Palio d’Asti. Like a Piemontese Medieval Times.

One my first day on our tour of Piemonte we attended the Palio d’Asti.  Many people think of the famous Palio di Siena when they hear the word “palio”, which is not necessarily fair.  Many of Italy’s cities hold their own palio– a word which literally means the banner or cloth cherished by the winner of a competition. A palio is usually won in a race or contest, often a horse race as in the Palio d’Asti.

While watching the show a woman turned to me and asked me if I was enjoying it.  I told her I was loving the celebration and the races- and she abruptly told me, “well, our palio is much older than the palio in Siena”.  I love the pure, unadulterated campalismo, still alive and promionent throughout modern Italy, probably just as it was hunderds of years ago.  So I asked her why the Palio in Siena is so much more internationally famous than the Palio d’Asti.

According to her, it is all Mussolini’s fault.


So I did a little research… The Palio d’Asti is mentioned as far back as 1275 when, according to Guglielmo Ventura, another local historian, his townsmen ran a horse race for their own amusement, beneath the walls of the enemy city of Alba, causing heavy damage and devastation to the vineyards. The Palio in Siena is only dated back to the 1600s.  Take that, Toscana!

Yesterday, we sat inside the structure that bears witness to centuries of competition, with the towers of Asti’s medieval palaces providing an appropriate setting for a historical revival of the Palio d’Asti. There are twenty-one contenders in the race, representing ancient neighborhoods.  It’s clear there is a log of good-natured ribbing and competitive taunting that takes place during the event, as well as in the weeks that precede it.  The race is interspersed with a parade of over twelve hundred persons in medieval costume.  It was a site to be seen.

So why is Siena’s palio more famous today than Asti’s?  Well, it turns out my companion was correct.  It probably has a lot to do with Mussolini, who attempted to quash the ritual altogether throughout Italy in 1936.  Siena’s event survived as it was a tourist attraction even then, and couldn’t be entirely shut down the way Asti’s celebration was.

Yesterday what struck me most was still the campanilismo.  Alive and well, in Asti.

Camapanilismo:  derives from campanile (bell tower). The campanile, traditionally the tallest and most prominent building in any town or village, has become, in the concept of campanilismo, an enduring symbol of devotion to, and love of ones region, city, town, village or even quartiere (quarter, small district of a town). Campanilismo is a very important aspect of life in Italy symbolizing a sense of identity, of pride, and of belonging to the place of your birth, a feeling which is usually much stronger to an Italian than any sense of national identity. An Italian will say “sono romagnolo” (I’m from the region of Romagna), “sono veneziana”(I’m from Venice), or “sono napoletano” (I’m from Naples), before saying “sono italiano/a” (I’m Italian).