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Varies between March and April – Easter is one of the biggest holiday celebrations in Italy. Colorful displays of chocolate eggs decorate shop windows and parades march through the cobblestone lanes of large cities and tranquil villages with statues of Jesus or the Virgin Mary adorning the processions. Church bells peal in the morning drawing neighborhoods to services ranging from the small local chapel to the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
Every church around the country opens for Easter weekend and priests travel door-to-door privately blessing homes and shops in time for the Easter festivities. Restaurant menus and bakeries present traditional religious dishes, including the customary ingredient of lamb, abbacchio, for a main course and almond paste creating the pastries and desserts. Children prefer the cake colomba di Pasqua, which takes the shape of a dove. Hollow chocolate eggs contain small prizes inside.
The religious processions across Italy begin on Good Friday. Parade participants dress in traditional medieval or ancient costumes while carrying olive branches or palm fronds to decorate the churches. The most well-known Good Friday procession takes place in Enna, in Sicily. The religious community draws people from all over the island and from around the world interested in viewing 2,000 friars dressed in ancient costumes parading through the city’s streets.
A lesser-known celebration of Easter in Italy is Pasquetta, which literally translates to “Little Easter,” but refers to Easter Monday. The day is popular amongst Italians and is celebrated as a national holiday. Groups of friends make picnics in the public plazas, in the lush parks, or in the countryside to play games involving egg races or Easter-centric themes. The Umbrian town of Panicale celebrates the holiday by rolling giant wheels of cheese around the old city walls. Judges gauge the winner by speed and whomever used the least strokes to propel their wheel of cheese forward.
April 21st – The celebration of Rome’s Birthday takes place in the Eternal City with little fanfare in other parts of Italy. The lavish celebration centers around the birth of the empire and the legends surrounding it. Activities span the weekend with an extravaganza of concerts, historical reenactments, parades, and cultural celebrations at the Circus Maximus.
Light bathes the Colosseum in a grand display of fireworks. The myth begins with the small settlement atop the Palatine Hill, which grew to become what Roman’s considered Caput Mundi, the “Capital of the World,” whose dominance lasted over a millennium. Plays and storytelling across the city retells the tale of the twins Romulus and Remus, the sons of Mars, who were weaned by a she-wolf.
Gruppo Storico Romano has brought history to life through battle and historic reenactments for the last 20 years, and continues to dress a Roman legions or in the traditional garments of Roman women, for dramatic retellings of daily life and captivating mysteries of the former empire, leading to the conquest of Britain in a mock battle.
April 25th – The majority of Italy overlooks the Feast of St. Mark for the unifying holiday that lands on the same day, Liberation Day. However, Venice, the City on the Lagoon, pays homage to its patron saint each year with the rosebud festival, recalling a little known tradition when men give their beloveds a red rosebud as a sign of true love. The custom began in the 8th century when the daughter of Doge Orso I Participazio, fell for a man of humble origins.
The man was sent into battle with the Turks and fought valiantly but succumbed to a mortal wound, dying in a rosebush. With his dying breath, he tasked a friend with delivering a rose soaked in his blood to his beloved as pledge of their everlasting passion. Since that day in the 8th century, Venice has celebrated love, passion, and their patron by honoring partners, mothers, and daughters with a red rosebud, following in the tradition of the man who fought the Turks to prove his love of the Doge’s daughter.
Musical and dance performances, along with carnival rides and boat races commemorate the festival spirit. It is a romantic time to visit Venice, with the already charmed air carrying the aroma of roses. The food festival of St. Mark’s Feast follows shortly after, with lovers of cuisine celebrating with face painting, Italian ice, pizza baking, and gastronomic treats. The festivities commemorate the day in which two Venetian merchants stole the remains of St. Mark from his grave in Alexandria to return the saintly body to the island and fulfill the angel’s pronouncement that predicted St. Mark’s body would one day rest in Venice. A mosaic of the event decorates the basilica.
