not even sure where or when the popular belief relating to the assumption began though certainly in the 4th and 5th centuries it was appearing in texts. It has been speculated that the feast was introduced by the Council of Ephesus, though this remains open to debate.
The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto started in the late 1920s. During the mid-August period, the Mousilini government organized popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organizations who started “People’s Trains of Ferragosto”, which were available at discounted prices. For many families, it was during these trips that they saw the sea, mountains, and Italy’s many artistic marvels for the first time.
This church festival links with older rites that concentrate on Neptune and purification through water as well as the purification by fire. Through the 20th century Romans continued to celebrate Ferragosto by setting up an impromptu lake in the Capital’s Piazza Navona. The Piazza would be flooded and people would use it as a pool. Other celebrations in the countryside still involve bonfires and in some places, like Trapani, Sicily, there are processions where the townspeople burn grass alongside the procession with torches.
Traditionally, Ferragosto marks the start of Italy’s vacation period. If you are visiting Italy during the second half of August, you may find that restaurants and shops are closed for vacation or chiuso per ferie, but not in tourist areas. If you are going to be in Italy during this period, it is worth checking whether there will be a special Ferragosto celebration. You’ll find celebrations that often including music, food, parades, and/or fireworks. Here are some of the top Ferragosto Festivals:
• Rome’s Gran Ballo di Ferragosto fills Rome’s squares with a variety of live dance performances in each square.
• Diano Marina in Liguria holds a festival of the sea with fireworks display
• In Tuscany, Montepulciano holds a historical pageant and games.
• Cappelle sul Tavo, near Pescara on the Abruzzo coast, the celebration includes the Palio of the Pupe, huge effigies parade through the streets at night eventually exploding with fireworks.
• In Siena the world famous horse race, with its roots in the middle ages and Roman games
• The Palio del’Assunta on August 16th Festa del Mare, Diano Marina [Liguria] August 15th. There is a sea festival with fireworks. Palio del Mare, Alassio [Liguria] August 15th.
• Watch a very pretty festival in which small boats light up the sea with candles followed by fireworks. Madonna della Madia [August 14th-16th] Monopoli [Bari, Puglia]
• There is a water festival in which locals reenact the salvaging of a Byzantine icon of the Madonna that had been washed up on the beach in 1117.
• Festa della Madonna del Ponte, Caltagirone [Sicily] August 15th, People make their way on their knees towards a statue of the crucified.
• Christ.Palio delle Contrade, Garda [Lombardy] August 15th. Watch a horse race, a fishing regatta, and a parade of locals in historical costumes.
• Bruscello, Montepulciano [Tuscany] there is a traditional show held on the cathedral steps where the performers speak in rhyme.
• Sagra del Tortello, Melo [Cutigliano, Pistoia, Tuscany] August 15th. Enjoy the Pasta Festival.Sassari in Sardinia holds the Festa dei Candelieri that dates back to the 16th century. In this exciting festival held on August 14-15, you’ll see a race with teams of men bearing huge and very heavy candles.