Italian history stretches back for thousands of years and as a result the country has an incredible variety of local festivals that showcase the very best of the regional culture. Festivals in Italy are regular events in the major cities as well as in smaller rural locations.
The local population, tourists and Expats, enjoy the seasonal festivals which highlight the incredible culture of Italy; and while some are religious in nature, others are celebrations of regional traditions that, in some cases, date back for hundreds of years!
The festivals that take place throughout the country act as community get-togethers and a chance to sing, dance and enjoy the Dolce Vita! So why not include some of the amazing Italian festivals on your itinerary if you’re a tourist; and better yet, if you’re an Expat make sure to be a regular attendee at the festivities that bring so much color and life to your locality.
The Heart Of Blossoming Communities And Ancient Traditions.
Some of the most famous festivals in Italy are composed of a dramatic religious procession, which helps to keep the Catholic faith alive and relevant as the world around changes faster than ever. Sometimes, a model of Jesus Christ or the Mother Mary is paraded through the streets which are accompanied by white hooded monks singing religious hymns, while at other times the festivals are far more pagan in nature.
These festivals mark important moments in the calendar, such as a summer or winter solstice, or else they are held on the birthdays of saints. Another popular way of celebrating the Catholic roots of Italy is to take part in a pilgrimage. These can be of any length and are as much a special social event as they are devotedly religious occasions; although many people do still take their faith very seriously in Italy. Among the most popular pilgrimage sites include the Shrine of the Madonna di Polsi and the Festa di Sant’Efisio which takes place in Sardinia. Some of the pilgrimages have as many as a million people taking part at one time which is quite an incredible experience if you ever get the chance to join in!
When you first attend a regional festival in Italy you might be thinking that you are intruding on a local custom however nothing could be further from the truth! You will be welcomed with open arms and treated extremely kindly throughout the festivities, even if you are not a practicing Catholic or a foreigner. Festivals are a way for communities to greet new friends and open their doors so that the world can see the heritage they are so proud of.
In recent years the carnival festivals, known as ‘carnevale’ in Italian, have been making a great resurgence in popularity. The carnevale is a festival that comes just before Lent and is an opportunity for people to let their hair down, eat, drink and dance, before they would traditionally give up certain items of food and other luxuries for the next month. The carnevale festivals are often highly elaborate with people wearing decorative masks and costumes and partying long into the night! Of course the most famous carnevale, or masked ball, is in Venice; however the Viareggio carnevale in Tuscany is another top choice for tourists and local Italians alike.
There are also festivals in Italy that celebrate medieval traditions, such as the Palio horse race in Siena, crossbow tournaments, flag twirling and even jousting competitions! Other festivals are focused on the regional food and specialities of the area and are known as ‘sagre’; hosting large markets and feasts for the community and visitors. You’ll often see brass bands, dancing and fireworks at night.
You can also find lovely arts based festivals which are often centered around amphitheaters or medieval walls and buildings. Arts festivals host operas, special exhibitions that promote local talents and traditional craftwork, and are extremely popular with locals and tourists.
The last main type of festival that you will find in Italy are political! The most famous is the Festa de ‘Unita, during which members of different political parties put on fetes, bingo and even dancing; as they seek to recruit new members to their movements. In the major cities the political festivals often have famous bands playing on stage and provide low cost food and drink for the attendees.
Throughout Italy there are hundreds of festivals that take place each year so no matter what your tastes and interests are you’re bound to find something which is fascinating and fun in equal measures. You can ask at the local tourist board to find out details about local festivals; however, there are a few festivals that really stand out and are a must see for tourists and Expats in Italy.
The Carnevale in Venice is one of the most iconic annual festivals in Italy. The festivities end on Shrove Tuesday to celebrate the start of Lent. The carnevale is best known for the elaborate and decorative masks that are worn by participants who dance, revel late into the night and enjoy the company of friends and family.
According to local legends, the festival first took place in 1162 AD to mark the victory of the Venetian rulers, who had defeated the forces of the Aquileia. It is said that to celebrate their victory the people of Venice gathered in the San Marco Square where they danced and made merry!
In recent years the carnevale has maintained its Renaissance roots and people dress up period costumes, adding an amazingly dramatic feel and look to the whole event.
Easter Procession, Sicily.
The Easter Procession, also known as the Procession of the Mysteries, or ‘Processione dei Misteri di Trapani’ in Italian, is a full day long procession where floats parade lifelike figures that tell the stories and the events of the Passion of Christ.
The festival’s highlight is the passion play which takes place on Good Friday and has been put on each year in Sicily since at least the 15th Century when the counter reformation was at its peak.
The events of the day take upwards of 16 hours and sometimes carry on for up to 24 hours, making it the longest religious festival in Italy.
Festa Della Madonna, Matera.
