It's a holiday that's part pagan, part Catholic and part fascist. And for Italians, it's the most important day of the summer. August 15 is Ferragosto, the climax of the summer season and a sacred day off for the entire country. If you're Italian and you're not on vacation at the mare or montagne (sea or mountains), you'll very likely be spending Ferragosto out-of-doors, gathered ‘round a picnic table and a barbecue grill.
But 21st century Italians aren't the first of their countrymen and women to celebrate the close of summer. The Feriae Augusti holiday, from which Ferragosto gets its name, was first introduced in 18 CE by Emperor Augustus as a period of rest to mark the end of the harvest as well as to celebrate his victory over Cleopatra and Mark Antony in Egypt. Christians later adopted and converted the August 15 pagan holiday as the Assumption, the day the Virgin Mary was received in heaven.
Just as with their trains that run (mostly) on time, modern Italians have Mussolini to thank for their mid-August holiday. When the fascist dictator took control of the state in 1922, Italy had only been Italy since the 1870s – prior to that it was a group of loosely aligned, occasionally warring city-states that shared some common cultural traits. Mussolini's mission of nation building included creating a national identity where none had existed prior. Ferragosto was one of his methods.
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The revival of the August 15 holiday was both symbolic and practical. Mussolini's proclamation of the “Third Empire” saw him adopting architectural, military and cultural traits from ancient Rome, and Ferragosto harkened back to the glory days of Augustus. As well, the declaration of a national holiday for all endeared everyday Italians, especially Italy's impoverished rural- and working-class, to Mussolini. On top of that, he offered them discounted train and bus trips to Rome in August, to attend exhibitions on the triumph of fascism. Other trips took rural Italians to the sea, to mountain resorts, and to cities where their trains rolled into sleek modern stations. For many Italians who had never journeyed far from their hometowns, dipped a toe in the Mediterranean or even ridden on a train, Ferragosto symbolized the promise of life under fascism and the pride of cultural patrimony in a unified Italy.
While fascism may have fallen out of favor in post-War Italy (umm, at least we like to think so…), the tradition of Ferragosto as the official period of holidaymaking never died. Business all but shuts down for most of August, and if you need the car repaired, the dog groomed or your heart condition monitored, you're just going to have to try to survive until September 1.
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While Italy's mountains and alpine lakes draw their fair share of visitors, the majority of Italians going out of town for Ferragosto head in one direction—to il mare. Seaside resort towns brim with people, who sprawl elbow-to-elbow on neat rows of chaise lounges and umbrellas, take three meals a day at their all-inclusive hotels, and then head out in the evening to beachside promenades, boardwalk-like circuits of bars, market stalls and kiddie rides. August 15 will be observed with all-day beach parties, organized with bands or DJs, food, and games, and often culminate with a fireworks display over the water.
For those who don't go out of town for a week or two on either side of August 15, the day is still observed with ritualistic fervor and surgically-precise planning, as friends and families organize for the swan song feast of summer: Who's going early to the park to stake out the picnic table and start the fire? Who's making dessert? Who's bringing the wine? Who made the wine? And for God's sake, who's buying the meat?
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Similar to the way people in the U.S. embrace Memorial Day picnics, Ferragosto meals in Italy are half- to all-day affairs. But the similarities all but end there. Fascism may (cough) be dead, but the rigidity with which the holiday is observed would surely make Il Duce proud. It's considered bad form to show up late or leave early. Nobody snacks – seriously, not so much as a bag of chips is opened before mealtime. And no one, except the Guy Who Always Drinks Too Much Anyway, gets hammered on a 12-pack prior to the meal. Wine bottles sit, sadly corked, on the table until it's time to eat. While a few guests may have a bit too much vino before the day/night is over, the mission of the day is not drinking, but eating.
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Even in the most casual of settings, like a neighborhood block party or a woodland park, meals in Italy are sacred affairs, and Ferragosto in no exception. There's a formality to eating a meal here which is seldom diverged from – even a buffet is unusual and the sit-down meal is still favored. Men gather around the grill, while women prepare plates of antipasti, typically affettati (sliced cured meats), cheese and bruschetta. Someone has already prepared at home a massive vat of pasta (because it's Italy and we can't not have pasta), which will be served, already plated, to each diner lined up at the picnic table.
The meat, which has been grilled over a wood fire, is served in heaping platters – it's usually the only item served family-style. Pork is the star of the show, so trays are filled with chops, sausage and ventresca, which is similar to a thick-cut, unsmoked bacon. Side dishes, like salad or grilled vegetables, might show up on the table but really, they're an afterthought. Even dessert, which may be served buffet style, is just the denouement to the meat.
After the meal, kids will kick a soccer ball around while the adults play cards, sometimes for hours and hours. No one is in a hurry to get home, maybe because they know they have to work the next day, or that there's a pile of dirty laundry waiting for them or that in a few weeks the kids will be back at school and summer will be over. And mostly because they know when Ferragosto is over, their precious holiday of dolce far niente (sweet do-nothing) won't come around again for another year. So why rush to wrap it up, anyway?