If you are driving around the countryside near Montepulciano this week, you are likely to encounter pairs of healthy young men pushing large wine barrels up and down the rolling hills.
Most every hilltown has its ancient competitions held between the neighborhoods: Siena’s Palio horse race is probably the best known; you will also find an archery challenge in Montalcino, a crossbow competition in Massa Marittima, a pushing contest on a bridge in Pisa, even a race with donkeys pulling little carts in Valiano.
Dating back to 1373, the event in Montepulciano was originally a horse race like the Palio of Siena, but it evolved in 1974 to become the Bravio delle Botti, a barrel rolling race between the eight contrade (neighborhoods). The race, in honor of the patron saint St John the Baptist, takes place on the last Sunday in August.
The athletic spingitori, literally the ‘pushers’ of the barrels start at the Marzocco column in front of the Palazzo Avignonesi and run in pairs, sharing the exhausting efforts of pushing an 85-kilo wooden wine barrel up 1700 meters of steep roads in this 600-meter-high hilltown.
The first team to finish at the Piazza Grande in front of the Duomo takes the bravio, or award, of a beautiful cloth painted with an image of St. John the Baptist, Montepulciano’s patron saint. The panno, as it is called, is unique every year as it is designed and painted by a different artist. The artist for 2010 is Daniele Sasson, a Siennese artist, and the work is done in the Macchiaioli style, a technique made popular by Tuscan artists in the second half of the nineteenth century. This piece of art will be seen for the first time on 22 August.
The eight contrade of Montepulciano are Cagnano, Collazzi, Gracciano, Le Coste, Poggiolo, San Donato, Talosa, and Voltaia.