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The History of Villeggiatura

“Villeggiare, meaning “resting in pleasant places,” was a rite most wealthy ancient Romans abided by come summertime, when they left the sweltering capital for breezier landscapes”

Every summer, Italians (most of us at least) are united in doing one thing: going on a beach holiday. As schools close and work slows down, we pack our suitcases with dresses and shorts, flip flops and sandals, and hit the road—usually the A3 or A1—to trade city life for coastal charm. 

Sometimes, we’re only away for a week, to explore snail-paced villages or sleepy islands we’ve never been to before. Most times, though, our sojourn is a little longer, the bags a little heavier, and the place we go to is one we’ve known since we were children—what we call villeggiatura.

The concept is as old as time and has been accompanying us for much of our history. 

‘Villeggiare,’ meaning “resting in pleasant places,” was a rite most wealthy ancient Romans abided by come summertime, when they left the sweltering capital for breezier landscapes, be them in the countryside or along the coast, to practice otium (idleness) and rest (Emperor Hadrian was perhaps the biggest fan of this idea, as his magnificent residence in Tivoli, Villa Adriana, attests). 

Carlo Goldoni was writing about it in 1761 with his Trilogia della Villeggiatura, a set of three satirical plays taking the audience behind the scenes as two Northern Italian families and their respective entourages prepare for a fashionable stay in the country and forsake all their cherished precepts of bourgeois prudence and parsimony in the process.  

Just sixty-two years later, in 1823, the first stabilimento balneare, Bagno Dori, opened in Viareggio as a women-only beach club. It was followed by the mixed-sex Bagno Nettuno, also in Viareggio, in 1824. 

A century on, during the early days of fascism, the regime, ever so eager to control the lives of its people, would set up special trains at highly affordable prices to take families on day trips to seaside resorts and encourage them to have hydrotherapy sessions. Villaggiatura it was not, but a first glimpse of what an Italian summer could look like. 

But it was only in the second half of the 20th century that villeggiatura really became as ubiquitous as aperitivo in our collective minds and on our summer calendars—not just as an elite activity or a one-day event, but something everyone could aspire to. 

The post-WWII industrialisation boom that swept the country had much to do with it: as people became more financially secure thanks to their factory jobs—but also worked more as a result—the modern idea of vacation as an extended period of unbridled free time began taking shape, and with it, the routine of ‘andare in villeggiatura.’

In the 1950s, that meant a three-to-four-day-break spent away from your usual residence. By 1966, two years after the Autostrada del Sole (the A1) officially opened, the average duration had lengthened, as had the places people would travel to: Riviera Romagnola, the Amalfi Coast, Ischia. 

Then, in the summer of ‘67, as the number of vacation days workers could be entitled to gets longer, villeggiatura evolves into its next iteration: a month-long hiatus, best if spent in a second family home bought especially for the hottest months of the year. 

In a heat described as “unbreathable” cities empty, and the word ‘esodo’ appears in large fonts across newspapers. It would be the first mention of many more to come.

The great escape happens in August, when factories close, though the lucky ones—stay-at-home mums, retirees, children, anyone who follows the school calendar—indulge in their villeggiatura from June to September. 

For their stay, they pack half their city homes and parasols for the beach, ice coolers filled with Cinzano Soda and Chinotto, and hopes of sunny days and a summer to remember. Kids make friends over sandcastles, teenagers immerse themselves in summer flings, adults unplug from their daily grind over a game of canasta or a passeggiata for ice cream after dinner. 

Every year, the cycle repeats, and more generations fall hard for this stretched out vacation that’s so uniquely Italian—so familiar yet never boring. 

Pop culture, too, has built a whole repertoire around it. 

Songs like Edoardo Vianello’s Pinne, Fucile ed Occhiali, Gino Paoli’s Sapore di Sale, Giuni Russo’s Un’Estate al Mare have been the villeggiatura soundtrack of too many of us to count, regardless of age, as have the classic tormentoni (summer hits) that drop every June and play on loop on our radios. 

On the screen, the Italian summer in all its facets—the deserted cities, the annoying next-door neighbours of our villeggiatura homes, the light-heartedness of its long, sultry nights and the melancholy that comes with the end of it—has been captured time and again, from Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario to Paolo Virzi’s Ferie d’Agosto and Carlo Vanzina’s Sapore di Mare, each one not just a summertime classic, but an apt portrait of Italy’s different historical moments through the decades.

While diverse in reach and scope, I find that all these works, both musical and visual, share one common trait: they encapsulate the ephemerality of villeggiatura—the sense that any idyllic, carefree times are merely temporary postponements of responsibility, because real life will no doubt intrude once September starts.

In such a fleeting context, villeggiatura is liberation—a space defined by being elsewhere, where time is suspended and all we are required to do is to restore ourselves. It is, I like to think, a rite, just like it was for our ancestors. And we shouldn’t have it any other way.