Festivals in Italy are a big part of everyday life. Because Italians always seem to be in a festive mood, their weekends are often spent celebrating food, flowers, wine, art or religion – usually combining some or all of these various elements and culminating in a cacophony of the almost obligatory fireworks. Similarly, many Italian festivals are directly linked with historical events and involve processions of hundreds or thousands of elaborately costumed people, accompanied by flag throwers and papier-mâché figures. When you add into this selection the unique Italian horse races, palios, then it becomes abundantly clear why more and more people are choosing to visit the bright and colourful festas of Italy all year round.
Venice and Florence remain at the top of the list of Italian destinations that attract visitors during their festival seasons – and, even in these two beguiling cities, the special atmospheres generated at festival time add even more magic. Venice has its world famous carnival, with its tradition of mask wearing, in the two weeks leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Its spectacular opening ceremony, the Flight of the Angel, is totally unforgettable.
Helping emphasise the city’s history and religion, the Festa della Madonna della Salute, more commonly known as la Salute, is a festival to honour one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the church known as La Salute. This festival, held in the late autumn, gives visitors the opportunity of going to Venice when the streets and canals are less busy with tourists and when the locals are celebrating the salvation of their own city. There is a similar occasion, the Festival of the Redeemer, Il Redentore, held every July, which includes the eye-catching Redentore Regatta – gondola races along the Giudecca Canal.
Florence likewise can boast some stunning festivals which, whilst being very much a part of the local populace, also have international appeal. The Scoppio del Carro, for example, has been in existence for over 500 years as an Easter Sunday celebration and is a glorious combination of religious ceremony, bizarre spectacle and ear-shattering explosions.
Italy is full of idiosyncratic, compelling festivals with at least one foot firmly in the past. The Festa della Madonna Bruna, in the historic city of Matera with its Sassi cave dwellings, is a weird mixture of religion and destruction – and fireworks, of course. In Northern Sardinia, in the small village of Sedilo, a battle of 312 AD is remembered with L’Ardia di San Constantino; a thunderous horse race around the streets.
Palios, in fact, feature quite predominantly amongst festivals in Italy. As well as the most famous of them all, held twice each year in the walled city of Siena, other places such as the wine city of Asti in Piedmont have medieval events centred around their own palio. Florence, in June, has its own version of a medieval football match and jousting features significantly at festivals in Ascoli Piceno (August), Arezzo and Foligno (both September).
Carnival – farewell to meat – is Italy’s most popular festival season and many cities have wonderfully traditional events in the early spring. Especially interesting, perhaps, for visitors are those such as the Ivrea carnival, with its orange hurling battles, and that at the popular Tuscan beach resort of Viareggio – one that features the gigantic papier mâché figures and lots of ‘missile’ firing!
Also especially worth looking out for are the various flower art festivals, infiorata, that usually take place in the early summer. Using thousands of petals and flower seeds, some truly exquisite works of art can be seen in the streets during these festivals. If you happen to be in Sicily towards the end of May then the beautiful baroque town of Noto has one of Italy’s most celebrated infioratas. Slightly different, but enchanting nevertheless, is the Almond Blossom Festival at Agrigento in Sicily earlier in the year.
Food and drink, naturally, are important in Italy and there are many local festivals celebrating various delicacies. During the late autumn, there are some excellent opportunities for lovers of Italian truffles to indulge themselves, rather more inexpensively than they normally can, at local sagras, or fairs. The Alba White Truffle Fair in Piedmont and the San Miniato Truffle Fair in Tuscany are the most visited but there are many more. You’ll also find rice, cheese, walnut and lots of wine festivals throughout the country.
Finally, Italy also hosts a great many fine international music events each year. Rome has its own Roman Summers concerts, Florence has the prestigious Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in the early summer, and there are many other superb programmes of high quality music staged annually. The atmospheric medieval city of Perugia hosts the Umbria Jazz Festival and, in just a couple of years, the Venice Jazz Festival has earned itself a fine reputation.
Festivals in Italy, whether they are large international events or simple local traditions dating back for centuries, offer a wealth of experiences for visitors to the country to enjoy and immerse themselves in the culture of this wonderfully welcoming country.