Banquets in medieval castle courtyards, strolls down cobblestone streets of ancient hamlets, flag throwers, mandolin players, food and drink galore … this is the atmosphere in a fairytale journey into the past and unforgettable Italian Wedding and Civil Ceremony. While hundreds of years have passed since knights in shining armor roamed the Circus Maximus, the echo of ancient Roman Law governing citizens in the middle ages still rings in the Italian Civil Code articles that are recited at your civil wedding ceremony in Italy. It may come as quite a surprise to those who choose to get legally married in Italy that those century-old articles of law still define marriage in a truly modern doctrine for equality and the rights and obligations of both spouses, equally.
A Very Old Ritual
The definition of matrimonium or marriage evolved during the Roman Empire rule – one of the longest lasting some 900 years starting from around 300 BC and ending close to 600 AD. The final result for matrimonium is very different from some of the stereotypical ideas about Italians and marriage. Let’s take a little walk through truth and myth ….
Myth: Italians have “arranged” marriages.
Truth: Consent of the parties (bride and groom) to enter into marriage was initially ignored in Roman Law, but it later became a necessary element of a valid marriage, just as it is today. It is included both in the text of the marriage declaration of intent which is signed a few days in advance of the wedding date and it is repeated in the act of matrimony on the wedding day …. just to make sure 😉
Myth: Italians marry their relatives.
Truth: the articles of law on no impediment to marriage date back to Emperor Justinian ( circa 550 AD), and are read when couples sign their declaration of intent. They forbid marriage between ascendants and descendants of the same family, siblings, relationships acquired by marriage (step-relatives) and marriage to adopted children.
Myth: The “year of mourning” restriction to re-marry for women is discriminatory.
Truth: Under Roman Law, both bride and groom were branded with infamia (infamy) if they married before the end of the period of mourning. The modern day application of the 300 day waiting period is only for women following death of or divorce from a husband and it serves to protect paternity rights of the unborn child in case the woman is pregnant.
Myth: The husband is the boss.
Truth: In Roman Law the term patria potestas (potesta’ or ‘power’) gave the husband power over the family with respect to property and his wife, who was under his legal and protective care. It was later changed to read ‘head of household‘ and in 1975 the new Italian Family Law Reform gave equal rights and responsibilities to both spouses and established joint ownership by default unless otherwise determined in a pre-nuptial agreement.
Myth: Women must take their husband’s surname.
Truth: Women keep their family name in Italy. (yes ladies, you will sign the Italian City Hall Wedding Register with your own last name!)
More Roman Law Trivia…
Engagement was a formal matter involving a moral obligation, though no action was taken against either party broke their promise, and it was customary even 1600 years ago for the groom to give the bride a betrothal ring to symbolize his intentions. Asking for a woman’s hand in marriage comes from the Roman word manus (hand) and a justum matrimonium or valid marriage was either cum manu (with hand) or sine manu (without hand).
Cum manu meant that power of authority and all property was transferred into the hands of the husband or head of household.
Sine manu meant that the groom had no power and it was up to the bride and her family to decide whether she would become part of her husband’s family with all of her property or remain under the legal protection of her own paterfamilias.
Carrying the bride over the threshold also comes from ancient Roman traditions. Following the lengthy wedding celebration – still today Italian weddings are a marathon of food and festivities – a procession followed the bride and groom to their new home where she was swept off her feet so as not to touch the hearth which was sacred to the goddess of the home, Vesta.