August 15, the Italian Holiday of Ferragosto

This August 15 holiday dates back to ancient Roman times

Ferragosto in Padova
Lahiri Cappello/Wikipedia Commons 

Ferragosto, or Assumption Day, is an Italian national holiday and holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church. Celebrated on Aug. 15, Ferragosto is the height of the Italian vacation season. While many businesses in the larger cities may be closed, museums and tourist shops will be open and bustling. 

Millions of Italians take their annual vacations in the two weeks before or after August 15, meaning highways, airports, train stations and especially beaches will be packed to the gills.

It all comes to a grinding halt around September 1, when Italians go back to work, kids get ready to return to school, and businesses go back to regularly scheduled hours and practices.

History of the Ferragosto Celebration

This national holiday has a history that goes back centuries, even before the Catholic holy day, to the founding of ancient Rome itself. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (Octavian), the first Roman emperor, held the first iteration of Ferragosto, called the Feriae Augusti, in 18 BCE. The date commemorates Augustus' victory over his rival Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium.

Many other ancient Roman festivals were held in August, including the Consualia, which celebrated the harvest. And many of the ancient traditions started during Augustus' time are still part of modern Ferragosto celebrations today. Horses are adorned with flowers and given the day "off" from any agricultural duties, for instance.

 

The Palio di Siena horse race held on July 2 and August 16 as part of Ferragosto, also has its origins in the Feriae Augusti celebrations. 

Catholic Celebration of Assumption

According to Roman Catholic teachings, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary commemorates the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her bodily assumption into heaven after the end of her life on earth.

Like many Christian holy days (including Christmas and Easter) the timing of the Assumption was slated to coincide with a previously existing pagan holiday. 

Ferragosto During Fascism

During the Fascist Era in Italy, Mussolini used Ferragosto as a kind of populist holiday, making special travel offers to the working classes that allowed them to visit different parts of the country. This tradition is still alive in the present era, with many travel discounts promoted for the Ferragosto holiday period. 

Ferragosto Festivals

You'll find celebrations in many places in Italy on this day and the days before and after, often including music, food, parades, or fireworks.

Here are a few of the most popular Ferragosto festivals held across Italy on August 15.

  • Rome's Gran Ballo di Ferragosto fills Rome's squares with live dance performances. There's a different type of dance in each square.
  • Diano Marina in Liguria holds a festival of the sea with a huge fireworks display. 
  • In Tuscany, Montepulciano holds a historical pageant and games.
  • Cappelle sul Tavo, near Pescara on the Abruzzo coast, celebrates with the Palio delle Pupe, huge effigies paraded through the streets at night. During the procession, they eventually explode with fireworks.
  • Sassari in Sardinia holds the Festa dei Candelieri that dates back to the 16th century. In this exciting festival on Aug. 14 and 15, you'll see a race with teams of men bearing huge candles.

In addition to the festivities held on Aug. 15, many Ferragosto festivals continue through Aug. 16. 

  • Siena, in Tuscany, runs their second Palio race in the town's main square.
  • Girifalco in Calabria celebrates the Feast Day of Saint Rocco on Aug. 16.

 

Updated by Elizabeth Heath