Carnival Races

I was reading John Glassie’s “A Man of Misconceptions” and stumbled across a curious passage.  The book is about a priest/scientist from the Galileo era who was on the wrong side of history.  Athanius Kircher believed, among other things, that most things on earth could be explained by magnetism.  Why was the moon so close?  Magnets.  Why do plants grow upwards?  Magnets (plants would be repelled by the natural magnetism of the earth, forcing them away from the ground).  Why does medicine work?  Magnets (it would draw the harmful humors out of the bloodstream through divine magnetism).

On page 207, the striking passage happened:

The new pope, Giulio Rospigliosi, took the name Clement IX.  He wrote comic opera liberettos and enjoyed evenings out.  To the job of secretary of state, he appointed the cardinal who was said to be Queen Christina’s lover.  Christina [the ex-queen of Sweden], who had been on tours of Paris and Hamburg, returned to Rome and accepted a stipend.  She helped Clement establish the first public opera house in the city, and helped persuade him to prohibit the racing of Jews during Carnival.  (The prostitute races continued.)

My reaction: Hold the phone, “helped persuade him to prohibit the Racing of Jews during Carnival.

Image result for spit take gif

A little bit of research and history sleuthing led to this revelation:

The racing of the Jews originally began in 1466, and was thought to have been received somewhat positively at the time.  During Carnival, Italians would race horses, donkeys, and bulls, then children would have footraces, as would the elderly, the women, the prostitutes, the Jews and so on and so forth.  Winners would be awarded a fancy robe and everything was hunky-dory.  The Jews were evidently levied with a 1,100 florin tax to pay for their involvement in the races.  However, over the next hundred years of Carnivals, things turned on their head.  According to the “Jewish Encyclopedia” entry from “Berliner, Gesch. der Juden in Rom, ii., part 1” a Jew died during the races in 1547 and the Jewish community stopped participating in the races.  Other sources are less forgiving to the Romans and the 17th century Roman art historian Cassiano del Pozzo is cited saying that the Jews would be stripped to loincloths, have SPQR painted on their foreheads (the abbreviation for the name of the Roman government), and would have the runners gorge themselves on food.  The hapless runners would then sprint through the cold and mud, puking their guts out from overexertion on a full stomach, and pelted with everything from rotten fruit to cats (Glassie’s book describes someone getting hit with a cat during a race).  According to Cassiano, the winner would “return with his fellows to the smelly theater of the circumcised.”  Some authors say that Clement’s decision to ban the racing was not so much out of a humanitarian effort to improve Rome, rather because of “the little convenience that comes from seeing these Jews run.”  Instead of being forced to take part in the races, Clement simply added another 300 florins to the yearly Carnival tax, raising the sum to around 1,400 florins.

Racing of prostitutes during Carnival was quite normal because the pre-Lent festivities were meant to flip the society on its head.  According to some sources, Italian armies would occasionally race prostitutes in front of besieged cities to denigrate the city, but during Carnival the prostitutes were sort of celebrated in a twilight-zone way.  Some sources have argued, that rather than be pressured to the margins of society, on this one day during the race, prostitutes were allowed to be in the limelight of Italian society.  Perhaps the oddest thing is how relatively unknown these events are.  Very little has been written on the Racing of the Jews or the Racing of Prostitutes in Italy or Rome, and the information that is available on the internet is evidently oftentimes at odds in how it describes the races.  Some sources talk about it like it was a fun pastime that all involved enjoyed until it ended, whereas others talk about it as a degrading and obscene action of an insensitive Rome and an unfeeling Church.  Without more research into the topic, the accuracy of either claim is up in the air.


John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions (Riverhead Books, 2012) pg. 207
Stephen D. Bowd, Venice’s Most Loyal City (Harvard University Press, 2010) pg. 100