Hello Siena, where to describe the annual Palio as a mere “horse race” does not do it justice. Run since the mid-17th century, it is one of Europe’s best-known traditional festivals, controversial but always exciting and a colorful spectacle attracting spectators from around the world. To the people of Siena, this remarkable pageant is the most important event in their lives.
Ask anyone from Siena whether the Palio or the soccer World Cup is more important and they will look at you with astonishment: “The World Cup is everybody’s business, the Palio is Siena’s own.” One of Italy’s most beautiful towns is at its most glorious during this annual bareback horse race, four days of theatre and excitement that the Sienese look forward to all year. Perched on a hill, Siena is a blend of medieval and Renaissance architecture and its beautifully preserved buildings are the perfect setting for the Palio. Famous worldwide, its true meaning remains hidden to those unfortunate enough not to have been born in the city. When the Archbishop of Siena celebrates Mass for the jockeys on the morning of the race, he stresses the local roots: “One cannot just become a Sienese. To be a true Sienese you have to be born that way,” he says.
Journalist Marco Falorni says: “The Palio is one of those moments in which life is viewed as in a film. No technology, however sophisticated, could ever manage to concentrate in such few instants so great a legacy of memories, clear and wonderfully fused into the surrounding reality. In Siena life is measured in terms of Palios, and thus every Contrada member keeps his own personal memory meter from one victory to the next.”
Nobody knows exactly when the Palio di Siena began: its origins are shrouded in mystery. For the Sienese, it has always existed and a carving from the 6th century BCE shows jockeys on bareback horses lined up ready to race. Documents from the 11th century describe a linear Palio where horsemen raced through the tortuous city streets to the Duomo. Describing the Palio as a noblemen’s affair, 13th-century documents show the city was already divided into “contrade”, the rival neighborhoods that still dominate the race. Prior to the great plague that affected much of Europe, Siena had as many as 50 contrade but nowadays there are only 17. That seems to have just made the rivalries stronger.
One of Europe’s greatest medieval squares
In the 1600s the festival that we know today took shape. From the narrow alleys and streets, the Palio moved to the main square, the Piazza del Campo, one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares, where it has been held ever since. Riding horses through the streets was dangerous and the Palio had evolved from an occasion for nobility into one for people of all social levels. Confining the race to Piazza del Campo offered everyone a better view. The only missing element was religion, and for that the city’s dedication to the Virgin Mary played a crucial role, adding a heady mix of Catholic faith to already passionate local rivalries. The Palio of the Madonna di Provenzano is now held every July 2, the Feast of the Visitation, while Palio dell’Assunta is on August 16, the day after the Feast of the Assumption. Of these two, the August race is the most coveted as the result gives bragging rights for a whole year.
Former prior of Contrada della Chiocciola (Contrada of the Snail) Dr Duccio Nello Peccianti cuts through the dry history. “It doesn’t matter when the Palio first started,” he says. “What is important to know is that the Palio’s and the contrada’s lives are the same thing.” Each contrada (‘contrade’ is the plural) is like a small nation. It is an ancient democracy where people elect leaders to make up an assembly, the neighborhood’s local government. The prior is the head of the assembly and in turn chooses a captain, who has the most say on Palio matters. The captain and his hand-picked assistants draw up strategies for the Palio, and make secret deals with allied contrade in order to win races, or perhaps just to make an enemy lose.
Each contrada has its own symbol, flag and colors, much like rival football teams. And, like sports teams, they have traditional enemies over whom a victory tastes even sweeter. Not all contradaioli (the people of a contrada) still live in Siena but they come home from over Italy and the rest of the world to support their team. Once born in a contrada, you are a contradaiolo by right. You feel the obligation to support your neighborhood with pride and it is this passion that makes the Palio unique.
Preparations start for four days of tradition
Dr Peccianti took me to his contrada to see the baptism of a newborn contradaioli. This ceremony certifies one’s membership to a particular area in the same way a Christian baptism attests to one’s faith. “Once baptized with the sacred water of the contrada, you owe it loyalty,” Prior Roberto Martinelli says. He had just performed 50 baptisms but not everyone there was a baby. Children of all ages, and even adults, come to take the vows, to be blessed with local water. There was no doubt that for the Chiocciolini (those of the Contrada of the Snail), the Palio had already started.
