By Patricia Winton
Yesterday, August 15, was Ferragosto, one of Italy’s favorite holidays. A day when people splash at the beach or seek the cool of the mountains. When they barbecue steak and sausage or lick cool cones of gelato.
|A Harvest Festival by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.|
Whether you accept the legend or not, fact is that the Emperor Augustus instituted a similar festival, called Feriae Augusti, in 18 BC. During the month-long festivities, celebrations honored various gods associated with the season, including Conso (harvest), Opi (fertility), Vortumnus (seasons), and especially Diana (woods, wild animals, maternity, and childbirth).
It was a time to rest and play after the arduous growing season, and the homage to Diana may indicate hope for fruitful pregnancies as well. Roman women certainly prayed to Diana throughout the year in hopes of safe and painless childbirth. The festival to Diana during the Feriae Augusti were the only time during Roman period when all people could mingle, masters and slaves, patricians and plebeians alike.
Over time, the August holiday was gradually subsumed into the Christian story. On today’s Catholic calendar, August 15 marks the Assumption, the day that Mary was assumed into heaven. Vestiges of the ancient month-long festivities continue, too. Many Italians take the month off for vacation. During the first couple of days of the month, people asked me where I would be going for my holiday--this despite the fact that I had been away during both June and July.
Ferragosto traditions vary throughout the country and have changed over time. At one point, for example, Rome’s Piazza Navona was flooded and boat races were held. One event, calvacata dell’assunta (Palio of Siena), dates from the 16th century. Held on August 16, this horse race around the town’s shell-shaped central piazza features medieval costumes and music. Horse racing was apparently part of the ancient Consuali games, so this link has carried forward.
Purification by water and by fire constituted major parts of the Feriae Augusti rituals, and both elements continue today when a majority of Italians go to the sea or to a lake and end the day’s festivities with fireworks.
In some ways, the holiday reminds me of America’s Thanksgiving: it’s one of Italy's biggest travel days, people enjoy elaborate feasts (often picnics), and families gather to celebrate together.