Palio of Asti
The Palio of Asti is the oldest barefoot horse race of Italy. In 2018, for the first time, the race will be held on the first Sunday of September – the 2nd – as opposite of the third Sunday which had been the traditional date for decades. This decision has been taken by the major of Asti, Maurizio Rasero, in agreement with other authorities in order to improve the visibility of the event which is the most important one for the city of Asti. In facts, the lack of other major celebrations in Piemonte – Piedmont – at the beginning of September, as well as longer and warmer days, nonetheless schools being still closed for summer holidays, are all significant points which should attract more visitors in town.
Events related to the oldest bareback horse race of Italy
Behind the intricate organization of the Palio of Asti stands a burning ambition to carry on a nine-century tradition. It is challenging to explain to a foreigner the strength and deepness of emotions that locals feel cheering for their jockey. An entire year of hard work, meetings and rehearsals focused on a handful of seconds, that’s how short the race is. Then the joy of heading off other city rivals or the bitter aftertaste of a loss. That is the Palio.
Italy is full of medieval parades and other related events more or less authentic; however, coming to Asti on the first weekend of September to experience first-hand what this big show is all about, can be a rewarding choice. On top of that, the finest Italian food and wine available throughout the region help to make the right decision.
The very first document mentioning the Palio is dated 1275 when the knights of Asti knock out the race around the city walls of their eternal enemy, Alba, leaving behind arid land. It looks like many centuries later Alba, remembering this unpleasant episode, set out their own Palio run with donkeys rather than with horses with the purpose to mock their rival. This tradition is still carried on, every first Sunday of October.
But why a competition of knights belonging to the same city? Origins of Palio are hard to be depicted due to a major lack of documentation. We can guess that horses and knights were responsible for the defense of the medieval walled city-state and in case of attack dwellers living in proximity of a section of these walls were called to help out. At the light of these considerations we can assume that the Palio started as a competition between different neighborhoods – or sections of the walls – aimed to identify the most powerful of them and setting records of alliances and rivalry among city districts.
Over time, the race changed itinerary: for centuries was held on the long and straight track of the main street – Corso Alfieri. Today the setting is the 1800s central Piazza Alfieri whose triangular configuration and narrow turns are the challenge jockeys must deal with.
Just to mention how the Palio engages the entire municipality, imagine how complicated it is to transform a crowded jammed square of a modern city into a horse track. Beside the change and limitations in the traffic, tons of sand must be transported (and two weeks later removed!) all around where a team led by a geologist, press them strongly enough for horses to run safely. Then sits and galleries are built all around placing suitable protections for horses and jockeys that in their harsh race are subject to crash against these metal structures.
Difference with Siena
Many visitors have seen or heard about the Palio of Siena and ask us if there are any differences. While both cities do not like to mention each other, a typical example of Italian regional pride, we think both events are fascinating.
The first difference stands in the number of races per year: one in Asti (first Sunday of September) and two in Siena (July 2nd and August 16th). If Asti takes great pride in being the oldest documented race, it is true that here and there the festival was not held, while in Siena the Palio was never interrupted, century after century from the 1300s on.
The square of Siena is medieval and shaped like a seashell; in Asti is triangular with long 1800s arcades on two sides. Even the number of runners differs: 21 in Asti including 7 towns of the surrounding countryside while in Siena only 10 of the 17 city districts are allowed to enter the square after winning a sort of a lottery that takes place months in advance. As a consequence, in Siena each race gives a winner to each Palio – three loops in about 90 seconds – while in Asti horses are divided in three batches followed by the final race.
Lastly, in Siena who gets second is considered the first of the looser and no price is expected. In Asti, prices are given to each participant of the last race, ranging from a bag of silver coins to a salad with a salted anchovy. Silly rewards that hide an historic meaning.
The City Hall financially supports the artist who paints the banner given to the winner. This banner is actually called Palio and in Asti the artist has to make two copies of the same one: the smallest one is held in the church of St. Secondo, the patron saint of the town.
Meet Piemonte has the opportunity to take you behind the scenes of the Palio and to step in the private rooms of a Rione which are normally not open to the public. We visit the dressing and props room, the rehearsal room of drummers and flag throwers. Last, the museum where the banners won in the past are showcased. It is only here, by observing how fond members of this city district are of their work that one can fully experience the energy and the atmosphere of this medieval festival.
This tour is available all year round, however, in the week before the Palio the experience can be enriched by the propitiatory dinner (see below) and combined with many other events organized in town.
The events in the week before the Palio
The next Palio of Asti will be run on Sunday September 2nd 2018. Find out all the events in town the week before the Palio.
THURSDAY: at 9pm in St. Secondo square, flag throwers perform colorful acrobatic choreographies.
FRIDAY: opening of the flea market in Statuto square where each “rione” sells hand-made items related to the race. In the afternoon first set of race rehearsal (weather permitting).
SATURDAY of the eve: at 12pm in front of the City Hall ceremony of registration of horses and jockeys. In the afternoon children parade on the following itinerary: Corso Alfieri,Via Gobetti, Piazza San Secondo, Via Garibaldi, Piazza Alfieri. In the square from 4pm there is the final rehearsal of the bareback horse race (free entrance).
Propitiatory dinners are held Friday or Saturday night in each district. These are casual meals meant to socialize with the members of the “rione” singing, eating and drinking on long tables set out in the streets of Asti.
SUNDAY of the Palio: at 10 am the blessing of horses and jockeys in the church of each district. At 11 am performance of the flag throwers in St. Secondo square.
At 2pm the parade featuring 1200 people including actors and drummers, departs from the Cathedral and it is judged by a team of theatrical costume designers, choreographers and historians. The itinerary of the parade is: Via Caracciolo, Piazza Cairoli, Corso Alfieri, Via Gobetti, Piazza San Secondo, Via Garibaldi, Via Gardini, Piazza Alfieri.
If you purchased a ticket for the race, then you can enjoy the parade comfortably sitting in the square.
At 4pm the festival reaches its climax with the horse race.
Written by Marco Scaglione