The last Sunday in August in Montepulciano is reserved for the Bravìo delle Botti. It’s a challenge carried out among the eight Contrade (historic districts) of Montepulciano: Cagnano, Collazzi, Coste, Gracciano, Poggiolo, San Donato, Talosa and Voltaia, who compete for a painted banner in an 1800-meter dash in which they must push 80-kg barrels uphill.
The route is always established ahead of time and there are eight starting points organized in two lines. Each district’s barrel is positioned in a designated space determined by a morning draw. At the sound of the bell ringing in the Torre del Palazzo Comunale, the starting line judge kicks off the race.
The barrels are each pushed by two men called “spingitori” (pushers) while the race route develops along the evocative streets of the historic center, eventually arriving at the church porch of the Cathedral in Piazza Grande.
The word “Bravìo” comes from the vernacular term “Bravium” and refers to the painted banner depicting the iconographic image of the Patron saint of the city, San Giovanni Decollato (Saint John the Beheaded), in whose honor the “Bravìo delle Botti” takes place. The “Bravium” was supposed to be a scarlet cloth with a value of “at least thirty golden florins”, according to how it was described in the Municipal Statute of 1372, the year in which a special format for regulating the Palio was released. In those times the "Bravìo" took place on horseback, a tradition that ended in the 17th century when it was abolished on the grounds of maintaining public order.
The most recent chapter in the Bravìo’s history began in 1974 when a parish priest, Don Marcello Del Balio, had the original idea of transforming the old horse route into a barrel format. Before each race, on Sunday morning beginning at 9am in Piazza Grande, important and evocative ritual ceremonies take place, such as the drawing to determine the start order, fire branding, the Town Hall’s delivery of the “panno” to the Districts Magistrate, and the votive wax offerings to San Giovanni in the cathedral.
In the afternoon at 4pm, the historic court procession begins, made up of more than 300 participants. Closing out the day at 7pm after more ceremonious bell-ringing, the barrels begin rolling on the stone, departing from the Marzocco column. After just a few minutes the "Bravìo" will have its epilogue: only one district can celebrate the victory and earn the “Panno”; others will have to simply have to relish the bittersweet feeling and plan for their future wins: this is a story that just keeps on repeating itself for more than 600 years.