By Jessica Herbst
It’s August 15 and Italians are closing their shops and flocking to the beaches in waves. City streets are nearly empty. Some people are departing for their much-anticipated vacations, while others are arriving back home. This national holiday is a time of rest, relaxation and revelry at the height of Italy’s vacation season—Ferragosto.
If you’re wandering the streets of Italy near the end of August and wondering why so many shops and restaurants are closed, you’ve likely found yourself in the middle of this annual summer celebration. While some places remain open, such as museums and major tourist sites, a number of small business workers take advantage of this summer vacation. Aside from beaches, Italians may also travel to mountains or lakes to try and escape the summer heat.
The history of Ferragosto dates back all the way to the 18th century BCE, when the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus (Octavian), allegedly won a victory against his rival Marc Antony. He established a celebration called Feriae Augusti, a feast day that encouraged a period of rest and rejuvenation. Feriae Augusti also coincided with many of Rome’s ancient summer festivals, including the harvest festival of Consualia, the Palio di Siena and the Assumption of Mary.
The tradition of taking a vacation during Ferragosto became popularized during the Fascist era of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini provided deals for lower-class workers to take trips to other parts of Italy. His main goal was to give the working community a break from their daily labors. Many Italian workers still take advantage of this tradition, going on weekend or even month-long vacations either before or after August 15.
Today, many people still celebrate ancient holidays across Italy during the Ferragosto season. With the COVID-19 emergency, this year’s celebrations may be quieter than years’ past. However, here are the customary celebrations that take place in August:
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, or the Feast of Assumption, is a significant Catholic holiday that is celebrated on August 15. Religious processions and fireworks commemorate the day that Mary ascended to heaven.
The Palio di Siena is another festivity that is integral to Italian summers. The Palio takes place twice a year, first on July 2 and then on August 16. It is celebrated in Siena and involves a historical reenactment of a horse race. The city is divided into 17 “contrade,” with 10 competing in the race at the Piazza del Campo.
In addition to the Assumption and the Palio, numerous cities across Italy hold local festivals in the middle of August. In Rome, the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto is a huge attraction consisting of various dance performances held in the city squares. Diano Marina in Liguria holds a festival of the sea and a grand firework display called la Festa del Mare. A historical pageant and games are part of the festivities in Montepulciano, Tuscany. On the Abruzzo coast in Cappelle sul Tavo, parades include huge effigies and fireworks. Lastly, the Festa dei Candelieri held in Sassari, Sardinia dates back to the 16th century and involves a procession in which locals carry large candles.
There are some advantages to planning a visit in August, even though many convenience stores and shops may be closed. If you’re not a fan of crowded cities, Ferragosto may be the perfect time to visit—you will have a lot more of the city to yourself. Plus, you will find plenty of fun beach activities, parades and other festivities to keep you busy. Just make sure you plan ahead for supplies.