Honoring the contrada’s patron saint on the first day of the Palio is very auspicious. With the baptism over, preparations start for four days of tradition. A costumed parade is held, in which drummers, pages, soldiers, standard-bearers and the contrada’s notables visit each neighbor’s church in a sign of respect to the Virgin Mary. That means passing though enemy territory dressed in costumes that recall the golden age of the Renaissance. At each contrada gate a small welcoming party of standard-bearers escorts us to their church. There everyone recites the Ave to the Virgin Mary before continuing to the next church.
Three days before the race comes the tratta, an important set of test runs when over 30 pre- selected horses are tested over three laps of the tufo, the dirt track laid on the flagstones of Piazza del Campo. Only ten are needed as only ten contrade take part. The seven contrade who don’t race in each Palio have automatic entry for the corresponding month next year, with the final three drawn by lot. Although the contrada captains pick the final ten horses, the actual allocation to each team is made at noon in a draw immediately after the tratta. Fate decides who will get the best, an important choice when it is the first horse home that wins, with or without its rider.
Each contrada sends a barbaresco (a groom) to stand in front of the city officials for the draw and then take the assigned horse into their care for the duration of the race. It is an intense moment and the Piazza del Campo is packed with contradaioli following the process in near-religious silence. Acorns containing the names of the contrade and the number of the horses are placed inside two tumbler boxes. Two young men draw the acorns to determine which horse goes where. As each horse-contrada combination is read out by the mayor, people cheer or murmur in disappointment.
Jockeys owe allegiance to no one
“This year’s horses are all pretty good. But we won the best one. Now we must find a suitable jockey,” says Dr Peccenti. “The thing is our arch-enemy, the Contrada of the Tortoise, won the second best horse. They will give us a hard time.” But he has a confident look and is smiling. Back at contrada headquarters the mood is festive and expectations high.
Each contrada’s captain can now start deals with the jockeys over who will ride for whom. Jockeys owe allegiance to no one and, unlike the horses, can change their mind until the day of the final race. They are mercenaries and all are from outside Siena. Their importance is secondary to the respect and attention given to the horses. Secret deals will keep key people very busy. Both huge sums of money and the prestige of the contrada are at stake, although no captains will talk about the amount involved and even to ask is to go against an unwritten code of conduct. Rumors suggest the winning jockey alone could go home with one million euro ($1.35million), enough to share among several people, including fellow jockeys.
But if there is one winner and no second place, how can the other jockeys get a share? This is where the deals come in. A jockey, and therefore a contrada, with a good chance of winning can ask an ally for help. They might be not in a position to win, perhaps because of a weaker horse or a bad place in the starting line, but can still affect the outcome. The truth is, although the sum involved may be huge, where it comes from and where it goes nobody knows. You can’t accuse anyone of cheating, either, as the rules are few.
The evening of the tratta is time for the first of six trial runs, with two on each of the two days before the final and one on the morning of the Palio. For each trial, the ten competing contrada bring their horses via the Entrone, the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall), followed by a crowd of supporters wearing their colors and singing traditional songs. At the first trial run, Brento, the horse of the Contrada of the Snail, falls at the start and injures a leg and ankle. Another horse hurts an eye and another breaks a leg. It’s rare to see such catastrophes during a test run but it shows why animal rights groups condemn the race as cruel.
The Palio is useless like art
The Sienese are unapologetic. “We love horses and we take care of all the horses that run the Palio for their whole lives,” says Giuseppe Pisu, a photographer working for a local newspaper. Like most people in Siena, he strongly believes the horses are treated well. They are feted at a dinner with the contrada after being carefully selected and trained for the race.
Franco Cardini, an historian, says: ”The worst lie is that the Palio is useless. The Palio is useless like art, like good cheer, like love, like eating well: but if usefulness is synonymous with grey functionality and with profit for its own sake, then the Palio is certainly useless.”
The five-star retirement home for Palio veterans and injured horses certainly has care costs as high as in a top class private clinic for humans. Does this, and centuries of tradition, justify holding a race in such a high-risk environment? I have no straightforward answer. The next day the accident is front-page news in all the local newspapers. Politics and other news are totally over-shadowed. Supporters of the contrade who have suffered the most are quick to blame the Mossiere, or starter. He has a daunting task. He lowers the canape, the breast-high rope across the start line.
