Ferragosto on August 15 is Assumption Day, a national holiday; a day when offices, factories, and many stores and restaurants are closed. It is also the beginning of the exodus from the cities and towns for families not working in the tourist industry. Ferragosto dates back to the time of Emperor Augustus (18 B.C.). Today, Ferragosto marks the religious observance of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a holy day of observation for the Catholic faith. According to Wikipedia, the Nazi regime used the August holiday tradition to organize discounted trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organizations and by creating the "People's Trains of Ferragosto," all of which sent the less affluent on a short, one or two day holiday to Italian cities, seaside and mountain resorts.
The month of August traditionally has been the month for vacanza, vacation, when Italians leave the cities for the cooler mountains, countryside and the sea. The Italians I lived among in Sorrento loved the sun. Before temperatures allowed coats to be left at home, the decks for the countless lounge chairs along the Marina Piccola were being constructed. Bodies would fill each sun bed, cover the rocks in coves and grill on the stone beaches along the coast. Italians love the sun.
Many, if not most, jobs in America do not offer the month of August off for workers. During the summer you may see a sign posted in your hometown barber or cleaners declaring they are on vacation. But to imagine a bakery, café or even the donut shop closing for even a week is difficult.
To gain a better perspective on August closings in small towns vs. cities, I asked my Italian friends to tell me about frie, holidays. "The practice of closing for the entire month [of August] is not common, perhaps because of the economic situation [in Italy] the last few years," Isabell Salesny, in Rome, told me. "Any small retail activity: bars, pizza take-aways, or ice cream shops close from the 15th to the end of August." "From June (when schools close) to the end of August, grandparents stay at home, moms and children are at the beach. Husbands visit on the weekends." Vacations may be shortened to a few days around Ferrogosto, for 2 weeks, or until school children return to their classes in September.
My translator, Caterina, lives in Ravenna, and shares that "the month-long holiday is shrinking." "Some services do not close: pharmacies, tourist attractions." "In smaller towns usually there is only one baker and one vegetable store, and in many cases one shop for both kinds of products, and of course the owner doesn't close. Barber shops close for vacations; my hair dresser closes for two weeks. The hardware store may close for a week or more, but here in Ravenna we have a mall and many supermarkets, where you can find everything while you wait until you favorite shop will open again."
Myra Robinson lives about an hour outside of Venice, and is an author and an expat. "Quite often, local stores stagger their holidays so that there is always one barber shop open, etc. The little supermarket is suspending its continuous opening hours and will be closed from August 1st to the 30th. I remember last year that the [Saturday] market was somewhat diminished in July and August. The usual shoe stall and handbag stall were not there, but there was always a fish stall, green grocery, etc. whereas normally there would be two or three."
Monica Cesarato, my Venice authority: "Yes they do [close], usually for a month in August, even in Venice. Last night I saw an Osteria which was closing for a month from middle of July to middle of August. But, I have to say, as the years go by, I see more and more people not closing during the summer, due to the crisis."