We The Italians | Italian traditions: Ferragosto in Italy

Italian traditions: Ferragosto in Italy

Italian traditions: Ferragosto in Italy

  • WTI Magazine #118 Aug 19, 2019
  • 244

They were originally called feriae Augusti, or "the rest of Augustus" (as the Roman emperor), and are a millenary history custom. They were to indicate those holidays established in the year 8 BC by the first Roman emperor in history to celebrate the end of the main works of the agricultural season and thus constitute a period of rest able to restore the workers of the fields. 

This is how Ferragosto was born, a tradition that therefore has very ancient origins, a habit that is now rooted in the holiday period that usually takes place around the eighth month of the year. This "pagan" holiday was later joined by the religious solemnity of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, the dogma proclaimed as such by Pius XII in 1950, but historically very much alive in the Italian Catholic tradition since decidedly earlier times.

So much so that the identification of August 15 as the day of the festivities is historically well before the papal "formalization" of the feast: the date perhaps refers to the day of the consecration of the ancient Marian basilica of Constantinople. This way ancient practices linked to work and agriculture - such as celebrating rest with competitions of horses or draught animals, or owners giving "tips" to their workers - have merged with traditions, festivals and religious events. 

This all-Italian union of "sacred" and "profane" is the origin of the great quantity of festivals, festivities, manifestations and traditions that punctuate Italy and that are truly of a surprising variety and capillarity. To all this, to close the circle, was added the custom of the "mid-August trip" favored in the 1920’s by the fascist regime, that through the associations of the various professional guilds, wanted to promote the knowledge of Italian cities and its beauty even through the poorest strata of the population, organizing trips "in a single day" at bargain prices. 

It is impossible to put them all in a review. We are just trying to tell a few of them and then instill the curiosity to discover others as well. 

The Palio of the Assumption 

The clearest and best known example of this profane and sacred union is the Palio dell'Assunta (Palio of the Assumption), which has been held in Siena for over 400 years and which is held on the 16th - not 15th - of August just because it was already publicly "committed" that day by the "Corteo dei ceri e dei censi" (procession of candles and censuses), a popular event which was "engulfed" by the importance of the palio itself until it finally disappeared in the 19th century. 

As mentioned, it was the Roman culture that began to celebrate the days of rest from agricultural work with races of oxen, chickens, capons, horses and other common animals. A tradition that went far beyond the Middle Ages, covered by the traditional parochialism between cities, first, and between boroughs, then, which was and is an all-Italian characteristic and that led to the multiplication of "tenzoni" between nobles and knights in all sorts of attempts. 

This is what happened in Siena, where the Palio was officially born in 1659 - the year from which the "official" victories of the boroughs are counted - but which in reality had been going on, almost spontaneously, for several centuries. Thus, that of July 2 - the date chosen to commemorate a miracle attributed to Our Lady of Provenzano - which in a few decades met its "twin" on the day of the Assumption. Needless to say, the experience of the Palio di Siena is something absolutely unique and that having the opportunity to participate, perhaps from the hectic days before it is like taking a fascinating journey with a time machine. 

From the “jousts”... 

From the Alps to Sicily, the traditions of Ferragosto are countless. For example, if you stay in the area of Siena, in Sarteano, on August 15th there is the famous Giostra del Saracino (Joust of the Saracen), where knights and brave people belonging to the boroughs compete in games of skill whose history goes back centuries. The most famous of the "jousts", that of Arezzo, takes place a few days earlier, on August 7. In Fermo, since 1182 there has been the Cavalcata dell'Assunta, considered the oldest of the Palii in Italy, while in Porto Santo Stefano, capital of the municipality of Monte Argentario in the province of Grosseto, the "Cavalleresca Tenzone" translates into a colourful regatta among the four "guzzi", i.e. the historic four rower boats that represent the districts of the city. 

In Pozzuoli on August 15th, the Assumption is celebrated with a heartfelt procession through the streets of the old town starting in the morning: after lunch, the coveted "profane" of the festival takes place at the Caligolian Pier, where the young people of the city challenge each other in climbing "O Pennone", a pole sprinkled with soap. In Montereale, a small and historic village in the province of L'Aquila, the competition takes the curious and original form of a poetic challenge with rhymes strictly by hand that is held in front of the Abbey of the Madonna in Pantanis. In Messina since the 14th century is documented the most original feast of the Vara - or of the Bara, in ancient formulations - a real machine with gears in the shape of a pyramid with a number that represents the Assumption of the Virgin and that was originally animated by an impressive number of participants. 

... to the table 

In the multicoloured and variegated Italian tradition, there is no shortage of typical dishes of August 15th in the different local cultures. Leaving aside the "old" custom of the people of Turin to dine in a sack on the banks of the Po near the Madonna del Pilone where a "Festa delle Pignatte" was held, a typical culinary product of Ferragosto is the roast pigeon, a custom imported from France at the time of Charlemagne and still widespread in several areas of Italy. 

In Sicily they eat theMelon Frost - gelu du muluna - or even watermelon, a typical spoon dessert; while in Rome, the rich traditional lunch of the Ferragosto region is dominated by fettuccine with livers, stewed chicken with peppers and the inevitable watermelon. In various regions of Central Italy the custom of baking aniseed-based cakes and donuts for the Assunta is widespread: this is the case, for example, of the mountain sugar of Grizzana, in the province of Bologna, or the mid-August biscuit of Pitigliano, near Grosseto.