The Palio in Italian Renaissance art, thought, and culture
By Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey
PhD Disserttion, University of Maryland (2005)
Abstract: The palio race commemorates the history of Italian cities as it has done so since the late Middle Ages. Despite its cultural significance, and the popularity of ritual topics in Renaissance scholarship, there exists no comparable art historical study of the palio.
In the thirteenth century, the proliferation of feast days in Italian cities coincided with growth in population and commerce. The palio race was the culminating, profane event in a series of sacred offerings and processions, in which representatives of the city’s religious and political groups participated. The palio may have descended from the chariot races held in Roman Italy for pagan festivals. The city government organized and paid for the palio. In Siena, the participation of the contrade (neighborhood groups) in the palio helped to preserve the tradition in the face of Florentine rule.
Italian cities, including Florence, were highly regarded for their silk fabrics. Cities commissioned the largest and most opulent palio banners for the patronal feasts. Making the banner was a collaborative effort, involving the craftsmanship of banner-makers, furriers, painters, and even nuns. During religious processions, the banner was paraded through the city on a carro trionfale (triumphal chariot or cart), reminiscent of the vexillum, a cloth military standard used in triumphs of Roman antiquity. The palio banner challenges preconceptions of how Renaissance society valued art objects. The cost of making the banner equaled or exceeded payments for panel paintings or frescoes by well-known artists. Following the feast day, it was worth only the value of its materials, which were recycled or sold.
Noble and ruling families competed against each other through their prize horses. These families imported the animals from North Africa and Ottoman Turkey, and gave them as diplomatic gifts. The trade in horses, like the textile trade, was part of an international commerce that brought countries and cultures together. Equestrian culture flowered during the Renaissance, in which horses began to be seen as individuals possessing admirable, even human, qualities. Palio horses achieved a level of fame parallel to the racing champions of the modern era, and were portrayed in paintings, prose, and verse.