Friday, February 14, 2020

Ignominy in Italy

During the long course of Jewish history, one of the multiple tools used to harass and persecute Jews was public humiliation. One such disgraceful public humiliation was the practice of “Black Monday” in Rome, which was also called the “Jews Race” or palio degli Ebrei, “the Jews’ competition” in Latin.

“Carnival” is celebrated in Catholic cities and countries, as a period of levity prior to the onset of “Lent,” which is a time of “penitential austerities” prior to the solemn Christian observances of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In Rome, Carnival dates back to the mid-15th century, where races were conducted during the eight days leading up to Lent. Lent begins on “Ash Wednesday.” Many are familiar with “Mardi Gras,” which means “Fat Tuesday,” a carnival that occurs on the day prior to Ash Wednesday.

The Carnival in Rome was popularized under the papacy of Paul II (who served as Pope from 1464-1471). Pope Paul II organized a different race each day with the palio degli Ebrei, the Jews’ competition, also called Black Monday. Subsequent days featured races of children, young Christians, the elderly, donkeys and buffalos. By the time the practice of “Black Monday” was terminated, the path of the Jews’ run took place in central Rome, on what today is known as the Corso, beginning at Piazza San Marco (today’s Piazza Venezia) and ended at the Santa Maria del Popolo church, a distance of about 1 mile.

Contemporaneous testimony about the palio degli Ebrei describes the events. On Monday, four trumpeters arrived at the synagogue in Rome to summon the Jews to the contest. Eight, or by some accounts 12, contestants, were forced to run through Rome, wearing only a loincloth with the letters “SPQR, a Latin acronym for the official title of the municipality in Rome, painted on their foreheads. Some accounts claim that at one point in the history of Black Monday, Christian jockeys rode the Jews as they would horses. The race was held in February when the climate in Rome was cold, and often, wet and muddy. The contestants were forced to stuff themselves with food prior to the Race, which resulted in contestants vomiting and collapsing – sometimes even dying - which was a source of great entertainment for the spectators, who were permitted to throw rotten oranges and mud at the runners.

In 1668, Pope Clement IX, (who served as pope from 1667-1669) discontinued the palio degli Ebrei, but not on moral grounds. He stopped it because of the “little convenience that comes from seeing these Jews run.” The Pope substituted a tax on the Jewish community to pay 300 scudi (Papal currency) toward the expenses of Carnival.


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