Palio di Siena

 

The Palio di Siena (known locally simply as Il Palio) is a horse race that is held twice each year, on July 2 and August 16, in Siena, Italy. Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, who has a church in Siena. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary.

A magnificent pageant, the Corteo Storico, precedes the race, which attracts visitors and spectators from around the world.

The race itself, in which the jockeys ride bareback, circles the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. It is not uncommon for a few of the jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza, and indeed, it is not unusual to see unmounted horses finishing the race without their jockeys.

The first race (Palio di Provenzano) is held on July 2, which is both the Feast of the Visitation and the date of a local festival in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano (a painting once owned by the Sienese leader Provenzano Salvani, which was supposed to have miraculous curative power). The second race is held on August 16 (Palio dell’Assunta), the day after the Feast of the Assumption, and is likewise dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After exceptional events (e.g., the Apollo 11 moon landing) and on important anniversaries (e.g., the centennial of the Unification of Italy), the Sienese community may decide to hold a third Palio between May and September. The most recent was in 2000 to mark the millennium.

The field consists of ten horses, so not all seventeen contrade can take part in the Palio on any occasion. The seven contrade that did not take part in that month of the previous year are automatically included; three more are chosen by draw (twice a year, in the last days of May and at the beginning of July). Private owners (among them, some jockeys) offer the pick of their stables, selected during the year after trial races, other Palio races in Italy and veterinary examination, from which main representatives of the participating contrade, the Capitani, choose ten of approximately equal quality, three days before the race. A lottery then determines which horse will run for each contrada. Six trial races are run, the first on the evening of the horse selection and the last on the morning before the Palio. The devout residents of each contrada, known as contradaioli, invoke the sacred aid of their patron saint for their horse and jockey.

The worldly improve their odds with arguably dubious methods, chiefly bribery and doping. The sensible simply keep a close watch on their stable and their rider.

The horses are of mixed breed; no purebred horses are allowed.

The race is preceded by a spectacular pageant, the Corteo Storico, which includes (among many others) Alfieri, flag wavers, in medieval costumes. Just before the pageant, a squad of carabinieri on horseback, wielding swords, demonstrate a mounted charge around the track. They take one lap at a walk, in formation, and a second at a gallop that foreshadows the excitement of the race to come, before exiting down one of the streets that leads out of Piazza del Campo. Spectators arrive early in the morning, eventually filling the centre of the town square, inside the track, to capacity; the local police seal the entrances once the festivities begin in earnest. Seats ranging from simple bleachers to elaborate box seats may be had for a price, but sell out long before the day of the race.

At 7:30 p.m. for the July race, and 7 p.m. for the August race, the detonation of an explosive charge echoes across the piazza, signaling to the thousands of onlookers that the race is about to begin. The race itself runs for three laps of the Piazza del Campo, the perimeter of which is covered with several inches of dirt and tuff (imported and laid for the occasion at great expense to the city) and the corners of which are protected with padded crash barriers for the occasion. The jockeys ride the horses bareback from the starting line, an area between two ropes. Nine horses, in an order only decided by lot immediately before the race starts, enter the space. The tenth, the rincorsa, waits outside. When the rincorsa finally enters the space between the ropes the starter (mossiere) activates a mechanism that instantly drops the canapo (the front rope). This process (the mossa) can take a very long time, as deals have usually been made between various contrade and jockeys that affect when the rincorsa moves – he may be waiting for a particular other horse to be well- or badly-placed, for example.

On the dangerous, steeply canted track, the riders are allowed to use their whips (in Italian, nerbi, stretched, dried bulls’ hide)) not only for their own horse, but also for disturbing other horses and riders. The Palio in fact is won by the horse who represents his contrada, and not by the jockeys. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line—a horse can win without its rider (a condition known as cavallo scosso). A horse can also win without its decorative headgear (spennacchiera), although the opposite belief is widely held even among the Sienese. The loser in the race is considered to be the contrada whose horse came second, not last.

The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of rival contrade.

There may be some danger to spectators from the sheer number of people in attendance. There have also been complaints about mistreatment of horses, injuries and even deaths, especially from animal-rights associations and even from some veterinarians. In the Palio held on August 16, 2004, the horse for the contrada of Bruco (the Caterpillar) fell and was badly trampled, as the race was not stopped despite possible additional safety risks for other horses. The horse died of its injuries, raising further complaints from animal-rights organizations, who do not recognize the municipality’s efforts to improve the safety of the race and the exceptionality of that accident.

The Palio differs from “normal” horse races in that part of the game is for the wards to prevent rival contrade from winning. When a contrada fails to win, its historical enemy will celebrate that fact nearly as merrily as a victory of its own, regardless of whether adversarial interference was a deciding factor. Few things are forbidden to the jockeys during the race; for instance, they can pull or shove their fellows, hit the horses and each other, or try to hamper other horses at the start.

The most successful ward is Oca, the Goose, which has won 63 races (at least according to their records, which start from 1644), followed by Chiocciola, the Snail, with 51, and Tartuca, the Tortoise, with 46. Oca is also the contrada with the most wins in recent history (from 1900 to 2010) with 21 victories, followed by Selva, the Forest, with 18, and Drago, the Dragon, with 17.

Among jockeys, the most victorious of all time is Andrea De Gortes, nicknamed Aceto (‘Vinegar’), with 14 wins (from 1964 to 1996). Angelo Meloni, nicknamed Picino (active from 1897 to 1933), and Luigi Bruschelli, nicknamed Trecciolino (still active), are tied for second in the number of wins with 13 successes.

The most successful horses were Folco and Panezio with eight wins each, followed by Topolone with seven.

In recent history (from 1900 to the present), only two wards have ever succeeded in winning both the July and the August races in a single year (the term in Italian is fare cappotto). These are Tartuca (the Tortoise) in 1933 and Giraffa (the Giraffe) in 1997, with jockey Giuseppe Pes, nicknamed Il Pesse.

The Palio di Siena is more than a simple horse race. It is the culmination of ongoing rivalry and competition between the contrade. The lead-up and the day of the race are invested with passion and pride. Formal and informal rituals take place as the day proceeds, with each contrada navigating a strategy of horsemanship, alliances, and animosities. There are the final clandestine meetings among the heads of the contrade and then between them and the jockeys.There is the two-hour pageant of the Corteo Storico, and then all this is crowned by the race, which takes only about 75 seconds to complete. Although there is great public spectacle, the passions displayed are still very real.

The contrada that has been the longest without a victory is nicknamed nonna (‘grandmother’). Civetta (the Owlet) had the title from 1979 until 2009, when it won the August 16 race. Torre (the Tower) had this title for being without victory for 44 years (from 1961 to 2005), and Bruco (the Caterpillar) held the title for not winning over 41 years (from 1955 to 1996). The current nonna is Lupa (the She-Wolf), which has not had a victory since 2 July 1989, a period of 23 years, 60 days.

 

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