April 25th – While Venice celebrates St. Mark and the legend of the rosebud on April 25th, the remainder of Italy rejoices in La Festa della Liberazione, Liberation Day, which commemorates the day allied troops freed Italy from its ties to Nazi Germany in 1945. It is also the day Italy honors its fallen soldiers and resistance members who fought against Mussolini’s troops throughout the Second World War. Towns large and small exult with marching bands and big flags.
Political rallies and music concerts fill the public squares of larger cities and smaller museums and shops close in memoriam. University students gather in the main squares and along cafes singing the partisan anthem Bella Ciao, which left-wing anti-fascist groups appropriated as a rallying cry against Nazi and fascist Italian leaders. The most elaborate celebrations take place in Rome, the nation’s capital. Citizens parade and demonstrate to honor the struggles of World War II culminating in the annual address by the president after visiting the Ardeatine Caves Mausoleum, where Nazis killed 335 Romans in 1944.
May 1st – The Day of the Worker is a national holiday in Italy, bringing more parades, festivals, and special events to a country that knows how to celebrate. Many Italians take a vacation from April 25th (Liberation Day) to May 1st (Labor Day). Museums large and small close for the holiday, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the National Archeological Museum in Naples. In Rome attractions such as the Colosseum, Vatican Museums, and the Borghese Gallery are also closed. Labor Day is one of the few national holidays during which Italy shuts down.
Labor unions continue to organize a free concert in the capital, with attendees topping 1 million people annually. Venice in the north and Alberobello in the south remain popular destinations during the long weekend for Italians and tourists to visit. The important festival of Sagra di Sant Efisio begins in Sardinia on the same day. In a large city like Rome or Florence, it is easy to pass the day walking around the streets, which act like open-air museums. Smaller towns shut down for the day, which makes traveling and sightseeing difficult.
May 1st to 4th – The streets of Cagliari brim with antique life and excitement during the four-day festival, which has provided one of the world’s largest and most continuous religious processions since 1656. The celebration commemorates Efisio, a Roman officer sent to Sardinia to suppress Christianity. While on the island Efisio had an epiphany and became a follower instead. The Roman legions beheaded him after he refused to renounce in the year 303 AD.
During the plague of 1652, Sardinia turned to their patron saint, announcing in their desperation they would carry the statue of Efisio through the streets in a long procession from the church in Cagliari to the chapel in Nora to display their devotion. The plague disappeared and the citizens of Cagliari have kept their promise ever since. The festival involves more than 5,000 people. Displays present approximately 30 Traccas, peasant carts drawn by oxen and decorated with flowers and Sardinian produce.
Followers wear traditional village costumes while singing customary prayers taken from the rich religious heritage of the island. The most dazzling costumes shine orange from the commune of Desulo and austere black on the dresses worn by the women of Tempio.
Men from Quartu wear gold jewelry on their waistcoats and fishermen from Cabras walk barefoot through the streets. Horsemen trail the procession in the back and divide the large crowds lining the streets of the old city. The statue leaves the church at midday traveling inside a 17th century gold plated coach. Traditional Sardinian pipes accompany the procession, creating a haunting atmosphere in the otherwise quiet streets. People near the parade reach out their hands to touch the effigy, which rid the island from plague and protected its citizens from the French siege of 1793. On the evening of May 4th, the statue follows a parade lit by torches, guiding the effigy back to its rightful place in the Church of St. Efisio in Cagliari.
May 8th – Small towns in northern Lazio celebrate nature and the season of fertility during this auspicious festival. The ceremony has ancient roots with pagan rituals recalling the former connection people had with the landscape and the seasons. Locals claim the celebration as the world’s first and most ecological festival, consistently practiced since 1432 in the town of Vetralla. Costumed dancers move to the music played by the town band. Flag throwers perform in the open spaces beneath the shading forest.
Horsemen hold bouquets of yellow scotch broom flowers and gallop around a clearing of forest at the top of Mount Fogliano. Participants dress two giant oak trees in veils and garlands. The mayor wears a sash of the Tricolore and officiates the symbolic wedding between the two oak trees. The mayor reads a notary’s act attesting to the union and witnessed by those present. The ceremony annually reasserts the town’s possession and protection of the forest, having only canceled the ceremony in nearly six centuries.