Each year on 2nd July the city of Matera celebrates their local patron saint, the Madonna della Bruna. The festival has been taking place annually for more than 600 years and was first instituted by Pope Urban VI in 1389. The pre-existing day of celebration was also used to incorporate celebrations for the visitation of the Pope to the city.
Although the festival has religious roots, in modern times it is more focused around market stalls, bands playing music and spectacular firework shows at night. The festival begins on 2nd July but usually stretches out for at least a week. Events culminate with a pagan ritual of destruction, which is followed by a firework display that represents rebirth and new life.
As is often the case in Italy, the pagan and Catholic heritage of the country is celebrated in conjunction without anyone seeing a contradiction in it! This is a wonderful festival for tourists although most attendees are locals, so if you do visit you’ll get a real taste of an authentic Italian festival at its best.
Battle Of The Oranges, Ivrea.
This bizarre festival takes place each year in Ivrea, in Northern Italy, and is centered around a giant food fight; where participants gather in organized teams and throw oranges at one another!
The origins of this unusual festival celebrates the city’s defeat of their tyrannical ruler who was a member of the elite Ranieri family in the 12th Century. The evil tyrant is said to have attempted to rape a young woman on the eve of her wedding and as a result the people of Ivrea stormed his palace, burnt it to the ground and then executed the tyrant in the town square!
Every year, a local woman is selected to play the role of Violetta for the festivities, the young woman the tyrant attempted to rape. The people are rightly proud of their defiance to their tyrant ruler and the Battle of the Oranges is a playful and fun way to commemorate the historical event. It’s also traditional to light a huge bonfire during the night after the battle is concluded, which also represents the end of winter and the coming of spring.
The battle is arranged so that people on foot, who represent the people of the town, throw oranges at others who are riding in wooden carts, who represent the tyrant’s troops. This festival has to be seen to be believed, so if you can you should certainly visit while it’s taking place in January.
Oh Bej! Oh Bej!, Milan.
This Christmas fair takes place from the 7th December, the traditional day of the Patron Saint of Milan, Ambrose; and runs through until the next Sunday. ‘Oh Bej! Oh Bej!’ literally translates as ‘oh so nice, oh so nice!’ and is a wonderful family event that attracts tourists from all over the world. It’s the perfect opportunity to pick up some last minute Christmas presents and enjoy the markets, fairs and eateries that spring up around the event.
The streets and squares where the fair takes place are strung up with beautiful Christmas lights and the huge diversity of stalls and market traders makes the ideal backdrop for an evening with friends and family. Most of the stalls are selling sweets and other delicacies, toys, souvenirs, antiques and much more besides, so if you’re in Milan during December this event is unmissable.
Scoppio del Carro, Florence.
Taking place each year in April, the Scoppio del Carro, or ‘explosion of the cart’, is a wild spectacle that centers around a wooden cart that is packed full of a huge amount of fireworks and pyrotechnics which is lit on Easter Sunday! The cart explodes into a crazy scene of fires and lights and is one of the most famous events in the calendar of the city of Florence.
The event is said to have its origins in the 11th Century, during the First Crusade. It celebrates the European armies laying siege to Jerusalem during the campaign to conquer Palestine for the Christians.
The festival also celebrates the brave deeds of a local Florentine man, named Pazzino de’ Pazzi, who was said to be the first man in the Crusade to have climbed up the walls of Jerusalem during the assault on the city. As a reward he was given three flints from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which he carried back home with him and are now stored in the Church of Santi Apostoli.
It then became customary to use these splints to light a holy fire at Eastertide. The fire was then used to light torches which men would carry through the city, spreading the light. A cart was also used to bring the holy fire into the city center, from which the locals would light their own flames.
Palio di Siena, Siena.
The Palio di Siena is a magical festival that focuses around a horse race and takes place twice each year, usually on 2nd July and the 16th August. The unique horse race involves 10 riders who dress up in bright colors, each of which represents one of the city wards, or ‘contrade’ in Italian.
The first Palio of the year, which is held on 2nd July, is called the Palio di Provenzano, and honors the Madonna of Provenzano, who became a religious icon which was loosely based on the Terzo Camollia icon. The second Palio, held on the 16th August, is known as the Palio dell’Assunta and celebrates the Assumption of Mary, when she ascended to heaven.
Although the festivals have religious overtones the events are extremely jovial and fun. The race takes place over three laps of the piazza and often takes as little as a few minutes to complete, with several riders frequently being thrown from their horses during the competition!
Local Festivals In Italy Are Incredible Spectacles.
Festivals, processions and other fairs play a major role in the life of Italians and are an important way in which the ancient traditions and heritage of the country are kept alive.
Naturally, festivals and other special regional events are a big draw for tourists but they are also a cherished time for the locals; who gather with friends, have meals with their families and enjoy the common roots of their communities and cities.
No visit to Italy would be complete without witnessing some of the local festivals and regardless of your interests there’s a huge range of options to choose from when you’re planning your itinerary.