The Palio d’Asti is the oldest bareback horserace in Italy. Contemporary revivals of the event transport Asti back to its glory days in the mid-thirteenth century. These events are full of the colourful pageantry and unabashed pomp that characterised Asti as a thriving mercantile republic. When the Palio was first held in the 1200s, historian Ogerio Alfieri described the city as “bursting with riches,” inhabited by “wise, powerful and noble” people with exceptional cavalry skills.
Indeed, the first records of the Palio from 1275 state that it was originally a bragging stunt designed to show off the talents Asti’s horsemen in front of rival towns. It originated as a race underneath the fortified wall of the enemy town, Alba. Historian Giglielmo Ventura stated that riders would circle the wall to ridicule Alba’s citizens and destroy their much-prized vineyards at the same time.
The race was later held within Asti’s own walls. The title “Palio” was derived from the Latin term, Pallium, an ancient Roman garment that was awarded to the race’s victor. The earliest formal forms of the competition were held on the feast day of San Secondo, who was martyred in 119AD on the thirtieth of March. Races took place “alla tonda” – in the round – within the piazza of Alfieri and Liberta.
The tournament was revised in the late 14th century, when Gian Galezzo Visconti (1351-1402) created a straight course. Here, riders would race from the Cippo del Pilone and continue through the Porta San Pietro. It then passed over a bridge on the Rio Valmanera, on to the Condrada Maestra and concluding in the Palazzo Gabuti di Bestagno (known today as the Palazzo Ottolenghi).
Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, half of its award money was donated to the Church of San Secondo. This consolidated the tournament as a significantly religious event. Changes and shifts to the event occurred throughout the centuries– and in 1863, it was severed from its religious ties by becoming a secular race.
The rise of Fascism in the twentieth century meant new things for the Palio. In the mid-thirties, it was reduced to a chivalrous tournament by Benito Mussolini, and was preserved despite the massive overhauls to the Italian cultural scene that were occurring at the time.
It vanished, however, for thirty years until a revival in 1967. It was reintroduced to Asti’s cultural calendar in order to commemorate the millennial of the Marquisate of Monferrat, as well as the 8th centennial of the Lombard League. It was also moved to September to coincide with other annual highlights within the town, including the Douja d’Or national wine festival and the Festa della Sagre Astigiane. These days, it is staged within the dramatic surroundings of the Piazza Vittori Alfieri, and boasts stands that can seat five thousand people.
The weeks preceding the race are marked by a variety of events that harken back to medieval times. The twenty-one competing representatives try to coax victory by holding sumptuous banquets and food fares. As per tradition, they pull good-natured pranks on the other teams and hold their own magic rituals. All of this explodes into action with a vibrant parade of 1200 participants, all decked in colourful medieval regalia. The Palio is now regarded as one of the essential events to attend for visitors to Asti and Piedmonte.
The Italian expression, “campanilismo,” has no direct English translation. It is derived from the word “campanile,” which refers to a bell tower, often the tallest and most elaborate in the village. The tower stands as a symbol of devotion to the place of one’s birth, making the notion of campanilismo – fealty to your own city, town or village – an essential aspect of Italian life.
In Piedmonte, campanilismo is at its strongest and most vibrant at the annual Palio d’Asti, an ancient bareback horserace where people from all over the region gather to show enthusiastic support for their own borgo’s, or villages. Twenty-one competitors and their thoroughbred horses are selected from neighbourhoods around the central town of Asti. They all compete for the honour of holding the Palio, a crimson velvet cloth that is embroidered with the emblem of San Secondo, the patron saint of Asti and the figure for which the race was initially held in the thirteenth century.
In the weeks preceding the race, campanilismo is rife in the streets of Asti. Competing towns vie for the attention of the town’s visitors by throwing elaborate banquets showcasing the very best in local food and wine. In the main food market, situated within the Campo del Palio, each village has its own stall bearing unique home grown specialities. Some of the dishes on offer include sumptuous truffle-based meals, like agnolotti con tartufo bianco (stuffed pasta with white truffle) and bagno caoda, a rich garlic, anchovy and olive oil dip. Many local arts and crafts are also on display.
The jovial traditions of the Medieval Palio resonate in the good-natured taunts and pranks that vying teams often exchange in the foregoing days. Ancient superstitions also abound in the magical rituals and practices competitors often re-enact for good luck.
On the day of the race, festivities get underway at ten in the morning in a benediction ceremony. Parish churches convene to bless each competitor and his horse. This is followed by a thrilling exhibition of flag-throwing prowess by the ASTA, or the Association of Traditional Flag Throwers from Asti. There is then a three-hour gap before one of the events major highlights – a parade featuring 1200 participants wearing elaborate and colourful medieval costumes. The course of the parade starts at the Piazza Cattedrale and continues all the way to the Piazza Alfieri, where the actual race is held. The procession is led by the winner of the previous Palio d’Asti, followed by other classified quarters, and the rest of the competitors. The parade also re-enacts scenes typical of life in Asti in the Middle Ages.
Although the general stands for the race are free to the public, it is best to pay a little bit of money for a seat in one of the Piazza’s made stands. Here, you will be able to catch all of the thrill and spills of what is a particularly challengin bareback horse race. Seat reservations can be made on the official website of the Palio at www.palio.asti.it.