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Engagement ring tradition
and its place in
Italian culture traditions

The engagement ring tradition began with ancient Roman culture.

If you want to reflect Italian heritage in your wedding, here's how to begin with Italy's engagement traditions.

Engagement ring traditions

The Roman Empire's iron engagement ring tradition

The tradition of engagement rings began in ancient Roman wedding culture but had nothing to do with either bridal fashion or love; the groom gave a ring to his bride-to-be as a public mark that a contract of engagement had been made between the two families.

Ancient Roman wedding rings2
Iron Roman wedding band. Photographed at British Museum, London.

Once given, the promise to marry became legally binding and engagement traditions meant that only death was an acceptable reason for not continuing to marriage.  For that reason the ring was a very plain, undecorated band made not of gold but of iron - a symbol of the lasting and unbreakable contract.

It was also a public sign that the woman was about to pass from the ownership of one man - her father - to another - her husband, and for that reason men did not wear any form of engagement or wedding band.

Iron in modern Italian engagement traditions

How does that translate into modern Italian culture traditions? Bridegrooms in Italy often carry a small piece of iron in their pocket to symbolise the strength of the couple's commitment to each other.

In other countries the bride is given a horseshoe which, although traditionally signifying good luck, was also an iron symbol of strength.  These days it tends to be made of card.

Engagement ring tradition :  from iron to gold

But iron rusts, and the Romans were skilled goldsmiths using advanced methods of creating beautiful ancient Roman jewelry so by the third century, plain silver and gold bands replaced iron as engagement rings. This time they symbolised not just strength but the groom's faith in his bride-to-be: she could be trusted with his wealth.

Here, ancient Italian culture traditions were closer to modern times : rings were now a symbol of a promise to marry <i>and</i> an expression of trust.

But what about love?

The engagement traditions of 'fede' rings

Roman gold signet wedding ring
An ancient Roman
'fede' ring.

No doubt experimenting with their goldsmith craft, the ancient Romans then developed from a simple band to a more elaborate design of a gold signet design showing hands clasped, or a couple entwined.

They named this the 'Concordia' or harmony ring but the design also became known as 'fede' rings.

So the symbolism was broadened yet again and 'engagement' rings  now spoke of strength, a promise to marry, trust, harmony and 'fede', meaning a pledge of love - and in Italy today 'fede' is what a wedding ring is called.

On top of that, rings were now worn on the third finger of the left hand - Roman culture following the Egyptian belief that from that finger ran the "nerve of love" directly to the heart.

At last, the engagement ring spoke of love.

'Fede' rings in modern Italian engagement traditions

Fede rings
Today's fede ring.

The 'fede' is still very much a part of Italian engagement ring tradition, particularly in the northern regions where it appears as either two clasped hands or two hands holding a heart.

It's used as either an engagement or wedding band and is popular in both silver and gold.

Claddagh ring
The Irish Claddagh ring.

Not just in Italy either; the famous Irish version of 'fede' rings is the Claddagh, taken directly from ancient Roman culture: two hands, holding a heart, topped with a crown symbolising loyalty. 

The Claddagh has become very popular both as a wedding and a friendship or loyalty ring.

Diamonds in engagement ring tradition

The ancient Romans loved diamonds.  They endowed them with romantic powers, believing they were splinters from falling stars that tipped the arrows of Eros, the god of love.

But despite that, and despite having free access to gems from all parts of the Roman Empire, the tradition of having a diamond in  engagement rings did not originate in ancient Roman culture. The diamond engagement ring as we know it was not seen until the Italy of the 1400s.

Engagement traditions
Italian wedding rings
by 'Preziosi'.

Once they discovered their beauty in rings, however, Italian jewelry manufacturers embraced diamonds enthusiastically and not only engagement ring tradition, but Italian wedding customs, have used them whole-heartedly.

Modern Italian engagement rings now feature diamonds in a variety of settings, and Italian wedding rings are also often diamond set with a single stone for a man and a circle of stones (signifying eternal love) for the bride's ring.

As for ancient Roman wedding rings - they did not exist as a separate item.  The engagement band was worn by the woman as a sign of her betrothal and, later, her status as a wife.  No other ring was exchanged at ancient Roman weddings.

Translating ancient engagement ring tradition into Italian culture traditions of today

So - what should you be thinking about if you want to use some of the traditions of ancient Roman engagement traditions in your own ceremony?

Here are our suggestions:

Use a 'fede' or Claddagh as your engagement ring.  If you opt for the heart shape, make sure you wear it with the heart's point turned inwards towards your body, symbolising that your heart is taken.

Use your engagement party to give and receive your engagement band formally, as a public commitment to your promise to marry.

It is part of Italian culture traditions that, if the man's family owns a ring they leave it to their eldest son, who will give it to his fiancée as a symbol not just of love but of welcome into her new family.

So don't be offended if you're given a family heirloom as an engagement or wedding band.

It is customary in Italy to engrave the date of the marriage inside wedding rings, adding the bride’s name inside the groom’s, and his name inside hers.


Thinking of having an engagement party and want an Italian theme? How about a masquerade? Have a look at some of our gorgeous Carnevale masks for inspiration!



Italian wedding culture - its ancient origins

 Ancient Roman fashion for brides in today's modern world

 

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