In Italy, August is a rather unique month.
In fact, Italians often consider it the best month of the year, as it marks a period in which they can get away from the blistering heat of the city and go on a well-deserved holiday after working or studying hard all year long, spending time with their family and friends either on the beach or in the mountains. Sardinia, Sicily, Apulia and the Amalfi coast are some of the most popular destinations visited by holidaymakers at this time, while others decide to venture further afield and go abroad.
The reason for all this excitement is focused on one particular day – 15th August, also known as “Ferragosto”. In the local area, in terms of religious importance, it is second only to Christmas and is characterised by at least a day away from the office, surrounded by food, drink and the company of your loved ones.
Besides the 15th August, the week around Ferragosto is usually celebrated with outdoor concerts, festivals, plenty of food and drink too!
But why do Italians celebrate this apparently random day right in the middle of the hottest month of the year?
Ferragosto, the Italian term for this holiday, derives from the Latin “Feriae Augusti” introduced by the Emperor Augustus himself way back in 18 BC, most likely in order to celebrate a battle victory and this was celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals linked to the longer Augustan period – intended as a long-awaited period of rest after months of hard work.
On this day, the Emperor would organise horse races all across the Roman Empire and people everywhere had huge feasts and celebrated. Remarkably, these horse races are still held today, as the second phase of the famous Palio in Siena, which traditionally takes place on 16th August but which this year has been cancelled due to Covid-19.
During the era of Fascism, Mussolini organised trips with special offers for the 13th-15th August, so that people who could not usually afford to go on holiday would get the opportunity at least to have a day-trip to visit another part of the country.
In the past, bank holidays used to mean the shutdown of most local businesses even in major towns and cities, bearing “Chiuso per ferie” signs, as well as reduced public transport schedules, the same went for Ferragosto. However, nowadays things have changed radically and so, on 15th August, most shops and supermarkets will remain open, some only until about 1.30 p.m., while for others, it is business as usual! Many museums and cultural sites will remain open, some of them enable you to enter free of charge. So, why not make the most of being able some of the tourist attractions open over the Ferragosto week in Naples (https://www.napolike.com/museums-open-in-Naples-in-August-2020-opening-hours ) or one of the many other museums and sites open throughout the rest of the Bel Paese.
While some events may still take place, especially if they are going to be held outside, it is most likely that the organisers have arranged for a limited number of guests in attendance, who will be required to maintain social distancing and it will be compulsory to wear a face mask.
Nowadays, Ferragosto plays just as much a significant part of the daily life of Italians as it did in the past. So, if you are planning on attending an event, before setting off, it would be a good idea for you to make sure it has not been cancelled and what Covid-19 restrictions need to be complied with.
In addition to its pagan roots, particular emphasis is focused on Roman Catholic observances, as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is also celebrated on 15th August, the day when the Virgin Mary is said to have ascended to heaven.
Although this religious observance is celebrated all over Italy, in the town where I live, Santa Maria Capua Vetere (Caserta, Italy), there is an extremely suggestive religious event that takes place every year during this period. This year is no exception but of course, it will be much more of a small-scale event and Covid-19 measures will have to be complied with.
Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Santa Maria Capua Vetere
Every year the Simulacrum of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the main patron Saint of the town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, is honoured with solemn festivities starting on 4th August, when it is taken out of its original casing, dressed and displayed on the High Altar of the Cathedral in preparation for the traditional “kissing of the Virgin’s foot” by the faithful.
This is followed by the Novena prayers recited over several days, culminating in the solemn celebrations held on 14th and 15th August. The procession that takes place in the evening of 14th August, during which many men choose to carry the extremely heavy simulacra of both the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Symmachus (the other patron saint of the town – celebrated on 22nd October) on their shoulders as a vow for graces received usually through Via Mazzocchi and around Piazza Mazzini, before returning to Piazza Matteotti.
Another part of this display is when an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is hoisted up from the façade of the Cathedral up to the bell tower and the noise made by the fireworks simulate the cries of the Virgin Mary. The festivities usually come to an end between 18th and 22nd August terminating with a pyromusical display usually held in the grounds of the local Amphitheatre, which is the second largest in the world, after the Colosseum in Rome.
The first historical references to the “Feast of the Assumption” date back to the 15th century, as proven by the official visits of the sovereigns of Aragon to Santa Maria Capua Vetere on the occasion of this festivity.