This month, as temperatures peak and air quality plummets, visitors to Florence may find themselves wandering a city nearly void of Italians. Owing to its particular geographical position — lying in a low-level basin between hills — in late summer Florence becomes an intolerably hot and hazy place. Thus, many locals depart this time of year, seeking cool, clean mountain retreats or the idle pleasures of a seaside respite. It is a pragmatic custom, then, sole succor to a cruel summer. But not only this. For the August holidays in Italy, culminating on the 15th with Ferragosto, are rooted in tradition as old as the Roman Empire itself.
Ferragosto is an Italian contraction of the Latin feriae augusti: literally, “Augustus’s holiday.” Proclaimed by Augustus (Julius Caesar’s nephew and heir, and the first Roman Emperor), the feriae augusti were originally a full month of continuous celebration later reduced to a single day in early, and subsequently mid, August. The feriae marked a period in Roman society in which the division of classes slackened, witnessing the rare social mingling of citizens and slaves.
All mundane enterprises ceased during these festivities. Romans feasted and honoured diverse gods and goddesses, typically those associated with the harvest and the changing of seasons. For Roman women, the feriae augusti meant a time to worship the goddesses relevant to their own interests, deities such as Diana, the protectoress of youth and a goddess of childbirth (as Lucina, a guise of both Diana and Juno). Thus, in addition to its status as public holiday, in time Ferragosto also became associated with principally “female” matters — fertility, maternity, and children.
Such correlations help to explain how a pagan harvest festival, one already strongly linked to sacred female figures, evolved into a feast day for the Catholic Church’s most revered female figure, the Virgin Mary. For, as Catholic readers will surely remember, August 15th is also the Feast of the Assumption, known in Italy as La Festa dell’Assunta or L’Assunzione di Maria Vergine. One of the Church’s basic Marian dogmas, the Assumption refers to the moment Mary was taken up, or “assumed,” directly into heaven upon her death. Proclaimed official dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950, it was assigned to August 15th on the liturgical calendar — and not by coincidence. Though unofficial, honouring Mary in August had been an established practice since the Middle Ages.
That the Catholic Church co-opted Ferragosto as it had done with other pagan festivals seems little disputed. History is full of shifts of this kind. Throughout the whole of Europe, firmly-rooted pagan traditions never really died out, but were absorbed rather into an ever-expanding Christian world. Many Christian saints, including Mary, came to bear symbolic resemblance to prior religious figures; and even the most desultory look at the roots of Christmas and Easter quickly reveals a strong connection to ancient pagan antecedents.
From her Greek and Roman predecessors, Mary inherited strong associations with fertility, purity, and maternal strength: Mary’s triumph over death, for instance, recalls the symbology of Ceres, who, as the goddess of corn, died each year come harvest time, but every spring was re-sowed, reborn; The flowers said to have bloomed spontaneously at Mary’s tomb (usually roses or lilies) as angels conveyed her to heaven, parallel the grain, corn husks, and other harvest flora that for ages had been associated of her forerunners; and, even today, Catholics pray to Mary for guidance and care in childbirth just as pagan women sought the aid of Juno, Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth.
What does all this mean to Italians today, if anything? In a culture where the line separating secular from religious is often blurred, the 15th of August represents an outright blind spot. While acknowledging regional differences (in the South, devotion to Mary is known to be much more rigorous), Ferragosto seems to me overwhelmingly laical in practice. The Italians I know all consider Ferragosto a day to “get away,” usually at the beach, perhaps a hike in the mountains or a leisurely lunch with family. It certainly is not a day spent closed inside a church. Yet, the dogma of the Assumption is fundamental to Roman Catholic belief, and one to be observed accordingly. So why aren’t the church pews as crowded as the seashores on this day? True to her dichotomous character, Italy offers no simple answers to questions of faith or tradition.
Two books were particularly helpful in the preparation of this article:
A Traveller’s History of Italy by Valerio Lintner; and Mythology by Edith Hamilton.