First Thursday in May – The name “Feast of St. Domenic,” does little to share the uniqueness of the events that take place during the festival, which is celebrated in the tiny hamlet of Cocullo, located in the region of Abruzzo. St. Domenic is the protector against snake bites. Participants in the festival decorate a statue of the saint with jewels, banknotes, and live snakes.
Carters haul the statue through the village as snakes coil around both the effigy of St. Dominic and the statue bearers. The procession protects villagers from snakes and snake bites each year once the live snakes are rereleased into the wild. Six weeks before the event, snake handlers scour the countryside collecting snakes from the local villages to ensure the bearers’ safety during the procession. Fireworks begin at eight in the morning, followed by mass.
The devout ring the bell with their teeth ensuring good dental health for another year, as St. Dominic is also the patron protector of toothaches. The procession begins at noon. The actions of the snakes on the statue are prophetic. If they wrap around the head, it promises a good harvest. If the snakes slither around the arms, it is a bad omen. A sweet, ring-shaped bread populates the village at the end of the procession as an homage to the snakes, the festival, and the former custom of cooking and eating the snakes.
May 15th – The town of Gubbio in the region of Umbria embodies the distinctive display of history and religious devotion of Italian communities. Little about the festival has changed since its inception in 1160, when Ubadlo Baldassini passed away. People travel from around Italy and across the world to watch the ancient festivity held between May 3rd and May 15th. The ritual begins with a priest blessing the town before groups of young men split into three teams. The yellow team plays for St. Ubaldo, the blue team plays for St. George, and the black team plays for St. Anthony.
Despite the name of the festival and a common misconception for those unfamiliar with the celebration, the festival has nothing to do with candles but instead is a feat of strength and ingenuity. The three teams race through the streets of town and up the steep slopes of Mount Ingino to reach the Basilicata of St. Ubaldo, all while carrying the 13-foot tall wooden pillar known as a ceri, which is referred to as the candle from which the festival receives its name. Each pillar weighs over 880 pounds. The race begins at six in the evening, when the three teams made up of 10 to 15 men dressed in bright colors correlated to their particular saint, spring through the streets.
Spoiler alert: The festival commemorates Saint Ubaldo Day, therefore St. Ubaldo’s team always wins.
Last Weekend in May – Italy is a wine lover’s dream in-and-of itself, but the celebration of Cantine Aperte can turn even an ardent opponent of wine into an admirer. The movement began in 1993 when vineyards all over Italy first opened their cellars on the last Sunday in May to encourage direct contact with wine enthusiasts. The annual event has become a fixture of the Slow Food Movement in Italy, in which hamlets, towns, and regions celebrate the cuisine produced locally, appealing to a philosophy of discovering the true culture of Italy’s territories through its flavors.
The weekend allows wine lovers from around the world to go beyond tasting and buying wine directly from farms and vineyards, and allows visitors to enter the cellars and discover the art of crafting and refining wine. You don’t have to be serious about wine to enjoy the festivities.
Anyone with a bit of curiosity or a desire to sample the different varieties or tastes shaped by the contours of the landscape will enjoy the principles of Italy’s open cantinas. Unlike the wine regions of the United States and Australia, the common winery of Italy does not have a large tasting room with open bottles waiting for visitors to sample the new or classic wines. Most vineyards in Italy open only for reservations and do not hold regular hours, which is one of many reasons Cantine Aperte has become so popular over the years.
June 2nd – Republic Day in Italy is similar to Independence Day in the United States or Australia Day in Australia and Canada Day in Canada. The holiday commemorates the birth of modern Italy as a republic after a nationwide referendum in 1946. The vote instated the republic and exiled the monarchs from the House of Savoy who had helped unify the country in the 1960s. The constitution now forbids a monarch to be reinstated as the head of the Italian government.
The House of Savoy officially renounced their claim to the throne in 2002 as a condition to return to Italy from their exile. Martial bands and military parades overtake cities and towns across Italy, with the main celebration taking place in Rome. An Italian flag drapes over the Colosseum and a parade, presided over by the president, runs along Via dei Fori Imperiali, the main road running alongside the Roman Forum. The president traditionally visits the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I to lay a wreath in commemoration of Italian peace and unity.
