The Palio of Faenza

The reenactment of Manfredi traditions in Faenza

Speed, precision, tenacity: these are the tests of skill called upon to face the Knights of the Niballo, ingredients that make the Faenza Joust one of the most compelling and demanding at the Italian level: The Palio di Faenza is a singolar tenzone challenge that engages the two contenders, galloping on their horses, to hit before their opponent the target placed on the outstretched arm of the Niballo, the large figure with warrior features representing the ancient Saracen enemy, placed in the center of the competition field.


Explaining the origins of the Palio del Niballo is not easy: even if some ancient and modern texts come to meet us, the news that has come to the present day from the distant Middle Ages are still fragmentary and give rise to various interpretations. In Faenza the first carousel of which we have news is the quintana wanted in January 1164 by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, guest of Enrico and Guido Manfredi, to verify the mastery of Faenza in battle. The event remains etched in popular memory for a long time and after that of Barbarossa four other rides will be run in Faenza. The oldest traditional Palio in Faenza is probably the Palio di San Nevolone. It took place on July 27 and was organized by the “freshman of shoemakers”, whose patron saint is precisely San Nevolone. It is not known precisely when the event began: certainly a few years after the death of the ascetic, which took place on July 27, 1280. At that time the day of San Nevolone, was a public holiday and the shoemakers celebrated the feast even with a challenge between unspecified districts. In 1410 Gian Galeazzo I reformed the statutes of the city and from these rules the Palio dell’Assunta, called Bravium, which took place on August 16th, is regulated.
The prize for the winner is precisely a palio (from the Latin pallium, literally cloak or cloth of very fine fabric) of green color. Of the Palio di San Pietro, which took place in Faenza on the day dedicated to the saint, June 29, we find the first official news
in the Manfredi Statutes of 1410, but its establishment may be older. For sure we know that the only variant of this palio compared to the bravium dell’Assunta was given by the color of the drape, red instead of green. The first official news on the quintana del Niballo dates back to February 13, 1596, but most likely it was already held earlier. The quintana was called during the Carnival and was called Niballo, whose etymology derives from the vulgarization of the word Hannibal, Carthaginian general who in the Middle Ages-Vale personifies in a broad sense the enemy Saracino. This competition, to which the Palio del Niballo is linked, took place until 1796, when the upheavals linked to the French revolution also arrived in Faenza.

Niballo Palio of Faenza

The first edition of the Niballo – Palio di Faenza, the Palio in its modern version, was held on Sunday, June 28, 1959, the eve of the patronal feast of St. Peter. The historical procession that accompanies the Palio, and all the costumes present in the event, make explicit the Renaissance reference to the period of the Manfreda lordship. The most exciting and exciting part of the new event is the competitive one, the Palio race, disputed by the five knights, one for each district.


Of the existence of the Palio di Faenza in ancient times there are important testimonies in some documents preserved at the town Biblioteca Manfredina. Among these, particularly important is the letter of Galeotto Manfredi to the secretary of Lorenzo dè Medici, written in the year 1479. The text of the document is short, but of unquestionable importance, considering the scarcity of certain testimonies on horse racing at that time. Another historical testimony can be found in the ancient Statutes of the city: in particular in the first complete legislative collection that has come down to us, dated 1410, there are rubrics concerning the Palio, number 43 and 44 of the sixth book. Heading 43, among other things, establishes in detail the development of the Palio dell’Assunta on August 15, while heading 44 mentions public tributes in honor of Saints Peter and Paul, including the Palio race. The regulation in see statuary suggests that the “bravium”, that is the palio, was widespread for a long time in the city and constituted an event of particular importance. The provisions of the Statutes are still the main source for the knowledge of the Palio in the Manfredian era.

The Knights

The great protagonists of this carousel are that horse and that rider who, within a few moments of the race, decide the fate and merit of many efforts. To run the Palio the Knight trains all year round and with him the “trusty steed” who will accompany him in the race. Important is the choice of the combination Rider and horse: the ideal horse for the Palio must be fast, intelligent, calm. A restless horse will struggle to enter the starting stalls, it will also unnerve the rider and throughout the race he will have to “drive”, which is to the detriment of the precision required to hit the target on the Niballo. The final straight of the race course is very short the horse runs it in about two seconds, really a blink of an eye in which the rider must prepare to strike. Characteristic of the Niballo are then the eight rounds of competition that require strong nerves and also a good dose of resistance. The rider must have nerves of steel: you can in fact lose, for example, the first two rounds, and still be able to win the race. The high difficulty of the Faenza Joust and the strong competition that has always taken place between the five districts have brought the Faenza equestrian school to the highest levels. The local stables are active every day of the year, and are prepared at the Centro Civico Rioni, a modern structure made available by the Municipal Administration. This place, together with the great
commitment of the districts, has created a real Faenza school of jousts of the quintane, which for years have won victories and awards in all the Palios and jousts of Italy.

