The Palio de Siena—A Race for the Ages

AP-avatar Cara/Andrea here,  As the resident Wench “jock,” I occasionally jog off from the ballrooms and country houses for a swing through the history of sporting traditions. Tennis and golf—games grounded in the lawns and links of Great Britain—have been past subjects. But today, as I’m straying farther afield . . . I’ve just returned from an idyllic trip to Tuscany, where I was lucky enough to experience (sort-of) one of the most famous sporting competitions in the world—the Palio de Siena, a rough-and-tumble bareback horse race that originated in the Middle Ages.


Heart and Hooves
Palio-flags-2 The first thing to understand about the Palio is that it is much more than a mere sporting event. Passion, pageantry, pride—centuries of traditions and rivalries whip up emotions to a frenzy for the extravaganza that takes place each summer in the ancient hilltop city of Siena, Italy, as the 17 Contrade, or neighborhoods, compete against each other for the ultimate bragging rights as the Palio champion. The spectacle, a colorful gallimaufry of Medieval pomp and splendor, includes costumed rituals, ornate banners, the blessing of the horses in the Church, and a whirlwind ride around the dangerously steep and sharp turns of the Piazza del Campo.

Pageant-1 Piazza-di-Siena The Palio has its origins in the 14th century races that used to be run through the narrow streets of the city. Apparently the citizens of Siena enjoyed a variety of rather violent games when they weren’t at war with their neighbors, for the central square was often the site of boxing brawls, jousts and bull fighting. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed the pitting of man against horned beasts in 1590 (no doubt preferring to keep his soldiers in fighting shape for human opponents) the Contrade, or neighborhoods of the city, began to organize races in the Campo. The first ones were run on buffalo and donkeys, but in 1656, horses became the mounts of choice and the Palio as we know it today galloped into its special place in history.

A Ride Through History
  Bell-tower So, now let’s saddle up—in a manner of speaking— and take a quick ride through the details of the Palio. There are two races each year, based on religious calendar of the Catholic Church: July 2, which celebrates Feast of the Visitation, and August 16, the day after the feast of the Assumption, which celebrates the Virgin Mary. (The August date was added in 1701.)  In 1729, the race course was formalized as a circuit around the perimeter of Piazza del Campo. (Wooden barricades are put up and dirt is laid over the rough cobblestones for the two races, which circle the square three times and last less than 2 minutes.) 

Siena-duomo That same year also saw the limit of ten horses established, as the full complement of 17 too often ended in a melee of blood and broken bones. The annual slots rotate—the seven who didn’t race the previous year are automatically in, with the three additional places  Pageant-3 chosen by lottery. To avoid Machiavellian maneuvers (chiefly doping and bribery, though in the past horses were sometimes be poisoned by rival Contrade) the mounts are also chosen by lottery a week before the race, and no purebred horses are allowed. As you can imagine, these days elicit much cheering and gnashing of teeth throughout the city.

Palio-flag Caterpilars, Dragons, Porcupines . . .
The rivalries between the 17 Contrade are fierce. For natives of Siena, they are “Caterpillars” or “Giraffes” first, and Siennese second. The residents of the neighborhoods sport their own heraldic colors and beasts (my favorite banners were the Eagle and the Dragon, though the Porcupine was pretty cool too.)  In the weeks before the races, the ancient grey stone walls of the city come alive with Contrade flags, and, you will see people around the city sporting their allegiance in the form of lovely silk scarves.

Drappellone They are all vying to win the “Rag”—the Drappellone or Palio, which is a hand-painted banner, created by a different artist e
ach year—and the strategies go far beyond pounding hooves and sweating horseflesh. Preventing one’s arch rival from  winning is almost as important as one’s own victory, so the plotting and secret alliances between the contestants puts the  Borgias to blush. Tradition holds that the biggest loser is the horse that comes in second. On the course, jockeys must contend not only with the treacherous turns and steep slopes but also with flailing nerbi (a whip made of a dried bull’s penis) flying elbows and deliberate kicks. In other words, all’s fair in love and Palio!

Spectator seats for the race run dear. A good one can cost over $1,000, though one can brave the crushing crowds and try to get a rail position on the center infield. Where admission is free—but be prepared to get there hours early and withstand the hot Tuscan sun. So I decided to simply enjoy the energy and color of the city by visiting two days before the actual race. And to my delight, I discovered yet another tradition of the Palio . . .
Main-square Squaring Off
  At around 5 pm I took a stroll to the Campo, simply to see the course and the splendid bell tower that is an iconic image of Siena, but it quickly became clear by the fast-growing crowds that something special was starting to happen. Troops of children filed in to bleachers by the bell tower and serenaded Crowd the square with lusty exuberance—I was told that the songs were the Siennese equivalent of college football fight chants. Another spectator informed me that the whole hoopla was because the horses were about to come out for a practice round, something that traditionally happens on the three evenings preceding the race.

Girls-singing  Sure enough, the square quickly filled up to full capacity, and the reserved seating on my evening was packed with club members from the different Contrade. (I merrily began to climb up to an empty seat, much to the horror of the locals, who made it quite clear that tradition banned interlopers! A closer look revealed that no women were in Crowd-2 that section of the stands—they had their own enclave over in the corner.) The police quickly closed off the square with barricades, and a cannon blast signaled that the horses had entered the track. Amid wild cheering, they loped around at an easy canter, simply to become familiar with the noise and the twists and turns. Still, it was an amazing experience to feel the thrum of excitement making the very stones come alive.

Horse-5 After the three laps, the horses were each led off, followed by a procession of men from their Contrade singing at the top of their lungs. On the actual Palio day, the race is preceded by the Corteo Storico, a colorful medieval pageant of flag twirlers, costumed processions and traditional cavalry charges.

I’m sorry I didn’t get to experience the main event, but my small taste of the Palio was still a special experience. The chance to  witness living history, with all its rich traditions and colorful Horse-3 pageantry was truly memorable.

So what about you? Is there an historic event, be it sporting, musical, religious . . . whatever, that you would love to attend? Please share!