Chariot racing conjures up images, at least for me, of ancient Rome and, in particular, of Ben Hur, the Oscar-winning film in which the hero, played by Charlton Heston, drove his chariot and team of four white horses full pelt around the Circus Maximus. So it was quite a surprise to learn that, from the mid-sixteenth until the second half of the nineteenth century, Florence had its own annual chariot race.
A great admirer of the ancient Romans, Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519–74) initiated the palio dei Cocchi in 1563 and decided it should take place in piazza Santa Maria Novella between the basilica, at one end, and the hospital of San Paolo, at the other, because it was one of the largest squares in the city. Every June 23, on the eve of the feast day of the city’s patron saint, John the Baptist, four teams competed, wearing the Prasina (green), Russata (red), Veneta (blue) and Bianca (white) colours, most probably representing the neighbourhoods of the city from where they came (much like in today’s calcio in costume). Before the Grand Duke and his family as well as a large crowd of spectators, each chariot, closely resembling a Roman war chariot, was pulled by two horses three times around a clearly defined perimeter within the square.
Today, the only visible evidence of the annual race remaining in the square are the two obelisks placed there to mark where the chariots were to turn. The original wooden posts were replaced in 1608 by the two obelisks, which were made of Serravezza marble, quarried in 1570 and sculpted by Bartolomeo Ammannati to mark the occasion of the marriage of Cosimo II to Margherita of Austria.
Crowned at their pinnacles with a gilded lily, the symbol of the Florentine Republic, curiously, the marble structures rest on the backs of four bronze tortoises, which were most probably the work of the Flemish sculptor Jean Boulogne, known as Giambologna (1529–1608). Why tortoises were chosen is still puzzling. Some say it was to contrast the slowness of these chelonians with the speed of the race; others think that they might represent, based on Aesop’s famous fable of the tortoise and the hare, a surprise victory against overwhelming odds.
But there may be yet another explanation. Like the Roman emperors Augustus and Titus, Cosimo I had chosen as his motto festina lente, meaning ‘to make haste slowly.’ To depict this idea, he chose the image of a tortoise with a wind-filled sail on its back to remind him he needed to find the perfect balance between speed and patience. In fact, about 100 different depictions of these sailing tortoises can be seen on the ceilings, walls and floors of Palazzo Vecchio (see theflr.net/gppdvg). So it could very well be that it was in his memory, as founder of the tournament, that the tortoises supporting the weight of the obelisks were commissioned.
In a restoration of the obelisks at the end of the sixteenth century, the earlier bases (below the tortoises) were replaced with the current grey stone ones. A project implemented in 1927 added the paths and the grass beds in place of the old paving stones. In 1933, a circular marble fountain was also added. Because of damage to the piazza caused during World War II, repairs were necessary and, again, from 2006 until recently, further work embellished the piazza and turned it into the pleasing vista locals and visitors enjoy today.
However, the palio dei Cocchi was not the only palio in Florence. In fact, at one time, there were as many as ten such events every year. Among the most popular were two others likewise held shortly after the summer solstice: the palio dei Barberi and the palio di Sant’Anna. The peculiarity of the former was that the horses had no jockeys. Called the palio dei Barberi because of a popular distortion of the word berbero (berber) or the North African breed of racehorses competing, it was held annually on June 24 and was run through the streets of the city centre. Starting off at Ponte alle Mosse, the horses galloped through Porta al Prato, down via Palazzuolo, via degli Strozzi, via del Corso, and through the arch of San Pierino until they reached the finishing line at Porta alla Croce, in the middle of piazza Beccaria. The original prize was a velvet banner displaying the Florentine lily, replaced in the eighteenth century with a money purse. The tradition continued until 1858; attempts to revive it in 1902 and 1935 failed.
The palio dedicated to Saint Anna was celebrated on what became her feast day, July 26, to mark the expulsion of the despotic duke of Athens, Gualtieri VI of Brienne (1302–56), from the city on that day in 1343. As a result of this victory, she was proclaimed protector of Florence’s liberty and identity. For prize money of 32 gold florins, the riders ran their horses around the church of Orsanmichele, where the people came to celebrate and pay homage to the saint. To this day, an historic procession takes place every July 26, beginning at Palazzo Vecchio and ending in Orsanmichele, where Saint Anna is venerated with offerings and candles.