Ludic competition? Agonism of the Palio race in the Italian Renaissance
Since the thirteenth century, nearly every town in Northern and Central Italy hosted annual horse races for the prize of a precious piece of cloth called bravium or palio. On the basis of an unparalleled dense documentation, palio racing emerges as a fully developed competitive ‘sport culture’ that could be studied for the first time since antiquity in all of its relevant dimensions — from planning and organisation, to the competitive performance itself, and to the discursive perception and symbolic communication of victories and defeats. Particularly in the years between 1470 and 1530, the performances and results of these urban horse races gained a high level of public attention and generated political and social meaning on the part of participants and spectators alike. If the Italian Renaissance is characterised by an irreversible competitive momentum, as Jacob Burckhardt classically and Bernd Roeck recently claimed, the concrete contests of palio racing can serve as a sort of laboratory in which these premises could be verified, tested or modified.
This paper will discuss the specific competitive dynamics of palio races as ludic status contests on three different levels: the first section will deal with the symbolic profits for racing patrons by participating and winning in competition. As these patrons were usually from the middle-ranking Italian signori like the Este family from Ferrara, the Gonzaga family from Mantua or the Medici family from Florence, racing results could be exploited for princely image-making, since the racehorses were considered to be their symbolic proxies. Secondly, I will analyse the transformation of racing performances into narratives of honor and displays of status, mostly in contemporary diplomatic correspondences. In this respect, palio races could be alternatively read as a political issue between power rivals or as a time window of ludic rivalry between political allies. The third section will discuss accusations of manipulation and proper appeals against results that entailed from occasional diplomatic complications and legal sequels like testimonies and sentences by the city authorities. Particularly in the case of contested results, palio racing presents itself as a specific arena for the ongoing “definition and redefinition of a vulnerable pre-eminence” (Isabella Lazzarini) that was peculiar to the volatile political world of Renaissance Italy.