On 15th August we and our latest visitors woke to grey skies and a mass of thickening cloud rolling in from the mountains. This left us with something of a dilemma, though, as it was Ferragosto, the national public holiday that marks the height of summer and that is typically celebrated with a protracted lunch all’aperto (in the open) with family and friends, preferably somewhere that offers some respite from the mid-summer heat. And we had been planning to observe this custom by heading up into the relative cool of the Sibillini Mountains for a picnic on the shores of the cobalt-blue Lago di Fiastra where Mr Blue-Shirt and I had marked the holiday with a refreshing dip as well as a picnic a year earlier.
We had risen later than usual that morning too, as we had been to see a dazzlingly bonkers performance of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Sferisterio in Macerata the night before and hadn’t gone to bed until well after 1am. So over a leisurely late breakfast– and as we scanned an increasingly gloomy sky – I told Nick and Elaine about the origins of this festival, which, like many traditions in Italy, are Roman. The name is a corruption of ‘feriae augusti’, which translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’, the pre-Christian Emperor who designated August as a period of rest following the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. During this period, working animals were also relieved of their loads and horse races were held as part of the celebrations. Indeed, this is the origin of the palio, the bare-back horse race that many towns still hold in their central squares, the most famous of which takes place in the Tuscan town of Siena on 16th August in much the same form as in Roman times.
In between bites of toast and distant rumbles of thunder, I ran through what I could remember of the holiday’s origins, with Nick checking details for me on his phone as I went. Well before the emperor’s intervention, August was already punctuated with festivals such as the three-day Nemoralia dedicated to Diana the Huntress, the Consualia to honour Consus, the god of the harvest, and the Vinalia Rustica to celebrate the forthcoming grape harvest. So by unifying all these pre-existing jollities into one continuous holiday period, Augustus’s apparent largesse was tempered by obvious efficiency considerations. Not that the masses would have objected, especially since, providing they wished their masters ‘buon ferragosto’, they would also receive a small gift of money or food from them with which to enjoy the holidays. This tradition became so entrenched that during the Renaissance, the Papal States (of which Le Marche then formed part) made it obligatory.
Having placed another batch of toast and a second pot of coffee on the table on the terrace I explained that along with many other festivals of Roman origin, the Catholic Church soon muscled in on things and sought to Christianise these pagan festivities as early as the 5th century AD when it established The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary bang in the middle of the feriae augusti. Since then, 15th August has marked the day on which the Virgin is claimed to have ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth and so is officially the reason why it is a public holiday in Italy.
While we were still trying to decide whether or not to spend that public holiday as custom dictated, I added that during the first part of the twentieth century, Mussolini gave the festival a more secular and political flavour. Another quick google enabled Nick to fill in the sketchily-remembered details for me: Il Duce’s fascist regime began organising discounted trips for workers through its Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (National Recreational Club), which was conceived as a means of competing with the Socialists in terms of providing for workers’ welfare. The scheme, known as ‘the People’s Trains of Ferragosto’, ran from 1931 to 1939 and gave the working classes the opportunity to take short trips to the seaside, the mountains or cultural sites. This, I then recalled, is why present-day tourists are still able to visit museums, monuments and galleries on 15th August even though many other amenities are closed. And as this initiative was aimed chiefly at city dwellers and workers, it turned Ferragosto from an almost exclusively rural affair into a festival for all the labouring classes and as such was effectively a fore-runner of modern mass tourism. Since the People’s Train trips did not include meals, however, travellers had to bring their own food with them, so the picnic quickly came to be one of the defining features of the fascist era Ferragosto, and the tradition has stuck.
It was already late morning by the time we had finished our extended breakfast and our fact-checking, and by this time the weather over the Sibillini Mountains was looking even more threatening. So with a lakeside picnic now definitely looking ill-advised, we broke with tradition and opted to go for an ice cream in the village instead and then, despite the thunder eventually delivering much less than it had promised, to spend the rest of the afternoon with our respective books, sketch pads and podcasts before making our own pizzas for dinner. It might not have been the traditional way to mark Ferragosto, but I don’t think Emperor Augustus would have minded too much.