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.


Are English speakers more likely to be targeted by scams in Italy?

There's no shortage of stories about tourists or new residents being ripped off in Italy. American writer Mark Hinshaw in Le Marche asks how common such scams really are and whether English-speaking foreigners are more likely to be targets.

Are English speakers more likely to be targeted by scams in Italy?

Another foreign resident here in Italy recently related to me a tale of woe from one of her friends who was taken advantage of by a local contractor. She felt she was significantly overcharged for work done and wondered if others had similar experiences. Facebook expat groups are filled with stories of visitors and residents being ripped off, with the reader possibly inferring that this must be a common occurrence.

Obviously, it’s hazardous to make generalizations. Regions differ. Cities and towns differ. People differ. In any country or culture, one is going to encounter people who are scammers, petty thieves, or just plain dishonest.

For many hundreds of years, the Italian peninsula has been inundated by waves of tourists and newcomers from countries that are seen as wealthy. Indeed, it was a prime destination for men and women from aristocratic families on a continental Grand Tour. For the past six decades, young people from wealthier countries have been doing their own low-budget version of this rite of passage, with roving backpackers in shorts and hiking boots seen in every city, large and small. 

Whenever newcomers are seen displaying money – paying for a coffee with a credit card, buying expensive watches or shoes, and eating in overpriced, tourist-oriented restaurants – someone is going to view them as easy pickings. 

There is certainly no shortage of scams at all scales. There are the minor annoyances like the guys in Rome dressed as gladiators who are eager to take pictures with you, only to then insist upon ten euros for the privilege. There are also the listings online of houses that don’t reveal the extent of earthquake damage and want a top-drawer price. Warning: “Caveat emptor.”

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Tourists are the easiest of marks. Thieves and scammers know they are likely to get away before being discovered. Or the victim won’t know how to find the police and report it. Or worse, the police will respond but with shrugged shoulders. 

One episode in the Netflix series, Master of None, captured such an interchange beautifully: the carabinieri were more interested in a fragrant dish made by the thief’s mamma than in solving the crime.

But when someone chooses to live in an Italian town, the dynamic is different. Many Italians are used to foreigners coming during certain seasons to escape undesirable weather in their own country, then disappearing for months. 

In our region locals even have a specific, mildly derisive word for such people: pendoli, like pendulums that swing back and forth. It took us a full year for our neighbors to be convinced that we were staying put.

One obvious problem that generates ill will and a suspicion of being cheated is being unfamiliar with different practices. 

For example, it is not common for a contractor to clean up a work site once a project is completed, as part of the primary contract. This is common practice in the US, but in Italy, that is handled through another separate contract sometimes with another company. So if a foreigner is expecting the service and it doesn’t happen, he can feel that he was tricked into paying more.

Cheap Italian properties aren’t always what unsuspecting buyers hope. Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Another problem, as I see it, is that many English speakers choose to only develop relationships with other English-speaking expats. Worse, some exhibit a sense of entitlement or even superiority toward service workers, bureaucrats, and shopkeepers. The word gets out fast, especially in small towns.

READ ALSO: From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy

There’s also the fact that – almost unavoidably  –  foreigners are wealthier than locals. Having a second home in Italy is a sign of wealth. Certainly, a big holiday home with a large pool and gated entry is a dead give-away. Again, the word gets out fast, sometimes to criminals. We have a friend who went on vacation only to return to find his house in the country had been stripped of everything, including the heating system. The thieves pulled up with a big truck and went to town unimpeded. 

It’s vitally important for newcomers to establish relationships with locals. Of course, that means learning the language. Not necessarily all the conjugations of verbs but enough to make social connections. On our little lane with a dozen houses, everyone looks after each other. It would be very difficult for a stranger to pull something off.  

In our five years of living in this village of 1400 people, we have never felt that we were taken advantage of.

We know that we are perceived as the ‘wealthy Americans’ in town. We cannot avoid it. We live in a house that used to hold two big families. We have a panoramic view that everyone remarks on. We receive many packages, with delivery people asking shopkeepers and passersby where we live. They all know.

According to ISTAT, the medium income for Italian households is barely more than 30,000 euros per year. And that is very often with more than one person working. Accordingly, by Italian standards, we ARE wealthy, even though we do not consider ourselves to be. (In the US, our income would be considered close to poverty level in some places.) So, relatively wealthy Americans cannot help but stand out.

READ ALSO: ‘How I got an elective residency visa to retire in Italy’

Although we have never been victimized (knock on wood), I have no doubt that foreign residents in other towns have been. 

It may be more common in parts of Italy with seasonal hordes of tourists. Foreigners can be seen as easy marks, as they don’t understand the language and sometimes are careless when it comes to showing signs of wealth. 

Some people seem to fall for scams. I once watched, from an upper-story window, tourists being repeatedly robbed of their money by a shell game.

It was like a bizarre theatrical performance, with shills planted in the audience who would ‘win’ their game. Within minutes, with lightning-fast shuffles, hundreds of euros were taken from unsuspecting players.

A mocked-up ‘shell game’: one way unsuspecting tourists are parted from their money in Italy. Photo: Mark Hinshaw

Unfortunately, as an expat, one can be both welcomed by some people and taken advantage of by others. But that’s happened to me in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago – places I know well in my own country. One cannot always be vigilant. Or paranoid.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner living in Le Marche with his wife. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.