Ferragosto, or Why Italy Closes in August

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Aug 14, 2022

Buon Ferragosto! A popular greeting heard among Italians this time of year. Ferragosto, technically August 15, is the official start to the Italian exodus out of the cities . . . and a part of Italian cultural DNA which is to head for the beaches or mountains during the month of August, with this tradition dating all the way back to 18 B.C.!

This was the year Emperor Augustus, after whom the month of August is named (it was his favorite time of year), formally instituted the August ‘vaca’ by connecting various annual festivities celebrating the harvest to create an extended period of rest from the year’s labors. He filled this period with rituals, races, games and FUN. Known then as feriae augusti and today as Ferragosta, it later took on a Christian meaning as well coinciding with the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven celebrated on August 15th.  Today, August 15th is a national holiday and much like our 4th of July or Memorial Day culminates in dazzling displays of fireworks filling the night skies.

Usually, public holidays mean a total shutdown, even in major towns and cities, with everything from post offices to public transport closed, and that’s the case on August 15th — though a few major tourist sites in major cities remain open, as well as restaurants, at least for lunch. You’ll see ‘chiuso per ferie’ signs popping up all over the place, often with images of the mountains and the sea.

Rome comes alive for the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto, a city-wide party during which every street, square and corner is filled with people dancing. Larger squares host dance performances all day, getting more and more professional (or absurd) as the sun goes down.  I have never been in Rome for this, but the massive dance party’s theme is participation, so if you hit the streets you’d better be ready to get your own personal dance on!

Featured photos were taken in Procida, Cortina, Elba, Capri, the Aeoliean Islands, Sardinia, Puglia and the Amalfi Coast. Special thanks to Frank Yantorno and Ciclismo Classico for several of these dazzling images.

 

The Palio: Pride, Passion & Pandemonium

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Jul 15, 2022

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Tuscany’s medieval jewel Siena, once again erupted in festivity and ritual pandemonium to the delight of tens of thousands of international spectators.

Il Palio di Siena, a four-day cultural sporting extravaganza, culminates in the world’s most thrilling horse race. Lasting a mere 75-90 seconds, it is the climax of a fiercely competitive all-consuming year-round rivalry between the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena. In Siena, your contrada is a part of your DNA. It courses through your veins. There’s a saying in Siena: you first belong to your contrada, then to Siena and then to Italy. You are baptized into it, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And, it’s best not to marry outside of it! Each contrada comes complete with its own symbol (e.g., Eagle, Giraffe, Unicorn, Turtle, Dragon), motto, church, traditions, and flag.

Leading up to the race, sweating crowds mob the Piazza del Campo as processions of the Contrade bedecked in armor and silk transform the city into a spectacle right out of the Cinquecento. Flag bearers perform extravagant displays of waving, throwing and twirling to the sound of military drums and trumpets.

The race begins as the sun drops low. The anticipation and tension is palpable. Consisting of three laps around the one-third of a mile track that outlines the Piazza del Campo, the course is treacherous and steep, with tight corners that the jockeys must navigate at full speed bareback. The thunderous sound of hooves is barely audible over the roar of the crowd. Like Garfunkel arriving without Simon, a horse can triumph without a rider (and this happens as spills come hard, fast and heavy). The contrade pay their jockeys handsomely to ride for them, yet these jockeys are hired guns from outside Siena . . . and fundamentally unfaithful. Everyone is a potential double agent. Secret negotiations abound.

Last July’s winner was Giraffe; they wept with happiness and celebrated as is tradition by sucking on pacifiers or drinking cheap wine from baby bottles to symbolize rebirth. Meals commenced at huge tables set up in the streets. The festivities ran all night. The prize, not the race, is technically the palio — a large painted banner specially designed for each year’s races (there are two, one July 2nd and the other August 16th) by different artists. Contrade proudly display their winning palio banners in their museums with the real prize being a year’s worth of bragging rights!

These incredible images of the July 2019 Palio are courtesy of Biordi Art Imports of San Francisco. Biordi’s exclusive line of Palio Contrade dinnerware is hand-painted by a father and his two daughters living in Siena who carry on their family’s artisanal tradition. Browse Biordi’s exclusive line of Contrade Dinnerware here. Receive a 20% discount using the Promo Code Contrade10, good thru 8/16/20. I LOVE this line and collect dessert plates and espresso cups & saucers which are fun to mix and match.

Burano’s Candy-Colored Casas

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Jun 4, 2022

Forty minutes from Murano, world famous for its glass, is the island village of Burano, famous for its lace … and where the dazzling colors of locales like the Caribbean meet the haunting qualities of the Venetian lagoons. Many visitors to Venice, perhaps forgetting one out of confusion with the other, or perhaps due to time constraints, choose to go to Murano and not take the second 40-minute vaporetto journey to its almost-namesake. But those who do are treated to some very yummy eye-candy. Along the canals are charming two-story houses — cherry, pink, chartreuse, azure, tangerine and canary yellow, with contrasting-hued shutters, brightly patterned curtains for doors, window boxes and ceramic pots overflowing with flowers, and some very nicely art-directed clotheslines.

Burano is also famous for its lace known as punto in aria, or “points in the air,” as it is not stitched onto fabric but only onto itself. Demand exploded in the 1600’s and the Venetian government turned lace-making from private production into a lucrative business of the Republic, organizing women into a guild — one of the richest in Venice — and moving most production from Venice to Burano due to the island’s lower costs.

No one really knows how all this exuberance began, but there are, naturally, many stories about the origin of Burano’s vivacious color scheme. One plausible suggestion was that back in the day, painting each house a different color helped define property lines. Another more amusing, though less plausible suggestion is that on days of winter fog or very rough seas, the fishermen could not go fishing and spent their day playing cards and drinking vino. By the evening they were feeling so festive they couldn’t recognize their own houses. So it was decided to paint every house a different color so every wife could be sure the right man would return to the right home after a day on the town.