The Palio del drappo verde in Verona

When introducing his encounter with master Brunetto Latin in his "Divine Comedy" (Inferno, chapter XV, verses 121-124) the Italian poet Dante Alighieri mentions a running event:

Poi si rivolse e parve di coloro
che corrono a Verona il drappo verde
per la campagna. E parve di costoro
quelli che vince non colui che perde

Then he turned round, and seemed to be of those
who at Verona run for the green cloth
across the plain; and seemed to be among them
the one who wins, and not the one who loses

In these four verses, Dante documents the existence of a running race that was held in Verona the first Sunday of Lent. The race was known as corsa del palio or corsa del drappo verde ("Run of the green cloth").

The city of Verona has always had a great importance in the Poet's life, having been the first secure shelter where Dante, exiled from Firenze, found refuge. While spending part of his exile in this Northern Italian city, and precisely in the Santa Lucia neighborhood, Dante was able to get in touch with the local customs, that he later on mentioned in his literature masterpiece.

Before going on, we have to say that this "running event" was far from being a sport event that we have come to know today. It was a celebration for the whole community, just like any other civic or religious celebrative events. The same is still true today the corsa del palio, the worldwide famous horse Palio race in Siena.

With regards to Verona, we can also speak of a palio, for the city held its own events for the townspeople to watch: a palio with horses and one with runners. The green cloth trophy, that gives the name to the run mentioned by Dante, was the prize reserved for the winner among runners, that had to run naked. A similar trophy, but different in color (scarlet red), was instead the prize for the best horseman.

Our search continued for more details on this foot event. Some believe it was first ran in 1207 to celebrate the victory obtained by the City Republic of Verona over the Counts of San Bonifazio and the Montecchi family. With quite accuracy the course of the race is documented. However, the course could change according to the mood of the podestà (the local noble executive officer that held the city's administrative powers), that - among other rights - also had the right to choose the location where the race would be held.

The course would start from the Tomba neighborhood (but later from the Santa Lucia neighborhood) and would wind along the walls south of Verona, running by the door Porta al Palio (also known as Porta Stuppa or Stupa, built by the architect Sammicheli) and crossing the field "a mezzogiorno della città" (south of Verona). Some of the researchers believes that "campagna" ("the plain" mentioned in the verses) is indeed a small town near Verona. It is not possible to establish if the area was already know as Campagna at the times of Dante, nor that Dante really wanted to mention this town. The word "campagna" is still found today in toponyms of the province of Verona such as Madonna di Campagna, Sommacampagna, Mezzacampagna, and Campagnola.

The course was then heading back to Verona, going under the Arco dei Gavi (Gavi's arch), and continuing along Corso Vecchio (the old main street) to reach the Palazzo della torre a San Fermo (San Fermo tower's palace). Later the course would cross the current Corso to finish in piazza di Sant'Anastasia (Saint Anastasia square) where it would state "Corso la meta" ("You have reached the end") and there was a column called "La meta" ("The end") that represented the finish line of the race. The horse race was held on the same course and was of the same length of the running event.

Though the course could be changed, this is not true about the rules of the race, that were almost set in stone. Notwithstanding the changes to the city's laws to which the races' rules were conforming, they always featured a prize for the winner and - ahead of times - even a consolation prize for the last arrived (although we would be better off calling it a "humiliation prize"). This is why Dante wanted to underline that Brunetto "seemed to be among them the one who wins, and not the one who loses".

The Statuto Albertino (the Albertino codex of laws), so called because it has been compiled under Alberto della Scala even though it contains laws dating several years back before the year 1271, stated that two races were to be held in the first Sunday of Lent, a horse race and a running one. The winning horseman would receive a palio, or cloth trophy (initially the color of the cloth was not specified), while the loser would receive a pork's leg. The same for the running race: the winner would receive a palio (unknown color), the last runner a rooster. The Albertino codex of laws was then recompiled again by Cangrande I in 1328, but nothing changed in the tructure of the celebrations: two races to be held on the first Sunday of Lent. However, for the winner of the horse race the prize would be a scarlet palio, and for the last horse jockey a pork's leg, while for the runners a green palio (the "green cloth" Dante mentions) would go to the winner and a rooster to the loser.

It is interesting to note that with the Statuto by Giangaleazzo Visconti, approved in 1393, the races became three. The horse race (with a velvet cloth for the winner, and the pork's leg to the last one) and two running events, the first one for men (red cloth to the winner, and rooster to the loser), and the other running event open to women. The fastest woman would receive the green cloth, the slowest a rooster. The green palio that at the times of Dante was reserved to men, was reassigned by Giangaleazzo Visconti to women. The Statuto even specified that the running event was open to "honest women, even if only one is to participate; however, if no honest women are available, then prostitutes would run". In other words, the show must go on!

Not long after 1450, that is after Verona went under the domination of the nearby Venezia, the city's codex was adjusted once again, and modified this time in a form that will remain intact until the fall of the Republic. In this last version of the races' rules, the day of the events was moved from the first Sunday of Lent to Fat Thursday, and one more race was added to the three events, a "Palio degli asini" on donkeys, with a white cloth trophy for the winner.

The award ceremony of the races was especially important for the community. The spectators would not only have the opportunity to congratulate with the winners of all the races, but also to have their own competition against the losers of the events. The last ones in each race, in fact, had to tour the city showing the "consolation prize" to everyone; for example the horseman would have to cross the city with the pork's leg tied to the horse neck. And this prize, as stated in the races' rules, "anyone can legally cut the rope and take away from the loser".

Credits - thanks the publishing house Neri Editore for the permission to reprint the article "Il palio del drappo verde" originally published in the book "Dante era un podista" ("Dante was a runner") by Indro Neri. Text © by Neri Editore, Firenze. All rights reserved.

Since September 7, 2007 - © Aerostato, Seattle - All Rights Reserved.

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