Today is Ferragosto in Italy: it is a public holiday celebrated on 15 August, coinciding with the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary.
The modern Italian name of the holiday comes directly from the Latin name: ” Feriae Augusti” (Holidays of Emperor Augustus), which were introduced by emperor Augustus in 18 BC.
All the month of August was a period of festivity and of rest for farm workers between the summer harvests and the new planting season. The summertime festivals evolved from being an event lasting one month to an event celebrated in the second half of August and then became just a one-day holiday.
The celebrations included horse races which were held across the Empire, and oxen, donkeys and mules which carried the heavy loads of the land were given rest from their work duties and decorated with flowers.
Such ancient traditions are still alive today, in the “Palio di Siena” o “Palio dell’Assunta”, a horse race which takes place on 16 August in Siena.
The name “Palio” comes from the Latin word “pallium”, a piece of precious fabric which was the prize given to the winners of horse races in ancient Rome.
Today the “palio”, known affectionately as “the rag” in Siena (the trophy given to the “contrada” or city ward that wins the competition), is a rectangular piece of silk, hand-painted by an artist for the occasion.