Ferragosto – Vacation, Food, Wine and ... Orgies?
What is Ferragosto? Ferragosto is a day off from work, a day of relax, a day of food, sun, and fun. Ferragosto is a great time to spend with family and friends, a day when most retail, commercial, industrial and governmental offices are closed. Ferragosto is religious processions and many towns celebrate Ferragosto with communal fairs, fireworks and dancing in the square. Ferragosto is fun!
A visit to Italy during the period stretching from the 25th of July through the 10 of September can be of extremes. The cities are empty, it only takes about 15 minutes to drive from one side of Milan to the other, and in the cities along the coast millions of people gather increasing the local population 10 times. On the 15th of August, Ferragosto, whether in the city or along the sea, the streets are empty until well into the afternoon. Most Catholics will tell you that Ferragosto is the celebration of the Assumption, that is when the Madonna was allowed into heaven, but the origins of Ferragosto are deeply rooted in the Roman Empire.
For hundreds of years before the birth of Christ the end of the summer agricultural season was celebrated with 15 days of feasts, elaborate parties and orgies. All members, including the Plebe and Slaves, of the Roman Empire participated in the festivities. Octavian, heir of Julius Caesar, became Augustus, or the one consecrated. The sixth month of the Roman calendar took his name. Augustus had been involved in a long battle with Mark Anthony. Mark Anthony had moved to Egypt, married Cleopatra, ex wife of Julius Caesar, and had established a small kingdom around Alexandria. In a great naval battle Mark Anthony’s navy was defeated. Shortly thereafter the son-in-law of Augustus entered Egypt and made Egypt one of Rome’s provinces.
On August 13, 29 B.C. Octavian, emperor of Rome known as Augustus, celebrated the triumph related to the conquest of Egypt: the memory of that day survives in the Italian holiday of Ferragosto (Feriae Augusti), now celebrated on the 15th. Over the centuries to follow the Catholic Church became more powerful and slowly attempted to eliminate the pagan and social holidays making the church’s traditions the center of everyday life. Ferragosto was too important to simply do away with and following the recognition of Catholicism as the official religion of Rome in 386 B.C. decided that Ferragosto should be celebrated as the day the Virgin Mary was taken into heaven, obviously eliminating the orgies.
In the 30s, Mussolini made Ferragosto a national holiday and initiated the process of vacationing in August. Italian workers earn 6 weeks paid vacation for every year worked. In the 60s, the Italian economy was in full swing of its industrial revolution. The make-up of the workforce had moved from agricultural to heavy industry. This created a serious problem during the hot month of August. The working conditions in the plants were unbearable because of the heat. The Unions and Industrialists got together and decided to close the plants for 3 weeks during the hottest days of August and required the employees to use part of their paid vacation for this purpose.
Although changes in the Italian economy from Industrial to high-tech and the implementation of air conditioning have made obsolete the necessity to close the plants, the tradition exists. Presently companies rarely shut-down for more than the 4 days surrounding Ferragosto and the vacations are now spread out from June through late September, however they do run on limited personnel as most Italians prefer vacationing in August.
One of the great things about Ferragosto and tourists is that if you get to the museums early, before 9:00 AM, you will be able to go through without masses of people or lines. The Italians will sleep in!
Tags: Ferragosto Augustus Roman Empire Italian Traditions Unions Employment Travel Italy