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Friday, July 15, 2011

Fun and Pastimes in Medieval Italy

The Palio of Siena

by Jannine Corti Petska

Italy has long been integral in the flourishing of the arts, literature, finances, and fashion throughout Europe. But what did they do in the Medieval period for fun?

In my Italian medieval romances, I have explored many ways Italians have whiled away the hours when not engaging in necessary and important business. In THE LILY AND THE FALCON, I added a game of kicking an animal’s bladder into opposing tents at the hero and heroine’s wedding. Today, this game is called soccer or, as the Italians refer to it, calico.

In the fourth book of my Italian Medieval series, TEMPT NOT MY HEART (not contracted at present), the famous horse races of Siena are a vital part of the story. Portions of the following are taken from an article I wrote that ran in Renaissance Magazine, issue #31, entitled “The Games of Siena.”

Throughout history, men have tested their strength, endurance and skill in ways that have often seemed barbaric. The games of medieval Siena were a prime example of the extent these men carried their quest in order to be hailed a champion. For what began among military forces as a war-like competition, soon evolved into violent rivalry between the contrade (districts or neighborhoods) of the town.

Only one contest has survived the centuries—the Palio—which existed well before the 11th century and took place two times a year: on July 2nd, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzan, who miraculously appeared to Provenzan Salvani, the hero in the Battle of Montraperti; and also on August 16th, a day dedicated to the Madonna of the Assumption.

The name of the race was synonymous with the prize awarded the winner. A misrepresentation of the Latin word pallium (meaning a rectangular piece of cloth), a palio was a wool, silk or velvet piece of cloth bearing a representation of the Virgin Mary and was awarded to the contrade who won the race.

Prior to 1555, during the Palio young men carried colored wooden structures usually representing animals, with followers parading behind them in a procession. After 1555, each district began to organize with headquarters defining territorial limits and announcing specific rules, thereby developing its own badge, colors, animal of distinction for its banner, its own church and religious staff, and a stable for the horse racing on its behalf.

In the beginning, men would talk about “running to win the Palio” (correre per vincerer il palio). As the race evolved over time, they spoke instead of “running the Palio” (correre il palio). Pride played a huge role in these races; the horses were decked out as colorfully as their riders, and each district dressed the part, as did individual supporters. And while the town divided their loyalties to the riders, the idea of the contrade was not enforced.

The days leading up to the races were set aside for a festival. During this time, women and girls decorated the streets with rich adornments, flowers and banners in the colors of
their contrade. These were happier times for the town, and the friendly competition among the neighborhoods to see which one could out-decorate the other lifted the spirits of the Sienese.

Late in the Medieval period, the horse races, previously run in a straight like through the streets, began taking place around the sloping shell of the Piazza del Campo. But the incline of the piazza proved to be a dangerous course. Over time, many animals were seriously injured or killed because of the unfit shape of the “track.” Run along the outer rim, the actual race ended in less than 90 seconds. But despite the shortness of it, the winner was hailed a hero and the contrade who won deemed superior above all the others. At least until the next Palio.

To this day, the pomp and circumstance surrounding the short race is a sight to see. The pride of each contrade is the same—the only difference is the more than 500 years of history in between.
Piazza del Campo, Siena

My available books:

 CARINA AND THE NOBLEMAN, book 1, Sisters of Destiny trilogy

CHARLOTTE AND THE GYPSY, book 2, Sisters of Destiny trilogy
Trailer at http://youtu.be/H26Ny5YuMis

LOVE’S SWEET WAGER, Available at The Wild Rose Press
Barnes and Noble

REBEL HEART, 2007 Aspen Gold Finalist,
available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon


Miriam Newman said...

Being a horse racing fan, I have known about this race for many years, and known its origins. Apparently it's a pretty tough race and the victor (not to mention the horse) really earns that scrap of cloth.

Vonnie Davis said...

Oh, how interesting. Thanks for sharing. Loved the pictures, too.

Susan Blexrud said...

You are the master on Medieval Italy, Jannine. Such rich history, and it certainly shines through in your stories. Hugs, Susan

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Anna: Thanks so much for this interesting post. I love medieval history, and while I had heard of the races, I didn't know where the name came from or the story behind the race. I'm glad they did away with the steep course, because I cringed when I read about the horses getting injured. Great history lesson!

Jannine said...

Miriam, what I don't get is that it's over in 90 seconds! All that work put into one race twice during the summer. I would love to see it in person.

Thanks for commenting.

Jannine said...

Thanks for reading my blog, Vonnie. Glad you thought it was interesting.

Jannine said...

You're so kind and sweet, Susan. Thank you.

As long as I can sit at a computer and my fingers can still move, I'll be writing many more stories set in Italy. I may need another lifetime to do it all, lol.

Jannine said...

Joyce, I, too, cringed when I had learned about the horses getting injured.

Thanks for stopping in.

Gwynlyn said...

Informative as always, Jannine. Thanks.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

What a great post. Thanks for sharing the history of this historical race.

Angelique Armae said...

What a great post. I love Medieval history, so this caught my attention. It's nice to see a post on Medieval Italy, too.

Jannine said...

Thank you ladies for reading my blog. I am thrilled that the subject was so well received.

Wishing you all the best for summer and beyond.


Fraoch said...

Wonderful post, my daughter has just returned from her annual summer semester teaching in Seina and she has been to quite a number of the Palio horse races. She said this year it was quite short and anticlimatic. I am amazed at the size of the crowds that come each year. Most years my daughter has viewed form above because she is so tiny she fears getting hurt in the crowds. But what she really likes is all the peprations before hand and the post race celebrations.