1279 is the first documented Palio in Ferrara; unlike the more famous races in Siena, in Ferrara the events included donkey racing as well as foot races for both men and women. Riders and runners competed for a palli (or velvet banner) for which the events are named (from the Latin, pallium or cloth). The fresco cycle of the Months in the Palazzo Schiafanoia includes a depiction of the start of the race.

According to scholar Elizabeth Tobey, these events looked back to ancient Roman chariot races but gained in popularity throughout northern Italy in parallel with the growth in the silk trade. The palio banners were luxury items in which the communities invested large amounts. In Siena in 1453, the most valuable banner–often for the winner of the horse race that included competition between those of the highest social rank–cost 825 lire. This, Tobey notes, is a jump from 150 lire in just 116 years. She also notes that in Florence in 1516 a banner cost 630 lire, while Pontormo received only 70 lire for his fresco in Santissima Annunziata. In noting these cost differences, Tobey demonstrates how art historians must continue to broaden studies of visual culture to include such as items as the palio banners that were highly valued but more ephemeral. Many of the banners were recycled, reused, or repurposed.

The Palio celebrations in Ferrara last throughout the month of May, beginning with the blessing of the Palii in the Duomo and continuing with parades and flag-throwing competitions. Races are usually held on the final Sunday of the month and still include one for donkeys.

References: Tobey, Elizabeth. “The Palio Banner and the Visual Culture of Horse Racing in Renaissance Italy.” The International Journal of the History of Sport. Vol.28. No.8-9 (May-June 2011): 1269-1282; Palio di Ferrara

Image credits (Jennifer D. Webb)

Portal, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara

Detail of the Palio from the Salone dei Mesi, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara (1469)

Horse testing for the Palio in Ferrara (May 2016)

Further reading: Patrzia Turrini, Maria A. Ceppari Ridolfi, et. al. The Palio and its Image: History, Culture and Representation. Stuttgart: Art Stock, 2007; Salvatore Settis and Walter Cupperi, Eds. The Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Modena: Franco Cosimo Panini, 2008.

Posted by Jennifer D. Webb

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