On this occasion the rope came down too slowly, while the horses were already all pushing to start. Brento’s left foreleg was trapped in a loop formed by the rope. The result was a disastrous fall that involved three horses. The Mossiere deemed the start valid and the remaining seven horses completed the three required laps. Unfortunately for the Contrada of the Snail, that meant withdrawal from the Palio. The injured horse simply could not run. As all those disappointed came to terms with this blow, the Mossiere quits for the honor of the Palio, even though most experts said he wasn’t responsible. Another starter has to be found quickly.
An efficiency seldom seen in other Italian towns
The final trial on the morning of the race itself is called the “Provaccia” (bad trial) as no one wants to tire the horses out. The jockeys pull back on their mounts and it is considered bad luck to win. After this, the jockeys can’t be changed, not even if injured. Siena now hits another gear with an efficiency seldom seen in other Italian towns. With Swiss precision, police and volunteers from civil organizations clear the racetrack of those who have taken it over. The centre of the square and the wooden seats around the edge are packed and more spectators lean out of every window on the oval-shaped piazza, waving the colorful flags of competing contrade. A window seat can cost up to €2,000 while even a place on the bleachers goes for as much as €200. Very few tourists get these prime viewing spots as the locals book them up a year in advance.
In the crowded centre of the piazza, viewing is free but you have to be tall to see anything at all (and don’t bring children). Spectators have been arriving since 5am to secure a place, a long day in the blazing summer sun, with no public bathrooms and no seating, but a price many are willing to pay. The atmosphere is electric as excitement builds higher and higher with each passing hour. The wise tourist has chosen a contrada to support and wears its colors so as to feel part of the action.
At 5:20pm the Corteo Storico (historical parade) makes its magnificent entrance. Trumpeters precede each contrada, who are coming from a final mass in their parish churches, announcing their entrance on medieval trumpets. Then come the standard bearers, tossing their giant flags as high as they can, competing with each other in a display of strength and skill. Behind are soldiers armed with swords, shields or long spears, their costumes come alive from a Renaissance painting. The jockeys are dressed as noblemen, the horses led by the barbaresco. Even the seven non competing contrade put on a show, their last chance to shine.
One horse is missing from the line
Finally the race is ready to get underway. Adrenalin levels are high and the crowd can barely control itself. The jockeys try to keep their horses in line, in the order called by the Mossiere, the only judge. Horses kick, spin around, break out and come back in a strategic dance that makes no sense to us outsiders. With a hand over the canape bar, his face serious, the Mossiere encourages the riders to obey the rules. One horse is missing from the line and the start is signaled by its arrival into the action at full gallop.
A few false starts are each cancelled by a mortar shot, then finally, after more than an hour of teasing, building everyone’s tensions up to almost unbearable levels, the horses are let loose. The screams of the crowds are deafening as horses are lashed off the line to catch the one with a running start. On the very first lap, a jockey falls at the tight San Martino bend. With no stirrups, and no saddles, it’s no surprise to see yet another go down on the second lap, the riderless horses staying in the race. The battle for victory peaks in the final circuit, the jockeys using their ox-sinew whips on their steeds or each other, while spectators invade the track as they pass for the last time. The Contrada of the Goose and that of the Shell run neck and neck over the last few yards until, after only two minutes, it’s over.
“Who won?” someone shouts in my ear. How should I know? People rush the track like an invading army, some yelling with joy, others clinging to each other and weeping in despair.
The result is still not clear
The horses have been taken away but the result is still not clear, competing rumors being shouted back and forth in a bedlam of noise, songs and taunts. Excited supporters converge on the Palio itself. This is the much sought-after prize that the race takes its name from, a large richly decorated, hand-painted silk cloth bearing the image of the Madonna.
At last the formal signal comes from the town hall as the judges display the winner’s flag; it is the green of Oca, the Goose. Distraught contradaioli of the Shell hold their heads in their hands in disbelief. The victorious contrada heads for the Duomo to offer a “Te Deum” or prayer of thanks as Siena’s streets fill with revellers proudly sporting their colors.
The winning jockey – and horse – will be feted by their happy contrada until the early hours, their fame assured for ever. Those who won have a year to celebrate. Those who lost have the same time to plot their revenge. And, after all, what is a year in a race whose history goes back to the beginning of time?
Meanwhile, the tourists drift away, happy with their images of this colorful event. The Sienese, however, know few have captured its soul. As local writer Luca Betti says: “There are many beautiful photos to be seen of the Palio. Almost none, however, helps us understand its true essence, almost as if one were to photograph a flower and expect to smell its fragrance.”