Italy’s many palios: horse racing, jousting and Medieval traditions
In Italy, spring and summer are the seasons of palios and everything that revolves around the fun, folk events that put “comuni” and medieval villages, hamlets and every possible subdivision of a city – “rioni”, “contrade”, “terzieri”, “quartieri”, “sestieri” – in playful competition.
There are also rides and historical events with flag bearers and tambourines, trumpets ringing, and Barb horse parades. Above all, there are heated disputes between jockeys, horsemen challenging each other, ropes to align to, “mossieri” giving orders, maces, spears, shields…
All in all: the country’s old traditions come back to life to commemorate big and small events that together contribute to the colorful mosaic of Italy’s fragmented history.
A “palio” is all this and much more – after all, the word itself speaks of layers and layers of history in its etymology: the Latin “pallium”, meaning “veil” or “overdress”, was semantically extended to also mean “drape”, that is the cloth given to the winners in the competition, which itself started being called “palio” by further extending the meaning of the word.
We have selected seven of the oldest and most noble palios in Italy for you.
Let’s start in Asti, Piedmont, where a famous palio is held at the end of the summer, during the third week of September. There are records of the event from 1275 that describe it as an established tradition, with origins dating even further back.
Since 1988, the race “alla tonda” (around a circuit) is held at the height of the long festivities in honor of the city’s patron, Saint Secundus, which start in May with historical parades and various events. It is held in September, with twenty-one horses and jockeys representing Asti’s “rioni”, hamlets, and surrounding towns.
Competitors are divided into three groups of seven participants each, which all line up behind the rope and wait for the “mossiere”’s command, than race three times around the central Piazza Alfieri, for a total distance of about 1.5 kilometers. The first seven competitors are all prizewinners, but the “sendallo” is only awarded to the fastest of all.
The Palio of Ferrara, in Emilia-Romagna, is held on the last Sunday in May. Eight jockeys on Barb horses represent the city’s eight “contrade”, which include the four “rioni” inside the city walls and the four villages outside.
Ferrara’s competition is held at the climax of a month of intense celebrations in honor of the city’s patron, Saint George, and dates as far back as 1259, when the Guelph Marquis Azzo VII of Este triumphed over the Ghibelline Ezzelino III da Romano (whom Dante – by the way – placed in hell in the company of the “violent against their neighbors”).
The race to conquer Saint George’s cloth is held in Piazza Ariostea and is the focal point of a long “Renaissance festival” that includes many minor competitions and parades with historical costumes and flag throwers.
The Palio of Siena is the most famous medieval-inspired horserace in Italy and the world, and has been held since the early 13th century. It takes place on two separate days of the year: July 2nd, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano who protects the city (a terracotta bust of the Madonna is kept in Siena’s church of the same name), and August 16th, to celebrate the Assumption of Mary in Heaven.
Ten horses and jockeys compete in the race representing ten districts (out of the seventeen in which the wonderful Tuscan city is divided). For those two days, Piazza del Campo is the “navel of the world”. On August 16the, everyone’s eyes are on the “Great Banner” with the image of Mary: whoever wins it becomes the master of Siena for the whole year, until the following August.
Here’s how writers Fruttero and Lucentini described the preliminary stages of the race – when the people call out the names of the competing “contrade” – in one of their novels: “A roar rises at each name, interlocks with the next, and covers any plea, while one by one the horses pass through the gate of the first rope – some docile, some hesitant, some held back and some spurred by the jockeys, who hold the bridle with seriousness, nonchalance, pride, determination, or apparent laziness, depending on their temperament or on the image they want to convey…” (translated from Fruttero & Lucentini, “Il palio delle contrade morte”, Mondadori, Milan 2012).
“Challenge” and “rematch” are the two keywords for the Giostra della Quintana in Foligno (Umbria, province of Perugia), on the two days when it takes place.
The name “Quintana” is a legacy of Roman military terminology: it was the road of the “castrum” where soldiers trained to drive their spears through a suspended hoop or puppet.
The Giostra takes place in the city’s stadium – known as “Campo de li Giochi” – on two occasions: the third Saturday in June for the “Challenge” and the third Sunday in September for the “Rematch”.
The ten “contrade” in Foligno are presented by ten horsemen dressed in 17th-century costumes, who use their spears to take rings off of the arms of a bust of Mars, god of war (the “Quintanone”), placed at the center of an 8-shaped circuit. At every round, the rings get smaller: from eight centimeters in diameter to six, to five.
Giostra della Quintana di Foligno
Campo de li Giochi “Marcello Formica e Paolo Giusti”
June 18th 2016: “The Challenge”
September 18th 2016: “The Rematch”
Tel.: +39 0742 354000
The Palio of Fermo – also known as “Cavalcata dell’Assunta” (“Ride of the Assunta”), “Corso dei Berberi” and “Palio dei Corsieri” – is held like the one in Siena in honor of Mary assumed into heaven, patron of the charming city in Marche. Every year on August 15th, a historical parade celebrates the event and a great competition takes place between ten “contrade” (six historical and four outside the city walls).
Horses and horsemen race from Porta San Francesco, in the eastern part of town, to the Cathedral. The winner is given the prestigious cloth described as “pallium bellum et bonum” (beautiful and good) in Medieval chronicles: Fermo’s palio is a tradition that started in 1182.
Ascoli Piceno, in Marche, holds another traditional “quintana”, with six horsemen launching at full speed with their spear against a bust that represents a “Moor”, in memory of a terrible Saracen invasion in the past.
The Quintana in Ascoli is held in Campo Squarcia on the first Sunday of August, to celebrate the patron of the beautiful town, Saint Emygdius.
The “Moor” (or “Saracen”) is placed at the intersection of two diagonal lanes, and his shield has five different targets that competitors try to hit in the three attempts they are allowed. A precious, painted fabric banner is awarded to the contender who earns the most points.
In recent years, a special nighttime “quintana” has extended the celebrations, on the second Saturday of July, in honor of the Madonna of Peace.
Giostra della Quintana di Ascoli
July 9th and August 7th 2016
Tel.: +39 0736 298223 / +39 0736 261165
Last but not least, the Palio dei Normanni is held in Piazza Armerina, in the province of Enna, Sicily, on August 12th, 13th and 14th.
The event commemorates the comeback of the Normans, who brought the island back under their power fighting the Saracens between 1061 and 1091. The leading figure in the reconquering was Count Ruggero d’Altavilla, who received a banner representing Mary and Baby Jesus from pope Alexander II. He took it with him in his battles and won, then donated it in Piazza Armerina: hence the cloth that is awarded to the winner of the “palio”, which represents the Madonna of Victories, patron of the Sicilian “comune”.
Five horsemen representing the five neighborhoods of Piazza Armerina joust in the local athletic field, at the climax of the celebrations, and “fight” against the “Saracen”.
Palio dei Normanni di Piazza Armerina
Piazza Armerina (En)
August 12th, 13th, 14th 2016
Tel.: + 39 093 5681641