"METODO", N. 22/2006

Andy Milroy
English scholar – Studioso britannico)

Here is an article I wrote about a medieval Italian race. This race is mentioned by Dante Alighieri. An article written by Indro Neri in Italian language, which is based on a piece, he wrote called “Dante was a runner”.

The traditions of the Verona Palio races, like those held in other Italian towns in the Medieval period, are believed to be rooted in ancient games dating back possibly as far as 500 BC to the Etruscan period. The Etruscans dominated Northern Italy, in the years before the rise of the Roman Empire. “Public festivals, including many kinds of physical activities, formed a significant part of Etruscan culture”, according to Sports and Games in the Ancient World by Vera Olivova. Such Etruscan games included races involving the goading of buffaloes, which suggests early bullfighting, and long hazardous races both on horseback and on foot through the city. Etruscan horses were usually the predominant favourites in the horse races in Ancient Greece. Prior to its construction by the Romans during the second century B.C, the Etruscans used the area of the stadium of the Circus Maximus for horse racing. Etruscan art also shows athletes competing for prizes in foot races. With a longstanding tradition of such races, it is not surprising that it was in Northern Italy that well over a thousand years later such Palii events featuring horse races and likely footraces as well took place in the towns such as Asti, Padua, Ferrara and Bologna, as well as in Verona.
There is a report of a Palio footrace at Pienza, near Montepulciano, in about 1500 for example. Such races were made possible by, and developed from, the wealth and freedom that existed in those Northern Italian towns and cities. The first crusades brought huge amounts of people and wealth into cities such as Amalfi (Southern Italy), Pisa, Genoa, and Venice. This, in turn, generated the growth in both population and trade throughout Northern Italy, making its cities powerful and well able to defend themselves. (In this period the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, the two major powers in Medieval Italy and Continental Europe, were in conflict and thus weakened.)
Many of the cities had become self governing and had broken away from the Medieval feudal system. It is therefore no coincidence that the Palio del Drappo Verde foot race held in Verona celebrated the victory of the Verona City Republic over the Counts of San Bonifazio and the Montecchi family. The race reputedly dated from 1207 or 1208. (This difference in date could be attributed to 1207 being the date of the battle, and 1208 being the first actual footrace.) Prior to this first footrace, there was an annual horse race held, dating back to 1198, perhaps a decade earlier than the foot race. The celebratory foot race was obviously modeled on the horse race, using the same course, but would have been open to a wider populace. A later Italian footrace of around 1450 suggests that there were “Many lusty active youths” who often competed in foot races.
The name of the Palio del Drappo Verde race comes from prize that was awarded to the winner. The Italian word for palio comes from the Latin word Pallium meaning a rectangular piece of cloth. The Pienza race likewise was held for a prize of four ells of cloth.
Marco Polo’s journeys in China led to the development of commercial exchanges between East and West, and to an ever-increasing use of silk in Western Europe. As early as the twelfth Century. Venetian merchants traded extensively in silk and encouraged silk growers to settle in Italy. By the 13th century Italian silk was a significant source of trade. However silk was still was very much a luxury, and the prize of silk cloth would have been much sought after. The winning horseman at Verona would receive a palio, or cloth trophy (initially the colour of the cloth was not given), while the loser would receive a leg of pork. The winner of the running race would receive a palio (of unknown colour), and the last runner a rooster.
The Palio del Drapo Verde is remarkable in that footrace was held for many centuries. The reason for this is almost certainly because the requirement to hold the race was incorporated into law. The Statuto Albertino (the Albertino codex of laws) of 1271, compiled for Alberto della Scala (which contained some laws which dated back several years before), stated that two races were to be held in the first Sunday of Lent, a horse race and a running race. The Albertino codex of laws were then re-established by Cangrande I in 1328. The structure of the celebrations remained unchanged: the two races were to be held on the first Sunday of Lent. However details of the prizes were more specific. For the winner of the horse race the prize would be a scarlet palio, and for the rider of the last horse, a leg of pork , while for the runners, a green palio (the “green cloth”), would go to the winner of the footrace and a rooster to the loser.
A very early victory for women’s lib came with the Statuto by Giangaleazzo Visconti, which was approved in 1393. There were now to be three races. The horse race would now have a velvet cloth for the winner, with still the leg of pork for the last. With the two running events, the men would seek to win a red cloth, with the traditional rooster to the last runner. The other running event was open to women. The palio verde that had previously been reserved for men, now was reassigned by Giangaleazzo Visconti to women. The fastest woman would receive the green cloth, the slowest would be given a rooster. The Statuto even specified that the running event was open to “honest women, even if only one is to participate; however, if no honest women are available, then prostitutes would run”. The male runners traditionally ran naked. (The competitors in the Pienza race also ran naked.) This might be a link to the ancient Etruscan games, where those performing in athletic races are shown completely naked.
Another more likely possibility running naked made it much more difficult for opponents to grab at the clothing of those in front of them to pull them back, in what would have been a much more robust and combative race than is permitted under modern rules. It is uncertain whether women ran naked; the women’s race was described as being open to “honest women”, but if not even one came forward, then it was open to prostitutes. This suggests that the women too ran naked; if honest women were too modest, then less modest females were to be included!
From 1207 until 1450 the races were held on the First Sunday in Lent, but from 1450, after Verona came under the control of Venice, it was held on Fat Thursday – which is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. This period in Italy from Fat Thursday (giovedì grasso) through to the Fat Tuesday (martedì grasso) is traditionally the time for staging carnivals and for eating well before the restrictions of Lent. Depending on the date of Easter such celebrations usually take place in January or February. The Palio races were an integral part of these celebrations. (The Pienza race was held on the feast of St Matthew.) The cooler conditions of this time of year were preferable to the heat of an Italian summer for the runners, but there was a greater chances of wet conditions. A report on a mid fifteenth century race in Pienza records

