What are we celebrating?
As far as many people in Italy are concerned, August 15th is the height of summer – and that in itself is worth celebrating.
But the holiday has a very long history.
August 15th is when Catholics celebrate the Assumption, or the ascendance of the Virgin Mary into heaven. However, it was a holiday in Italy long before it took on a religious significance.
Ferragosto, the Italian name for the holiday, comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti (the festivals of the Emperor Augustus) which were introduced back in 18 BC, probably to celebrate a battle victory, and were celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals. These festivities were linked to the longer Augustali period – intended to be a period of rest after months of hard labour.
In Roman times, the celebrations included horse races. Even today, Siena’s Palio dell’Assunta usually takes place on August 16th.
The holiday now combines both its ancient Roman and Catholic roots with marking the semi-official peak of Italy’s summer holiday season.
Where’s everybody gone?
It’s traditional to use the August long weekend to take a trip out of the city, usually escaping the heat at the seaside, lakes or mountains, so if you stay in town you’ll notice it’s much quieter than usual.
During the era of Fascism, the regime would organise trips with special offers for the 13th-15th August, the idea being that less well-off workers would get the opportunity to visit a different part of the country.
Even today there are often discounts on packages for the Ferragosto weekend – though you may find that train tickets and hotel rooms sell out fast.
And of course, many Italian families go away on longer vacations at this time of year too.
Will everything be closed?
If you didn’t have the foresight to book a trip of your own, you may be wondering how to make the most of the day.
Usually, bank holidays mean total shutdown even in major towns and cities, with everything from post offices to public transport closed, and that’s the same on August 15th.
And as we mentioned earlier it’s the start of Italy’s holiday season, meaning you’ll see ‘chiuso per ferie’ signs popping up all over the place.
However, unlike many other public holidays, on Ferragosto a large number of museums and cultural sites remain open.
So it’s an excellent time to visit major attractions such as the Colosseum, Pantheon or Galleria Borghese if you’re in the capital, or one of the many museums and sites across the rest of Italy.
Ferragosto is also usually celebrated with special church services and religious processions, as well as fireworks displays and other events.
While these were cancelled over the precious two summers due to Covid-19, events and gatherings can go ahead restriction-free this year.
But the most traditional way to celebrate of all is with a big family lunch.
For this reason, you’ll see many restaurants remain open on this date, at least at lunchtime, and may even offer special Ferragosto menus for the occasion.