The memorial stands beside the grandeur of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument on the edges of the historic city center. Nine planes of the Italian Air Force Acrobatic Patrol fly over the city emitting red, green, and white smoke, creating a Tricolore over the monument of the first king of unified Italy. Shops, museums, and monuments close for the majority of the national holiday, with transportation adhering to an infrequent schedule.
June 3rd to 16th – Watching a joust take place in Italy is exciting for novices of the medieval sport or amateur historians who have seen performances before. The town of Ascoli Piceno in the region of Le Marche, holds one of the finest jousting tournaments in Italy and recreates medieval traditions that would have otherwise been lost to history. Officiants read the customary documents of the elders and participants carry new banners crafted to commemorate the ceremonies each year.
A procession begins on the Feast of San’Anna, juxtaposing celebrations of Sant’Emidio, the town’s patron saint. A competition of flag throwers precedes the jousting tournament and devout Catholics offer candles to the bishop. 60,000 residents fill the stands and cheer the six participants partaking in the jousting competition. Each participant represents one of the 10 different neighborhoods of Ascoli Piceno and dresses in particular colors to match.
People who marched in the parade were fully costumed in medieval garments. The talent, skill, and precision of the competitors recalls noble knights akin to storybooks and legend. One of the most rousing games takes place on the lemniscate-shaped track. A wooden statue of the god Mars stands with his right arm outstretched and holding a ring in his clenched fist. The rider gallops at full speed attempting to tuck his metal spear into the ring. The rider who finishes the fastest with the least amount of penalties wins.
June 23rd – Arezzo captures life in the medieval time after the return of soldiers from the Crusades through the devout celebration of its jousting history. The small town in Tuscany exults two times a year during the Joust of the Saracen, surpassing the mere representation of its past by rejoicing in the unique properties of its heritage. The festival has antique origins captured in 13th century documents restating how Aretini, citizens of Arezzo, preferred the jousting tournaments to other forms of entertainment.
The most historic document in the possession of the township offers the rules of the original competition, including the timing, which should always take place on a Sunday, and the reward, which was originally a piece of purple satin. Stories of the Saracen reached Arezzo and other parts of Italy after soldiers from the Crusades returned, bringing new customs, traditions, and legends from the greater world. The festival in Arezzo was reestablished in the early 1930s after a long period of inactivity, returning twice a year, during the evening on the Saturday before the last in June, and on the afternoon of the first Sunday in September. The city is divided into quadrants. Each participant is given colors corresponding to their district:
Over 250 participants Aretini participate in the precession dressed in costumes consisting of soldiers, musicians, valets, flag jugglers, knights, jousters, and members of the government council. The procession ventures through town and ends in Piazza Grande, one of Italy’s most characteristic main squares. All participants in the jousting competition must first take the sacred oath in front of the town hall.
June 24th – The cities of Florence, Turin, and Genoa celebrate St. John the Baptist on his feast day to much fanfare and unique festivities. Though much of the country remains proportionally quiet, Florence celebrates its patron saint who was beheaded around the year 30 BC. The preacher and religious figure led baptism rituals in the Jordan River, which artworks of the saint depict most often. The image of the saint was also stamped on the original coins of the republic. Fireworks fill the night sky over the Arno River. Florentines enjoy the light display in the warm evening while sharing gelato.
Music and sporting events fill the day and select piazzas offer public bonfires. The celebration has ancient origins with nobles and lords originally donating large candles to the church on the saint’s day. As time went on the candles became larger and more ornate, in an attempt for the noblemen to show their wealth and prestige. One of the best ways to experience the fireworks is on a boat on the Arno River. The local government also opened San Niccolo Tower, one of the oldest towers in the city that lines the ancient walls around the historic city center.
The Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa keeps relics of St. John, such as a collection of the venerated figure’s ashes. The maritime city provides a jumble of torchlit processions, street art, musicians, and food stands before the crowds gather at midnight in Piazza Matteotti to light the main bonfire. The historic procession begins the following day and travels between the Cathedral of San Lorenzo and the antique port. Participants carry precious gold statues and religious artifacts before the archbishop blesses the sea.
