Years ago I celebrated my first Italian Ferragosto in Capri, which turns out to be a most fitting (though crowded) place to be on August 15. The Roman emperor Augustus so enjoyed late summer that he claimed as his own the month we now call by his name. He ordered month-long 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. Augustus was equally enamored with the beguiling island of Capri, which he appropriated from the municipality of Naples in exchange for the nearby island of Ischia.
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 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 feasted on sumptuous desserts the next day.
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).
Times have changed. Now a national holiday, Ferragosto marks the height of the Italian vacation season. In cities and towns many restaurants and shops close; residents shut up their apartments and flock to the beaches. Seaside villages often end the day’s festivities with spectacular displays of fireworks (fuochi d’artificio).
This year, given Italy's slumping economy, more Italians are staying home and giving literal meaning to the phrase “ferragosta in citta,” a term used for any bleak or unhappy situation.
Wherever you celebrate it, I hope your Ferragosta is a good one!
Words and Expressions
ferie estive -- summer holidays
l’estate -- summer
festeggiare -- to celebrate
andare in ferie -- go on holiday
Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for more information on joining her for a week of writing, cooking, and savoring Italian pleasures in Capri this fall.