Years ago I celebrated my first Italian Ferragosto in Capri, a most fitting (though crowded) place to be on August 15. The Roman emperor Augustus, whose name graces summer’s last month, was so enamored with the beguiling island of Capri that he appropriated it from the municipality of Naples in exchange for the nearby island of Ischia.
Augustus ordered festivities called feriae augustus, which included games, races and rituals to honor the goddess Diana, who was worshiped as queen of the fields as well as of heaven and earth. Workers celebrating after weeks of hard labor would wish their employers “Buon Ferragosto!” and receive a monetary bonus in return.
With the rise of Christianity and the suppression of pagan feasts, August 15 became a religious holiday commemorating the assumption or lifting into heaven of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Over the centuries various communities developed special ways of honoring the Madonna. In the Sardinian town of Sassari, for instance, men carrying elaborately decorated wood columns dance through the streets.
Messina’s townspeople construct La Vara, a fantastic sixty-foot-high pyramid from which stars, clouds and figures of saints dangle. At one time young boys dressed as angels and apostles were hoisted into the air by rings attached to La Vara. As part of the ceremonies a young girl representing the Virgin Mary freed a prisoner.
According to a Neapolitan legend, local fishermen once pulled a portrait of the Madonna from the sea, and their king ordered a church built around it at the beach. On August 15, which became known as the Festa della Nzegna, everyone was tossed into the water. The night before the faithful ate only watermelon, but the next day they feasted on sumptuous desserts.
In the late Renaissance, Rome’s governors flooded the splendid Piazza Navona for festivities that included fake fish splashing in the water and young boys diving for coins. As darkness fell, candles and torches glistened, and Romans enjoyed lavish dinners called sabatine (little Saturday feasts).
Ferragosto, now a national holiday, still marks the height of the Italian vacation season. In cities and towns many restaurants and shops close. Even in these less-than-normal times, Italians are flocking to the beaches, and seaside villages are hosting daylong festivities and spectacular displays of fireworks (fuochi d’artificio). The term “ferragosto in città” has come to describe, not just the emptied towns, but any bleak or unhappy situation.
Wherever you are this Ferragosto, I hope you enjoy the sweetness of summer’s final fling.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; MONA LISA: A Life Discovered; and “A” Is for Amore, which you can download for free at diannehales.com.