All’s fair in love and Ferragosto

Italy has an abundant amount of public holidays, ranging from the usual stuff like New Year’s day and padded out with things like Liberation Day (25th April), International workers day (1st May) and Republic Day (2nd June).

Not to mention a fine cavalcade of religious celebrations, including the Epiphany (6th January), All Saint’s Day (1st November) and the Immaculate Conception (8th December). In addition, each city and town gets their local holiday to celebrate their patron Saint (Rome, for example, celebrates St’s Peter and Paul on 29th June, and Milan gets Saint Ambrose on 7th December.)

But the most sacred of all holidays is midsummer Ferragosto vacation which Italians look forward to every year with a heightened fervent desire.

The word Ferragosto comes from the Latin expression Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest), a celebration introduced by the emperor Augustus in 18 BC. Ferragosto was added to the preexisting Roman festivals associated with the summer harvest and the end of a long period of intense agricultural labour. 

During the harvest and work celebrations, horse races were held across the Empire, and beasts of burden (including oxen, donkeys and mules), were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Such ancient traditions are still alive today, reflected by the many Palio celebrations around Italy, the most famous on 16th August at Siena. Indeed the name Palio comes from the word pallium, a piece of precious fabric that was the usual prize given to winners of the horse races.

The modern habit of taking a trip during Ferragosto came about during the Fascist period in Italy. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organisations. ‘People’s Trains’ for Ferragosto were available at discounted prices.

I recall my first summer alone in Italy when I found myself stuck in Bologna between finishing work on an Opera festival and starting the semester at the University of Bologna. I was alone for the entire month of August. I didn’t know anyone in the city who suddenly became like a ghost town, as every second store closed for the ferie. 

Bologna isn’t a touristy town, so it wasn’t like being in Florence or Rome, filled with people all year round. Bologna suddenly became a lonely place. I hadn’t calculated this strange cultural summer occurrence.

Even as we find ourselves in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, Italian’s refuse to give up their summer vacations. Beachside hotels are full; people who have been trapped up north have suddenly made the pilgrimage to their extended lost relatives in the South. This year in my little Sicilian village, I’ve seen houses that have been closed for years suddenly become occupied by summer visitors. Some towns have even organised concerts and other outdoor events. When not everyone is vaccinated, and corona is still very much on the prowl, this activity, quite frankly, is terrifying.

The 15th August is also a holy feast day that celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary when the Catholic church believes Madonna’s sinless soul and the incorruptible body was taken up to heaven.

Many cities in Sicily have the ‘Virgin of the Assumption’ as their patron or protector. For now there aren’t any major gatherings but there are usually elaborate parades and celebrations from Randazzo to Messina, Capo d’orlando, Motta d’Affermo, Novara di Sicilia and Montagnareale. For the second year in a row, parades are not allowed. But statues are still displayed in the squares or in churches where they can be viewed the same.

Sicilians, like most Italians, celebrate the mezzo-agosto holiday with copious amounts of food, either picnicking in the mountains or making bomb fire barbecues on the beach. Summer is usually peak food festival or sagra season, which offers up tastes of local cuisine. For another year, these aren’t taking place.

As Italy comes out the other end of a heat wave, with it’s hottest summer in record and many parts of Italy and the Mediterranean’s worst bushfire season, it seems most people are saying to hell with the danger of Covid, lets party like the world is ending.

Generally, the nation is stripping down into vacation mode from suits to speedos and loud shirts, just like every summer.

This year, together with Covid, Italians are still in ferie or on holidays because it’s their sacred rite.

Messina’s Giant’s

Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with an array of different types and patterns. 

Ceramic art in Sicily dates back to the ancient Greek period of the island’s history, with techniques being developed by innovations by Arab domination. Later, the Spanish school of the eighteenth century gave them new vibrant colours and styles. 

Today Sicily has three different ceramic producing cities, including Santo Stefano di Camastra (ME), Caltagirone (CT) and Sciacca (AG), each with its unique style. 

The most original pieces of ceramic design that stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars that depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.

 Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, which is often the centrepiece of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.

Behind this couple, there is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history. Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome twist in a mixture of violence and folly. Their story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history from 831 to 1091 when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily ( إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).

The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so that her lover would stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged themselves colourful clay head pots to recreate the bountiful fertility.

A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every summer, as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina’s patron, the Virgin Mary, the pagan founders of the city are featured alongside the religious procession.

For Ferragosto, the gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback are displayed in front of the Town Hall in the centre of Messina.

The statue’s celebrations date back to 1723 and reenact the arrival of Roger the first of Sicily to Messina after the island was liberated from Arab domination in 1071. Roger, I was a Norman nobleman, he became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.

In 1547, archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos that roamed prehistoric Sicily. The giant skulls lead to the widespread belief that giants founded Sicily. The elephant craniums were also taken as proof the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey inhabited Sicily. The skull’s peculiar shape and the single hole at the centre seemed to confirm that the animal in question had a single eye.

Many Sicilian academics believe Messina’s Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods. The pale-skinned Mata is a version of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of nature, Demeter. Persephone was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancients afterlife, who had made a secret agreement with Zeus to make her his wife.

The tale told at Messina is a love story, with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman who caught the eye of Grifone, a general in the invading army. Grifone had just led the army who conquered the city of Messina. Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which was granted with the understanding that Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did. Then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.

The most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story in the Decameron as retold by Boccaccio’. The story is set directly in Messina. The main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella, an orphaned noble girl who her three brothers jealously guard. 

Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta leaving to meet her lover and decide to end the relationship to avoid tarnishing the good name of the family. The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and, on their return home, tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.

When her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes desperate with worry. One night, Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream, telling her he was killed by her brothers and buried his body.

Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo’s body and, unable to give her lover the burial he deserves and insane with grief, she cuts off Lorenzo’s head, bringing it away with her.

At home, she hides the head in a vase and plants some basil in it—the plant blossoms, watered by Lisabetta’s tears. Isabella’s behaviour alarms the neighbours and her brothers to discover Lorenzo’s head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples, leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.

In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created the first painting in the romantic Pre Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.

Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones, painted a portrait of Isabelle and the pot of Basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotional moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story. The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed Basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs, the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in the embalming process, making it also a symbol of mourning.

Romantic poet John Keats used the story to inspire his poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. In the hands of the highly romantic Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella’s brothers, who treated her like an object.

Keat’s version is set in Florence; the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus who killed Medusa, the gorgon serpent-headed monster, which is at the centre of the Trinacria, an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.

There is always a story behind every work of art; Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy, and loss. The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the island’s rich yet dark mythology.