If you have ever been to Italy in the middle of August you will probably be aware of the eerie emptiness of towns and cities, and the difficulties of trying to conduct business or eat in a restaurant (a good reason why our Tuscan food and wine tours don’t go during August!) This is the time of year when the Italians depart en masse away from day-to-day life for their annual R&R around the 15th of August – Ferragosto. Deriving from the Latin Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ festival) this holiday is attributed to the Roman Emperor Augustus to give workers a well-earned rest after the labours of harvest time. Originally beasts of burden were given a break too and oxen and donkeys would be decorated with garlands of flowers, though horses remained on duty with races often held as the main attraction of festivities. Which brings us to the Palio of Siena, the grandest remnant of historic celebrations.
Though there are many variations of mid-August festivities across the country, from communal feasts, parades introduced by religion to the holiday, and Fascist Italy’s custom of going on a short trip, Siena’s great horse race through her medieval streets is the most famous. Representatives of 10 of the city’s 17 contrade (districts of Siena, each with their own symbol and history), race around the large central square, the Piazza del Campo, in a thrilling and dangerous 90-second dash. Each year the seven contrade who did not take part last year automatically compete and a lottery is held to determine the last 3. The prize is the Palio itself, a type of banner, which the Sienese affectionately refer to as il cencio, “the rag”.
The race of the 16th of August is known as il Palio dell’Assunto, as opposed to il Palio di Provenzano which is run on the 2nd July, and although its roots are medieval and Christian it has become Italy’s symbol of Feriae Augusti in spirit. The pageantry and excitement, eating and drinking, friendly rivalry and party atmosphere all create the perfect escape from work, which is really what Ferragosto is all about!