Did Valentine’s Day really originate in Italy?

February 14th is famous the world over as Valentine’s Day – or as it’s known in Italian, La festa di San Valentino. But where did the idea of a day dedicated to lovers come from? And was St Valentine himself really Italian?

A young couple embraces on a terrace of the Oranges Gardens (Giardino degli Aranci) on Aventine Hill overlooking The Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica (Rear) in Rome on November 11, 2020, during the government's restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 novel coronavirus. - Italy has shut bars, restaurants and shops in the worst-affected areas and introduced a nationwide night curfew, but has so far swerved a second shutdown, with the antigen tests becoming a crucial part of its efforts.
What's the historic link between Valentine's Day and Italy? Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

When was the first Valentine’s Day?

It’s long been thought that Valentine’s Day may have started out as the Roman pagan festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th.

During the celebrations for Lupercalia, a goat (or goats) and a dog would be sacrificed, and priests known as luperci (‘brothers of the wolf’) would smear the blood on their foreheads, feast on the animals’ meat, and cut strips from their hides. 

READ ALSO: Pompeii shows a Roman smooch for Valentine’s Day

According to the historian Plutarch, young noblemen would then run around the city naked or semi-naked, hitting bystanders with the flayed skin in a fertility ritual.

Women would stand in their way, hoping that getting struck with the thongs would help them conceive – or if they were already pregnant, that it would help the baby to be born healthy.

The idea goes that after Rome became Christianised in the fourth century, such indecorous displays would no longer do. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I is said to have banned Lupercalia and instead declared February 14th a day of sober celebration in honour of the martyred Saint Valentine.

READ ALSO: 11 of the most romantic places in Italy to escape the crowds

In reality, it’s now widely believed that Gelasius never succeeded in abolishing Lupercalia (though he did call participants ‘vile rabble’, and tried to get it banned), and the proximity of the two dates might just be a coincidence.

Historians these days credit Chaucer, writing in the 1300s, with being the first person to link February 14th with romantic love in his poem ‘Parliament of Fowls’.

Who was the real St Valentine?

There are at least a couple of figures associated with St Valentine – and they may well have been the same person.

One is a third century bishop, Valentinus, from the town of Terni in Umbria. This Valentinus restored the sight of a Roman judge’s daughter, and as a result converted the judge and his whole family to Christianity.

The judge released all the Christian prisoners under his control, and Valentinus continued to successfully evangelise throughout the land – until he started proselytising to Emperor Claudius II, who consequently had him beheaded.

READ ALSO: Five ways to have the perfect romantic weekend in Rome

The second is another third century priest named Valentine who was also martyred for rubbing the emperor up the wrong way.

Claudius was struggling to get recruits for his army, and blamed the problem on the overattachment of Roman men to their wives and girlfriends. As a result, he banned all marriages and engagements in the city.

Valentine saw this rule as unjust, and continued to marry lovers in secret in defiance of the edict. When he was found out, he was beaten to death and then beheaded. 

As these two Valentines are from roughly the same time and place and met the same fate, it’s believed they may in fact have been the same person.

Various riffs on both stories include the idea that St Valentine distributed hearts cut from parchment to persecuted Christians to remind them both of the love of God and their vows to each other; and that he fell in love with either his jailor’s or the Roman judge’s daughter, sending her a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’.

READ ALSO: Ten phrases to arm you for your Italian date

No one really knows how much of this is true, and how much is legend. The origins and identity of Saint Valentine remain mysterious, and there are in fact ten Saint Valentines listed on the official Roman Catholic register of saints.

Still, you can pay tribute to at least one of them by visiting his skull at Rome’s Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

A couple exchanges a kiss at the forum in Rome.
A couple exchanges a kiss at the forum in Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

How is Valentine’s Day celebrated in Italy?

Most of Italy celebrates Valentine’s Day in pretty much the same way as the rest of the world: it’s less a Catholic festival than it is a fairly heavily commercialised holiday during which couples can expect to spend over the odds on a weekend away or a meal out. 

That said, St Valentine is apparently the patron saint of multiple Italian towns, including (as you might expect) Terni, as well as Padua, Sadali in Sardinia, Quero and Pozzoleone in Veneto, Palmoli in Abruzzo, and Vico del Gargano in Puglia.

