On January 28, 1668, Pope Clement IX declared the discontinuation of the Jews’ Race, held each year in Rome as part of the Carnival celebrations leading up to Lent. The origins of this running competition went back 200 years, and although there is some evidence that initially the Jews had participated in it willingly, just as other social and professional groups ran in races during the eight days of festivities leading up to Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent) – over the years the treatment of the Jews had become increasingly humiliating and sadistic.
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Although Carnival had been celebrated in Rome since medieval times, it became organized and defined under Pope Paul II (who reigned from 1464 to 1471). By his order, a different race was held each day, beginning on the third day of Lent, a Monday, with the palio degli ebrei – the Jews’ competition.
On succeeding days, there were races of children, of young Christians, of elderly people and finally, on the last two days of Carnival, of donkeys and buffalo, respectively.
The race course changed with the years. By the time of Clement IX, the Jews were made to run along what is today the Corso, a central street in modern Rome, starting at the Piazza San Marco (today’s Piazza Venezia) and ending at Santa Maria del Popolo church, a distance of about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile).
The name “palio,” which is also familiar from Siena’s historic Palio horse races, refers to the piece of cloth, or an actual cloak (in Siena, it’s a banner) given to the winner of a race, which was paid for, like all the other expenses incurred by the Carnival, by the Jewish community of Rome. In that city, the event was also referred to as the “bipeds race,” to distinguish it from the contests run by four-legged animals.
Sometimes fatal results
Many details about the palio degli ebrei come from the 17th-century Roman art historian Cassiano del Pozzo, via his friend, the Jesuit scholar of Hebrew Giovanni Battista Ferrari, and are described in length in a 1992 essay by the art historian David Freedberg.
On the Saturday before the races began, representatives of the Jewish community would bring the “triumphal” palii to various Roman and Church officials, including the pope. On Monday, four trumpeters would arrive at the synagogue to summon the Jews to the contest.
The Jews Race typically had eight contestants, or sometimes 12, according to Cassiano. They would be required to run naked through the streets, covered only by a loincloth. On their forehead would be painted the letters SPQR, the abbreviation for the Latin Senatus Populusque Romanus, the official name of the city government, both ancient and modern.
Since Carnival is in February, it was cold, often wet, and frequently muddy. To make the race more arduous for the runners – and more entertaining for the public – the contestants would also often be required to gorge themselves before taking off, with the result being that sometimes they would vomit, or even collapse, during the race. The spectators were also permitted to throw rotten oranges and mud at the runners.
Although not everyone always finished the race – there were even cases of runners collapsing and dying – there was always a winner, who, according to Cassiano, would then “return with his fellows to the smelly theater of the circumcised.” Thus, he observed wryly, “the triumphant victor of today becomes tomorrow’s match-seller and peddler across the Tiber.”
Pope Clement wrote that he based his decision to discontinue the race on “the little convenience that comes from seeing these Jews run.” At the same time, the Jewish community was required to pay an additional 300 scudi (the currency of the Papal States) toward the expenses of Carnival. Only in 1846, after repeated appeals by the Jews of Rome, did Pope Pius IX, agree to cancel this arduous tax on their community.