The race

The Palio del Niballo takes place on the afternoon of the fourth Sunday of June, or the day of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The Bigorda d’Oro Tournament is played in the evening in the second week of June. At the competition field the Podestà della Giostra calls the five Knights into the field: it is time for the delivery of the spears, 275 cm long, weighing over 3 kilos and painted with white and blue helical bands. The race consists of a galloping race at the end of which you must hit with the spear the target, 8 centimeters in diameter, placed at the end of the two arms of the Niballo. Twenty rounds of challenge, eight for each of the five Wards. The one who, in the challenge against the other Ward, hits the target first triggers the device that raises the outstretched arm of the Niballo on its side, to decree the winner. At each challenge the winning knight wins the shield of the beaten district: the Palio will win the district that will win the largest number of shields of the opponents. After the race, the prizes are awarded according to tradition: a ceramic spear with a golden tip to the winner of the Bigorda d’Oro Tournament while, in the Palio del Niballo race, the rooster and garlic to the third classified, the porchetta to the second and the Palio, the coveted cloth embroidered or painted by a famous painter, to the winning district. The delivery is made directly by the Bishop of the diocese of Faenza-Modigliana on the
churchyard of the cathedral, after the final parade in which the order is determined by the final ranking. The winning knight is also given the “Golden Tower”, while the last classified district goes the “key”, with which he symbolically closes the doors of the competition field. The scheme of the race course on which two riders face each other at a time. The scheme of the race course on which two riders face each other at a time.


According to tradition, on the evening of the third Saturday of June there is the “Tournament of the Flag-bearers and Musicians” in the specialty of the “Single”, the “Little Team” and the “Great Team and Musicians”. Polychrome banners with the insignia of the districts twirl with extraordinary synchronism in the night sky, accompanied by the powerful roll of drums and the ancient sound of trumpets, in the fascinating scenery of the palaces and loggias of Piazza del Popolo illuminated by day and surrounded by figures in arms. The following evening, Sunday, which precedes the one in which the Palio del Niballo is held, the most traditional of the tournament races takes place, the one between the flag-waving bishops of the five districts of the classic specialty of the “Couple”, which assigns to the winning district the large barrel of wine with which it will be celebrated until late at night.

Nott de Bisò

A festive appointment with which a cycle closes and a new one begins. The Eve of the Epiphany is dedicated to the Nott de Bisò, the final event of the Niballo Palio di Faenza, which every year attracts thousands of participants to the city. At the stroke of midnight on January 5, the Niballo, a large puppet depicting Hannibal – represented in the image of a Saracen warrior symbolizing adversity – is burned in a huge bonfire in the center of the courses of Faenza. The festival has its peak when the representative of the district winner of the Palio in June, dressed in traditional sixteenth-century costume, sets fire to the Niballo. While waiting for this moment, participants can drink bisò (the characteristic mulled wine of Faenza) in elegant gotti, traditional ceramic bowls. The gotto is one of the fundamental elements of the festival: divers oogni year, shows the symbol of the five districts and that of the city. The festival begins already in the late morning with the opening of rich food stands managed by the districts of Faenza where you can taste typical Romagna food and other delicacies; and there is no lack of music,
Dancing and lots of fun.

The Gotti

Fundamental elements of Nott de Bisò are the gotti, the elegant ceramic bowls of Faenza in which you can taste the characteristic mulled wine of Faenza on the evening of January 5th, called precisely “bisò”. Each gotto is characterized by the coat of arms of one of the five districts of the city and that of the Municipal Group: a complete service of gotti is thus formed by six bowls and a jug. By purchasing a single gotto you can go to each of the five local stands and have it filled for once with bisò, so you can hear them all and grasp the various nuances. The decoration of the gotti is different every year and can be traced back to styles and suggestions of various different artistic eras: a tradition that has meant that from 1964 to today the gotti have become real objects of worship and collectibles.