Each of these towns has their own way of celebrating the day – in Palmoli, the floor of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is covered in laurel leaves, while Quero has a tradition of blessing oranges and throwing them off a hill nearby the Church of Saint Valentine for good luck.

Verona, where Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet and which has appointed a particular balcony in the historic centre ‘Juliet’s balcony’, has embraced the kitschier aspects of the festival, and every year puts on the four-day-long Valentine-themed event ‘Verona in Love‘.

What does make Italy unique is the designation of February 15th as a day of celebration for single people, known as La Festa dei Single (Singles’ Day) or Festa di San Faustino (Feast of San Faustino), a date first thought up by lifestyle site La Vita da Single (Single Life) in 2001.

While it started out as something of a joke, the annual celebration of single life has become increasingly popular, with events marking the occasion in many of Italy’s big cities – ranging from sociable dinners for the happily single to speed-dating events for those looking for love.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


13 essential articles you’ll need when moving to Italy

Whether you've just moved or are still in the planning stages, here are some of The Local's most popular and useful articles for members navigating a new life in Italy.

13 essential articles you'll need when moving to Italy
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Finding your Italian home

If you’re planning to buy, you might want to start by reading this guide to the red flags to watch out for when viewing old Italian properties, or our hard-won tips on how not to buy a house in Italy.

Looking for a rental instead? As with so many other things in Italy, the property rental market may not be what you expect. We’ve listed some of the quirks and pitfalls to look out for when apartment-hunting.

Planning a renovation? No doubt you’ve heard of Italy’s 110 percent ‘superbonus’ scheme – see all the latest news and information about claiming it in our property section.

Dealing with bureaucracy

Italian bureaucracy may be notoriously tricky to deal with, but a little planning goes a long way in reducing paperwork-related stress. So where should you start? See our guide to the five most essential documents you’ll need to get.

If you’re planning to move to Italy long-term, residency is a must. You may also be looking at gaining Italian citizenship via one of several pathways. Here’s a look at the difference between residency and citizenship, plus the resources you’ll need to apply for either.

From visas to driving licences, tax codes and health cards, we have guides to navigating all aspects of Italy’s famous bureaucracy

And if your bureaucratic woes are Brexit-related, see our latest guides to the paperwork you’ll need in our ‘Dealing with Brexit’ section.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Work and self-employment

If you’d love to relocate to Italy but are concerned about employment prospects, here are the 25 jobs and skills the country has a shortage of right now.

Looking for a job but don’t speak Italian (yet)? Here’s a quick look at some of the opportunities readers have found that don’t require a high level of language proficiency.

Find more news and practical guides on jobs and self-employment in Italy here.

Learning the Italian language

This is no doubt one of your top priorities if you’re moving to Italy, but it doesn’t have to be a struggle.

Give your conversational Italian a quick boost with our list of 12 incredibly useful Italian words to know, and some amusing idioms that people actually use.

Our Word of the Day series explains some of our favourite expressions, as well as the slang and curious phrases that you probably won’t find in your Italian class textbook.

Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP

Everyday life in Italy

Whatever daily obstacles you might come up against on your Italian adventure, we’ve got you covered.

Find out why you’ll be a frequent visitor to the local tabaccheria whether you smoke or not – plus here’s a guide to the most common mistakes foreigners make when they first move to Italy.

Life abroad has been even trickier to navigate during the coronavirus pandemic, and we’ll continue to keep you informed of any rule changes here.

Don’t forget you can also submit a reader’s question if there’s any aspect of life in Italy you’d like The Local’s writers to explain. Find out how here.

Italian food and travel

Of course, the lifestyle is one of the biggest reasons people choose to relocate to Italy, and this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Italy’s famed cuisine.

Here’s a look at how your eating and drinking habits change when you move to Italy, plus avoid any embarrassing faux pas at the bar with our guide to drinking coffee like an Italian.

And no doubt exploring the country will be a priority once you’ve moved to Italy. See our travel section for inspiration and guides to our favourite weekend destinations, and keep an eye on Italian travel news here.

Which aspect of Italian life would you like to hear more about on The Local? Get in touch and let us know at [email protected]