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.