“There had been a light rain and the track was slippery. They ran naked and now one, now another was ahead and often one or another could be seen to slip and fall and roll on the ground and mud and those who had been last were now ahead”.

So the event would often have been more like a muddy cross country than a road race, particularly bearing in mind that down the middle of each street would have run a virtual open sewer. Fat Thursday and its carnival was a celebration for the whole community of Verona and its townsfolk were involved in the Palio itself. The losers were expected to tour the town, showing off their ‘consolation prize’. The last horseman would cross the city with the leg of pork tied around his horse’s neck. Under the race rules anyone could legally cut the rope and take the leg of pork. Similarly it is likely the last runner would be expected to lead his reluctant rooster by a piece of string across Verona to the merriment of the townsfolk. Any prankster would be able to cut the string and free the indignant fowl, which presumably would lead to free-for-all chase after the bird.
The length of the Verona footrace race is documented but the course could be changed by the podestà, the local noble executive officer that held the city’s administrative powers. Among other rights, the podestà also could choose the location where the race would be held. According to Indro Neri’s detailed article on the race, the course would start from the Tomba neighborhood (but later from the Santa Lucia neighborhood) and would wind along the city walls south of Verona, running by the door Porta al Palio (also known as Porta Stuppa or Stupa, built by the architect Sammicheli) and crossing the field “a mezzogiorno della città” (south of Verona).
The course was then heading back to Verona, going under the Arco dei Gavi (Gavi's arch), and continuing along Corso Vecchio (the old main street) to reach the Palazzo della Torre a San Fermo (San Fermo tower's palace). Later the course would cross the current Corso to finish in Piazza di Sant’Anastasia (Saint Anastasia square) at a column called La mèta (The end) that represented the finish line of the race. The horse race was held on the same course and was of the same length of the running event.
Stefano Scevaroli, who lives in Verona, estimates this course would have been at least seven kilometres long, perhaps over ten kilometres. Much of the course is still in existence; it is the return to the Piazza di Sant’Anastasia from the Porta al Palio which is unclear. The race would always finish in the public square of Sant’Anastasia.
The modern day Palio horse race at Siena is a contest for a painted silk banner between horsemen from different wards within the city. It would seem likely that as silk gradually became less of a luxury, with the opening up of maritime trade routes to the east, and the development of the European silk industry, the intrinsic value of the Drappo Verde became less important, and its symbolic value increased. Maybe by the eighteenth century as elsewhere, the foot race contest in Verona was between runners from different parts of the city for a similar silk banner.
The Verona Palio footraces were held until 1797 when the Venetian Empire was conquered by Napoleon. Following the signing of the Treaty of Campo Formio on 17th October, 1797 Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. The Austrians took control of the city on 18th January, 1798. Venice and the cities of the former Venetian Empire fell into a decline. The French Revolutionary movement was strongly anti-clerical, and religious celebrations and carnivals would have been discouraged, thought by those brought to power in Verona by Napoleon, to be old fashioned and potentially subversive. Thus carnival celebrations and the Palio races were no longer acceptable, and the long held traditions were suppressed or simply allowed to disappear.
The Verona Palio race had lasted some 590 years, making it the longest running footrace known. With the success of the Siena Palio horse races in attracting tourists to the city, perhaps it is time for Verona to consider reviving the Palio del Drappo Verde. Such popular city races have proven very successful in promoting and developing a distinctive identity for their host cities.
In 2007 it will 800 years since The Palio del Drappo Verde race was first held; by 2017 the 600th race could be the focus for a great cultural and sporting event.
The longest running footrace could continue its remarkable duration onwards in to the future. I would like to thank Indro Neri for his help with this article. His article on the Run the Planet website A Medieval race in Verona gives many important insights into the Verona race. Don Macgregor supplied useful information on the Pienza Palio race. Stefano Scevaroli was very helpful in explaining details and length of the actual course that the runners would have taken.