The origins of Valentine’s Day
Today there are many tales and legends related to both Valentine’s Day and the figure of Saint Valentine, spanning the course of Italian history. In religious texts, there is a trace of at least three different saints of the same name, although it is not evident whether they are distinct individuals or 3 separate accounts of the life of the same person.
The most well known of these is San Valentino di Terni, described both as a protector of love stories and as a healer of epilepsy. There is little established fact about his life, though there are countless legends of his desire to convert his neighbours to Christianity. Upon his move to Rome, he began to oversee marriages between Christian couples in secret. When word of his transgressive deeds spread to Emperor Claudius II, he demanded that Valentino renounce his faith. Valentino, however, refused and was subsequently martyred on February 14, 269 in central Umbria.
According to another antiquated story, the saint gave a poor girl a sum of money she needed as a dowry. As such, this generous donation has since created an image of him as the protector of lovers, and the magnanimous figure we think of as San Valentino.
How is it celebrated today?
Per San Valentino la primavera sta vicino (On Valentine’s Day, Spring is close)... or so the proverb goes. In the late Middle Ages, during which time the Julian calendar was in use, Valentine’s Day fell near the spring awakening. To this day, spring flowers remain one of the most popular Valentine’s gifts. “Usually women receive red roses alongside dinner,” says our Social Media Manager, Maria, yet, “some Italians get really creative, so practically anything goes, from serenades to spa days”.
Interestingly, it was only in the 1700s that Italians began to usher in the habit of exchanging gifts and wishing one another a happy Valentine’s Day. Such gifts were often decorated elaborately with lace, hearts, cupids and other delicate touches/embellishments. Chocolate is a more popular option today, as of course is the convention of cooking your loved one a special meal. After all, it doesn't get much more thoughtful or Italian than making your own pasta from scratch alongside a good glass of wine.
Fond of self-expression, Italians also have numerous ways to make their love known. Some of the most common phrases you might hear on Valentine’s are:
- Amore a prima vista – love at first sight
- Buon San Valentino – Happy Valentine’s Day
- Amo te oggi e sempre – I love you today and always
- Ti amo – I love you
Where to go in Italy for Valentine’s Day
Maria weighs in again: “The most romantic cities in Italy are Venice, Verona, and Florence, but honestly the entire country is just the perfect backdrop for proposals, weddings, and romantic holidays”. Some Southern Italians even used to engage in the practice known as fuitina (sudden escape) whereby a young couple would elope in order to get married against the wishes of their families. Although that is a rarity nowadays, there are plenty of other longstanding traditions and historic areas that offer a taste of romance in Italy today. Here are some of our favourites:
With canals populated by gondolas and its elaborately intertwining labyrinth of bridges, Venice is not only among Italy’s greatest cities, but also one of its most romantic. Its distinctive charm is easily witnessed from the water, with some of our favourite locations being the Murano and Burano islands, St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Rialto Bridge (the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal).
Shakespeare fanatics and couples alike will recognise the romantic allure of Verona. With its quaint, winding streets and balcony of “Romeo and Juliet” (the backdrop, of course, to Shakespeare’s masterpiece itself), the city is home to a countless number of attractions. In much the same way as Venice, visitors are also charmed by its archaic system of bridges, crossing over the water in a way that offers unparalleled views over the city and a birdseye few of all of its beautiful intricacies. We love the Arena di Verona, Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore, Ponte Scagliero, Giardino Gusti, and Parco delle Cascate for a romantic day out.
For many art lovers, Florence represents the origins of artistic expression, and, remains even today a wellspring of creativity, as well as a living reminder of the Italian Renaissance. During your stay in Italy, the city is an absolute must-visit location. Starting from the Accademia Gallery which houses the gargantuan marble carving of David by Michelangelo, you can continue to expand your knowledge of the Italian masters by spending your afternoon at the Uffizi Gallery, complete with masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael and Giotto. Also, be sure not to miss the Museo Opera del Duomo and San Lorenzo church, the latter of which serves as the burial grounds of the infamous Medici family.
The capital of Italy, the eternal city, a place of many names…Rome is romance made infinite. From its most prominent attractions such as St Peter’s Basilica or the Colosseum, Rome has a historical allure like no other. Other locations such as Pincian Hill in the north-eastern historical centre of the city, as well as the Aventine Hill, Orange Garden and Janiculum, are all ideal spots to bring your loved one for a romantic evening overlooking the capital.
While the village of Valeggio is nor a place perpetually inundated with couples, nor a particularly popular destination on Valentine’s Day, it is a place laden with romantic significance. Surprising your loved one with a trip to this quaint town could be the perfect gift: later in the year, on the 18th of June, the Tortellini di Valeggio festival is celebrated (known in English as the 'Knot of Love' festival). Held on the Ponte Visconteo bridge, the event itself impressively overlooks the idyllic hamlet of Borghetto Valeggio sul Mincio. In the evening, two huge tables are erected, covering the length of the bridge in its entirety. As soon as the festival begins, food lovers from all over Northern Italy descend on the town in droves, with over 4000 diners being served. Dishes are always made from local products, the most famous of which is of course the village’s handmade tortellini.
As legend has it, Malco, a captain in the Visconte army, fell in love with a river nymph from Valeggio. However, a romance of the sorts proved to be impossible; it was only when Malco later recognised one of the dancers at a festival (similar to the one that takes place today) as his true love, Silvia, that he could be happy.
Struck with rage, a local girl by the name of Isabella revealed Silvia’s identity as a nymph and has her imprisoned. Malco helped her escape but soon, he too was soon imprisoned. Silvia spoke to him in prison and begged him to leave human life behind to follow her.
Malco accepted and the two lovers ran away together, leaving behind in their wake a knotted gold silk handkerchief as a sign of their unbreakable love. Since then, their story has been celebrated through the local village festival and the making of homemade tortellini, the origins of which can be dated in Borghetto to the 14th century.
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