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After an hour of false starts, furious exchanges between the jockeys and the starter, vicious elbowing between riders – one was thrown in a tussle – and groan-inducing resets, the crowd lost patience.
Yells and howled insults filled the piazza. An otherwise well-spoken elderly man told a jockey, repeatedly, that he was a “mercenario di merda”. The starter was on the receiving end of death threats. For a moment, it seemed the Palio of Ferrara, the oldest such competition in the world, was about to culminate in violent farce.
I had been looking forward to this weekend excursion for some time, though my research had not indicated that up to three hours of restarts and invective before the three-minute horserace, the Palio’s climax, was perfectly normal and has been since 1259, when the first competition was recorded.
You approach this northern city across the rich, flat delta of the river Po. The skies are sublime – their space, grandeur and shifting lights throw different moods and shades over Ferrara, granting the tones of many seasons to a single day. Originally a Byzantine frontier fort protecting Ravenna from raiders, the city grew in Roman and medieval times, reaching a climax of wealth and beauty under the Este dynasty in the late 15th century.
Even by the standards of great Italian families, the Estes were formidable. “On both sides of the Po we are all the children of Niccolò,” the Ferrarese still say, referring to the numerous illegitimate children of the estimable Niccolò III, who came to power in 1393 aged 10, made at least 11 women mothers, and married two of them. When he discovered that one of his sons, Ugo, was having an affair with his second wife, Parisina, he had both imprisoned and then beheaded. You can still visit the tiny cells in which they were held in the mighty and rather terrifying Castello Estense, which dominates the heart of the town.
Illicit sex and the suspicion of adultery are themes in Ferrara’s story. Across the square from the castello is the church of St Giuliano, known as the cuckold’s church. A relief above the door shows Giuliano entering his chamber to find a couple embracing beneath his covers. Believing one to be his wife and the other her lover, Giuliano, sword drawn, is about to do the obvious. Unfortunately, the couple are his parents, installed in his bed by servants eager that they should have the best room.
The golden age that began with Niccolò reached its full flowering under an illegitimate son, Borso, and great grandson, Ercole. On a tranquil morning, one can gain a marvellous sense of their achievements by taking a bicycle ride to the Schifanoia Palace in the medieval quarter – the Ferrarese are extremely keen on bicycles, to which no evident laws apply. With their clicking and bell-ringing, the bikes lend an almost Dutch sense of businesslike calm to the city.
The Estes were happy to poison and behead ambitious relatives (one survived poisoning before succumbing to decapitation) but they were anti-war. The walls of the city were famously impregnable, the Estes’ diplomacy and charm extremely effective – Niccolò specialised in welcoming and dazzling popes – and for many decades theirs was a world of cultural magnificence.
They came up with the idea of pleasure palaces, known as delizie (delights), which they and their court would visit in turn; all were surrounded by gardens and none was far from the fastness of the castello. One room in the Schifanoia – the name refers to the banishment of boredom – affords a glittering picture of what life in these places was like. Were the Salone dei Mesi (the Room of Months) in Florence, Venice or Rome, hordes of tourists would queue to get in. But, on a rainy Saturday morning, there are only six others here, enthralled by a triple layer of frescoes. Painted in 1469, each panel represents a month: the fruits of intense work by several artists under the direction of various masters, including the brilliant Francesco del Cossa. In the lower layer are scenes from the court of Borso: all the figures are portraits, engaged in hawking, hunting, flirting and gossiping.
“Look at the hardcore couple!” says my guide, Emanuela Mari with a laugh: there, in an April garden of love, a young man is engrossed in heavy petting with his girl, his hand thrust between her thighs.
“Who is that beautiful woman?” I ask, pointing at a figure who stares mischievously at us.
“Ah! That is actually a young man, and you see he is always close to Borso. The painter is definitely telling us something . . . ”
Above them are the appropriate astrological symbols, grouped in threes, each representing 10 days, proof of an enormously complex astronomical tradition incorporating old Egyptian and Persian zodiacs. In the third layer, nearest the high ceiling, are the Gods, participating in Renaissance versions of Roman triumphs.
“Borso was illegitimate,” Mari explains, “so the line from the Gods to the zodiac to his court is meant to legitimise him: here in March he is giving gifts to the poor, to a widow and an orphan. And in September there are Mars and Venus in bed, about to be caught by Vulcan, but you can only see their heads above the sheets – and look at their clothes.”
The armour of Mars is a torso on the floor; Venus’s dress trails off the bed, accidentally outspread, forming a headless female figure apparently kneeling at a block.
“The reference is clearly to his father beheading Ugo and Parisina – two lovers’ heads separated from their bodies. And here, in April, you see . . . ?”
The race is due to start soon. But first there is the serious business of food to consider. Lunch consists of local specialities: pumpkin ravioli, sweet as honey and delicious (“The Bolognese call us pumpkin eaters,” Mari laughs. “And we are!”) and a salami that has been hung for two years and cooked for four hours, which might seem excessive, until you taste it.
The excitement is palpable now. The four races we will watch – boys on foot, girls on foot, the mule race and the horses – will be contested by champion runners and riders from the eight districts of the city, whose supporters honour the people and traditions of their quarters in a culmination of a year-long calendar of parades and processions.
The city’s rulers will benefit, as they have for eight centuries, from a combination of divide and rule, spectacle and catharsis, and the desire of each district to outdo its rivals in pomp, prowess and conduct. By the time the boys line up on the sandy track, the sun is beginning to lower and there are 3,000 people under the shade of the sycamores in Piazza Ariostea.
The children’s races follow the same pattern: the leader in each is overtaken in the final straight. The mule race is hilarious. The animals canter round, ears twitching, as if in debate with themselves: “Where is everyone else? Do I like this? Shall I just stop?” The eventual winner performs a lap of honour, attended by the delirious citizens of the Santa Maria in Vado quarter.
And so begins the farce of starting the horserace. As in the painting in the Schifanoia, the riders are bareback. The crowd is thick with students from the university and scattered with ladies in medieval costume and men in armour who have been parading, and all are roaring, and the false starts are signalled by loud explosions, and the horses are in a lather, and finally we get a clean break.
The black horse of Santa Maria in Vado has a brief lead, then the lovely grey of San Benedetto takes over and, more by brilliant riding than raw speed, holds off all challengers; in the third and final lap, a small gap opens up on the last turn and San Giacomo’s chestnut mare, Occole, comes up on the inside like a rocket and steals it at the last. I am in San Giacomo’s section of the crowd and we all go quite, quite, wild.
The winning jockey, Alessio Migheli, brings Occole over to us and flips us a salute, and as we scream our triumph I watch Migheli’s face and see on it a look of imperious and suffused triumph, and I know, we all know – the students, accountants, waiters and receptionists of San Giacomo – what it felt like to be a Renaissance prince whose champion had won the day. I doubt there is a more exciting horserace in the world. There is certainly none more visceral or more venerable than the Palio of Ferrara.
Horatio Clare is author of ‘Down to the Sea in Ships’ (Chatto & Windus)