The celebrations in Turin are less flashy but just as popular with the locals. Sporting events, concerts, and costumed processions fill the days leading up to the 24th of June, along with vintage car parades; Turin houses much of the Italian automotive industry, making it the automobile capital of Italy. The ceremonies end on the Po River with an afternoon regatta, canoe race, and torchlit boat procession.
June 24th – Soccer fans never knew the sport could be as violent as when watching Calcio Storico in Florence, which takes place as part of the festivities of the Feast of Saint John. The tradition dates back to the 16th century during the Renaissance and is best-described as a blend of soccer, rugby, and wrestling. Colors signify the team’s neighborhoods from around the historic city center representing:
A historical parade preceded the match and led to the stadium set up in the center of Piazza Santa Croce. The games were originally reserved for members of high society. Legend states members of royalty and even popes wanted to take part in the games. In the 1930s the local government reinstituted the games after a dormancy of nearly two centuries. The event and sport continues to draw ardent fans and passionate players. The original rules published in 1580 remain the official outline of the sport.
Players use both hands and feet to move the ball up and down the field over the course of 50 minutes. The rules clearly state that sucker-punches and kicks are illegal, however, head-butts, punches, elbows, and chokeholds are all allowed. The four teams have 27 players with 24 players on the field at one time and no substitutions. Getting tickets to the coveted event is a hard task due to the sport’s popularity and scarcity, as the main event takes place only once a year. You can find more information on purchasing tickets to the game from the official box office website.
June 29th to July 15th – the original intent of the Festival of Two Worlds was to highlight the cultural differences and similarities between American and Italian art, dance, and music. The festival takes place over more than two weeks in the quiet serene town of Spoleto located in the region of Umbria. The composer Gian Carlo Menotti founded the festival in 1958 to inspire discussion in the arts and sciences.
The celebration helps strengthen the bonds of friendship between Europe and the United States through the act of creation taking place in conjunction with the Spoleto Festival USA held annually in Charleston, South Carolina. In recent years the governing council has taken steps in introducing younger generations to the spirit of education within the festival’s playful setting to learn about the heritage of the event and the way classical music and art inspires contemporary works. The annual event attracts thousands to the sleepy ancient town, which acts as a stunning backdrop to the fascinating celebration.
June 29th – The annual public holiday celebrates the patron saints of Rome, the Eternal City, bringing the fast-paced streets to a relaxed stride. Businesses, shops, and public offices close for the day in honor of the saints. St. Peter was one of the 12 apostles and died by crucifixion in the 1st century AD. He is also regarded as the first pope of the Catholic church. St. Paul became an influential leader in the church before being beheaded in the 1st century AD during the reign of emperor Nero.
To commemorate the saints, the pope places a type of woolen cloak known as a pallium over the archbishops appointed over the previous year to symbolize the unity of the church and the hard work and sacrifice of the bishops. Lights decorate St. Peter’s Basilica and unique art displays made out of flowers adorn the cobblestones of St. Peter’s Square. In 2015 over 1,500 artists from around the world produced nearly 32,300 square feet of floral portraits, utilizing 500,000 flowers.
Each year a regatta takes place on the Tiber River. Boats turn into lavish floats with historical décor cruising to the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the famous bridge ornamented with gorgeous statues designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The evening ends with fireworks bursting over Castel Sant’Angelo around 10 in the evening. The celebration first began in 1481 and continues to draw followers of the saints and devoted Romans to the festivities each year.
June 30th – If the game tug-of-war had medieval military roots, it would be the Battle of the Bridge in Pisa, located in the region of Tuscany. The origins of the games are unknown but the reinstitution of the battle came in the 1930s after a century-long hiatus. Participants in the games were medieval costumes inspired by traditional Spanish military garments. The celebration takes place in two distinct parts:
Legend attributes the games to Pelops, the mythical founder of Pisa who wished to institute a tournament similar in spirit and conciliation to the Olympics. Another myth positions the games as a reenactment between the battle of the bridge fought by the Pisans and Saracens during the 11th century campaign, celebrating the warrior tradition of the city-state and former republic.
