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The Palio of Ferrara – the Oldest in the World

When we hear the word “Palio” mentioned, what instantly springs to mind is a picture of the Piazza del Campo di Siena thronging with jockeys dressed in colourful period garments participating in a vigorous horse race. To our surprise, we discovered that the Palio is not exclusive to Siena and that Ferrara has its own, which also happens to be the oldest in Italy. Surprised? Both festivities go back to the Middle Ages and have endured over the centuries. They are nowadays the perfect excuse for letting ourselves be transported back to a time filled with gestures, horses, beautiful damsels and rivalries between the variouscontrade(parish districts.)

Il Palio di Ferrara – the Origins

The first Palio di Ferrara was held in 1259, the year in which Azzo VII da Ferrara, commander of the papal troops, defeated Ezzelino III da Romano, known as “il Tiranno”, commander of the imperial troops, at Cassano d’Adda. To celebrate the victory, parades were organised all over the city, as were donkey and horse races. This way of celebrating immediately became very popular and for a time was applied to Ferrara’s two major festivities – St George, the city’s patron saint, and the Assumption, known here as the “Virgin of August”. In some instances they were also extended to births and weddings among Ferrara’s most powerful families. However, as of 1600, the races were gradually phased out and replaced by parades. The races and the Palio were only reinstated in the early 20th century, eventually becoming the festivity that we know today.

May in Ferrara – Games, Parades, Sbandieratori and Races

What are we likely to find if we visit Ferrara in May? To start with, the perfect setting for being transported back to another era, as this city in Emilia Romagna boasts a historic centre full of medieval and Renaissance landmarks. The Palio festivity involves eight competing teams from the contrade (four rioni or parish districts within the walled city) and borghi (four districts located outside the city walls). Throughout the month of May, every weekend features a parade, game or flag-waving competition at which the rival contrade are San Giorgio, San Giacomo, San Paolo, Santo Spirito, Santa Maria in Vado, San Luca, San Giovanni and San Benedetto.

Particularly stunning is the Historical Procession at which about a thousand people in Renaissance costume parade from the Porta degli Angeli along the Corso Ercole I d’Este to the Castello Estense. Also a must-see are the competitions at which the sbandieratori show off their flag-whirling skills in the course of a veritable display of dexterity, beauty and colour.

The Palio festivities reach their climax in the races staged on the last weekend in the month. The large Piazza Ariostea, designed by the architect, Biagio Rossetti, is the magnificent setting for this event. A total offour races are held: the Boys’ Race (Palio di San Romano), the Girls’ Race (Palio di San Paolo), the Donkey Race (Palio di San Maurelio) and the Horse Race (Palio di San Giorgio).  The prize, a large hand-painted cloth, is known as the Palio, from which the tradition takes its name.

Discover Ferrara and one of its major festivities!

Text by ISABELYLUIS Comunicación

Images by Il Palio di Ferrara (photographer: Geppy Toglia)