Il Palio di Siena is not only the most important civic event in Siena, it is also a complex blend of history, elegance, and animal magnetism. Dating back to medieval times, the race is not exactly the balletic blood sport of a bull-fight, but it is just as dramatic.
The potential for violence hangs in the air, as ten bareback riders race around the shell shaped Piazza del Campo at full tilt. The vibrant colors of Tuscany—wine-red scarlet, deep green, ochre yellow, and sky blue—float throughout the city. Dust flies, and the crowd cheers and weeps. The Piazza is only 333 meters in circumference, and the narrow curve of San Martino is so dangerous that collisions between the wall and the horses are not uncommon. There have been tragic finishes for both riders and horses. If Ernest Hemingway had gone to Siena instead of Pamplona, this would be the same kind of tourist event that the running of the bulls is every July in Spain. Instead, the Palio remains a largely Sienese affair, with rules so complicated and a history so arcane that foreigners simply don’t get it.
The Palio takes place twice a year. The first one, the Palio of Provenzano, is on July 2 in honor the Madonna of Provenzano, a 14th-century terracotta icon of the Virgin Mary credited with various miracles over the centuries. The second Palio, or the Palio of the Assumption, is on August 16th and is held in honor of the Assumption of Virgin Mary into heaven.
I was there for the Palio of the Assumption, but both races give Siena a festive yet tense air. The Piazza del Campo, arguably one of the most beautiful piazzas in Italy, is transformed by thick layer of sand and rimmed by the fluttering flags of the city’s cantrade, or quarters. There are 17 quarters in Siena, but only ten, seven by rotation and three by drawn lots, can participate in the Palio each year. Like bejeweled street signs, the flags of each contrada mark intersections announcing the borders of each quarter to passers by. The quarter of L’Onda,(the Wave), is quickly followed by the La Selva (the Forest), and before you know it, you have wandered into the quarter of La Chiocciola (the Snail), not a promising team name for a horse race.
The Palio actually takes place over four days, the first of which begins with the Tratta, the drawing of lots and the assignment of horses. Each quarter picks its jockey, but they do not know their horse until the day of the Tratta. The whole city is in the Piazza del Campo for the Tratta, more locals than tourists, a rarity during the summer months in Siena.
Everyone in town has the kerchief of their quarter tied around the neck or shoulders as they cram into the piazza to hear the assignment of the horses and the lots for the three wild card spaces in the race. A gentlemanly local who was cheering for the contrada Torre explained to me which horses were experienced and which quarters always lose: “There is corruption in the choosing of the horses,” gesticulating as he explained, “because the best horses always go to the same quarters!” The man next to him, a denizen of quarter La Selva, interrupted and said, “It’s not true, teams that don’t win always cry corruption . . . ”
Loyalty to one’s quarter is historical and intense, but this is Siena after all and not a soccer game between Naples and Roma. A certain restraint keeps violence among spectators at bay. A young couple explained to me that the place of your birth determines your contrada, no matter where you live later. He was born in contrada Lupa (Wolf) and she was from Bruco, (Caterpillar,) but they live in contrada Tartaruga (Tortoise). Though it might make no difference throughout the rest of the year, during the Palio each person belongs to his or her own quarter. This can lend itself to genial family strife during Palio season. Depending on which horses are running, the male children will cheer for their father’s quarter, while the girls will cheer for their mother’s, but only if they are too young to cheer for the quarter of their birth.
When the ceremony for the assigning of the horses begins, a hush falls over the huge crowd, and all arguing is shushed as each horse’s number is called and then the number of the quarter. The hush turns to shouts or sighs of relief. Cheering and jeering break out as the horse and his team exit the piazza from the Palazzo Comunale toward the direction of their home contrada, singing and flying their kerchiefs, fists raised defiantly in the air.
The breathless hush descends again and the next horse and quarters are called until all ten are assigned. When the last horse is called the residents of contrada Onda openly weep—they will have a privileged spot in the race. Teenagers with A&F tee shirts who would be at home in any mall in the world, embrace, cry, and jump into each other’s arms, waiving the kerchiefs and singing the ancient songs of their quarter. This is the power of tradition and place that one can still find in Italy, even in a tourist mecca like Siena.
The next two days are a series of trials, one in the morning and one in the evening, each followed by heated conversations in the cafes and wine bars that ring the Piazza del Campo. “So and so isn’t trying in order to trick the others, that jockey can’t control his horse, it will be murder….” The trial the evening before the race is the called the provo generale, or the general trial, while the one the morning of the Palio is called the provaccia, or the bad trial, because the jockeys don’t want to tire their horses, so they put little effort into it.
The day of the Palio, the whole city is gripped by turmoil and tension. First, there is a mass to bless the jockeys and their horses, and later each quarter holds its own blessing ceremony, before the city’s inhabitants parade in traditional costumes towards the piazza. The bright colors, the arcane songs, and the deep passion reflect the deep roots of the Palio in the medieval past, but the energy and sheer joy speaks to the important role of history in the here and now. The popular present is still somehow authentic and meaningful, not a marketing scheme for tourists but a profound expression of the spirit of place. During the Palio, the popular becomes a pageant of beauty, passion, drama, and, quite possibly, violence.
The race itself can start at any time after the jockeys get their horses in their assigned spots, which as usual is more complicated than it seems. The space is narrow and the horses are cheek by jowl. Rivalries run deep among the various contrade and the competition is high, so the jockeying for position is quite literally an intimidation tactic. The race is only considered valid if it starts with each horse in its assigned place, so the wait can be agonizingly long, as the tension mounts and horses become restless.
The race itself is swift—three times around the piazza, which now seems far too small for all those horses. The air fills with noise, and dust, and color, and it is hard to keep track of who is winning. In the end the first horse over the finish line, with or without its jockey, wins. The winning contrada receives the Drappellone, a beautiful canvas designed each year by a different artist.
Today, the winner was Onda, beating out Chiocciola by a nose. I watched, swept up in the magic, hugged by weeping strangers, still a little unsure of what I had seen. Lost in the crowd, I only got my bearings as members of the Onda quarter sang and marched toward the Duomo to offer the Te Deum, or prayer of thanks. I was thankful, too, for today there was no bloodshed.