The five districts

The institution of the districts in the various cities is very ancient: the Rome of Augustus counted fourteen, but more than a military and administrative division the order had its raison d’être for census purposes. With the advent of the free municipalities, the districts acquire importance above all as military districts and at that time and for that purpose, also with regard to Faenza, if we have the first news. The district generally took the name of the gate, which was entrusted to the defense of the surrounding inhabitants in case of siege: Faenza counted four. Bernardi no Azzurrini writes: “The city is divided into four districts named according to the doors”: Porta Ponte district (later Yellow district), Porta Imolese district (Red), Porta Ravegnana district (Black), Porta Montanara district (Green). The Borgo Durbecco (Rione Bianco) was not initially part of this division, but its origin dates back to rather distant times and certainly its formation came even before the division of the city into districts. It is in fact mentioned for the first time in a map of the Capi-tolare Archive of 27 February 1097 with the name of ‘sob-borgo di Faenza nel poggio di Sant’Antonino’. Comparing ancient plants of Faenza we can see how the walls that enclosed the “Borgo” made it look like a fortress, and most likely the defense of this place and the Door of the “Keys” was entrusted to its inhabitants.

Rione Giallo

The Rione Giallo is the district of Porta Ponte, a real city fortification almost thirty meters high that welcomed visitors from the village, then demolished in the mid-nineteenth century. In the local coat of arms the tower is surrounded by two orders of Guelph merlons, and until
from the beginning it is clear the connection of the Rione Giallo with the Manfredi family, lords of Faenza and supporters of the pontiff. One of the symbols of the Manfredi, the mythological leocorn with the body of a lion and the head of a goat (enterprise of Carlo II Manfredi), we find it in fact
also in the historical parade of the Rione Giallo, carried by a page that precedes the Capo Rione.

Rione Nero

The maritime pine of the Rione di Porta Ravegnana recalls from the beginning the connection of the Nero with the important commercial port on the Adriatic coast, located north of the city. Also in the northern part of the county was also the
castle of Granarolo, built in 1317 by Francesco Manfredi to better guard the countryside between Cotignola and Russi, which sees its castellan and its insignia present in the ranks of the Rione Nero. But the true heart of the district is within the walls
towns, in Via della Croce, from the name of the Confraternity present in the fifteenth century, which was the place where the Monte di Pietà was built, founded in 1491, and today, however, is the seat of the Rione Nero.

Red District

The coat of arms of the Rione Rosso, with its bright color and Renaissance stock, recalls from the beginning the combative nature of this district, always devoted to confrontation and victory. It is therefore no coincidence that the Red is the Rione di Porta Imolese, the access point to the city that has seen most clashes and battles over the centuries: of medieval origin, it was renovated in 1678, but about a century later it was the protagonist of the Battle of the Senio, when the French invaded the city (1793). In 1944 the retreating Germans mined the Gate to slow down the advance of the allied army, which is why to date only the walls on Via Tolosano have been saved.

Green District


The Rione Verde is the Rione di Porta Montanara and it is not surprising that in its coat of arms there are three hills, to recall the connection with the Apennines, surmounted by three six-pointed stars, which in Romagna recalled the Ghibelline part. The current seat of the district is located in one of the oldest architectural nuclei of Faenza, a complex that housed a Benedictine monastery since 700 AD, which remained active until the Napoleonic suppression. Recently restored and expanded, the headquarters of the Green is now divided into several floors and sees the presence of a multipurpose accommodation.

Borgo Durbecco

Borgo Durbecco includes the territory of Faenza divided by the river Lamone, called Rione Bianco. For this reason, in the local banner stands the ancient turreted bridge that once united the Borgo, “a small town within the city”, to the rest of Faenza. At the four corners of the banner we also find the doors that opened in the walls of the village: Porta Casaretta (towards the river), Porta Candiana (towards the north), Porta Torretta (towards the south) and Porta delle Chiavi (towards Forlì), the only medieval gate still present in Faenza.

Tournament Giovanissimi Alfieri flagieranti
Boys U15
Piazza del Popolo at 17.00
Oath of the Knights of the Golden Bigorda and Young Bishops competition flag-wavers and musicians
Boys U21
Piazza del Popolo at 21.00
Bigorda d’Oro Tournament
Historical Parade
Piazza del Popolo at 7.30 pm
Giostra della Bigorda
Bruno Neri Stadium at 21.00
Tournament Alfieri Bandieranti e Musici
Specialty Single, Small Team, Big Team
Piazza del Popolo Saturday at 20.30
Oath of the Knights of the Palio del Niballo and race Alfieri flag-wavers and musicians
Couple Specialty
Piazza del Popolo Sunday at 21.00
Niballo Palio of Faenza
Historical Parade
Piazza del Popolo at 4.30 pm
Giostra del Niballo
Bruno Neri Stadium 6.00 pm

Informazioni e ringraziamenti

In partnership with:
Municipality of Faenza Culture Service - Palio Office

Credits: Photographs by Francesco Bondi