June 22nd to September 2nd – The stellar acoustics of the 2,000-year-old Roman arena in Verona have drawn famous opera singers, musicians, and music enthusiasts from around the world since the beginnings of the unique festival in 1936. The amphitheater was erected in the 1st century AD and adds luster to the surrounding medieval cobblestone lanes, fortresses, and castles of Verona in view of Piazza Bra. The stadium can hold up to 20,000 spectators per evening, along with hosting elaborate stage dressing to enhance any performance.
Audience members can sit on the stone steps near the top of the arena, on cushioned benches in the middle of the amphitheater, or on reserved chairs closer to the central stage and arena floor. Local restaurants offer tables and chairs in the enchanting ambiance of the city during the festival. Markets, quick-service cafes, and salumerie provide delicious options for picnics during the performances.
Wine is allowed during performances but glass is not. Locals and aficionados bring plastic cups or bottles. Many restaurants in the city offer pre-opera dinners, which start around 6.30pm, while other establishments remain open late into the night for post-opera meals, drinks, or dessert. The festival captures the imaginations of opera-lovers and musical novices alike. The conductors generally choose pieces fans recognize from pop-culture or miniscule knowledge of musical history.
The Infiorata Festivals drape the countryside in flowers during May and June in towns across Italy. The late spring and early summer celebrations bring colorful festivities most notably to the Umbrian town of Spello, the Sicilian city of Noto, and the town of Genzano in Lazio. The word infiorata translates to “decorated with flowers,” which embodies the unique artwork decorating the festivities.
Artisans use flower petals to decorate the earth, often utilizing beans or wood cuttings for embellishment to perfect a piece. The tradition began in the 13th century and evolved to current iteration in the 17th century, when the head-florist of the Vatican presented carpets made of flowers to decorate the basilica on the day of Saints Peter and Paul’s Feast. Famous architect and sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, spread the idea around Rome during baroque festivals he organized when revealing new works of art.
Locals near the Catelli Romani continued the custom in association with the celebration of Corpus Domini and the flower-carpets of the Vatican florist, which takes place nine weeks after Easter. The celebration in Sicily takes place in the third week of May. Artists bring a flourish of colors to elaborate and simple designs on the streets leading to the churches and abbeys around the various towns. After months of sketching on the floor in chalk and marking each line with soil or coffee grounds, the marvelous creations blossom, with the artists utilizing flower petals instead of paint. Artists can choose to use entire flowers instead of just the petals. The works employing stem, petals, and pistil provide three-dimensional scenes.
The small town in Lazio began its tradition in 1778 and continues to hold the festival every June on the Sunday of Corpus Domini. The blanket of flower mosaics covers more than 21,500 square feet consisting of 15 flower panels. Artists use an estimated 500,000 flowers and seeds to create the overall work. The festival ends when the crowning procession marches down the center of the flower carpet, preceding the spallamento, when local children dash down the staircase of the church of Santa Maria, uprooting the petals and the dramatic images connoting art, culture, and faith.
Flowers blanket the baroque city of Noto in Sicily during the festival of Infiorata. The event gained popularity in the 1980s and has since become the most popular spring-time celebration for artists eager to display their skills with the natural materials. Flower petals, soil, beans, and wood shavings shape the different panels over the span of 48 hours. The principal mosaic decorates Via Nicolaci, the main street of the city running beneath baroque balconies. The town reveals the finished works on Sunday. On Monday, the town’s children run through the temporary works to represent the customs of the seasons through destruction and renewal.
The small Umbrian town of Spello has celebrated the Corpus Domini since the 1930s with nearly 1,000 people working strenuously to craft and shape the floral carpets each year. The long flowing floral mosaics decorate the cobblestone streets of the historic city center in preparation for the Blessed Sacrament. The designs have grown more complex and sophisticated over the years with artists utilizing the flowers and petals found in the wilds of the Umbrian countryside. They also use berries, leaves, and dried petals to add texture and color to the captivating designs.