Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

The Palio of Siena

On July 2, 2007 we experienced the Palio! This exuberant pageant, centuries ancient and pitting the 17 Contrade of Siena against each other in a 90 second dash of a horse race in the Piazza del Campo, cannot be caught in a few paragraphs. For us, being in Siena for this event felt dream-like, since we’ve wanted to go for many years and one of Keith’s graduate school advisors had written a book on the topic decades back.

The Palio is really just a culmination of a full year’s worth of events among Contradioli, members of the district guilds of the town. There are street dinners and other festive events after the race each year, but before long the Contrade begin planning for next year. Costumes might be redesigned, strategies for the race planned, jockeys one might hire discussed. Fund-raising meals, sales and auctions are held. In April, young drummers and flag teams begin training and the echoing of drums is heard throughout Siena’s narrow cobbled streets. In May a ceremonial lottery determines which Contrade will take part, for the circuit can only accommodate ten riders and jockeys — seven won’t run. Streets bedecked with elaborately painted lights and guild flags become the norm in June, for the race is now just weeks away.

Finally, in the last few days of on June, Siena is given over. Many central streets are blocked, the huge Chianina white oxen to tow the ceremonial cart bearing the Palio banner are stabled right off the main square, race horses are sequestered lest some treachery befall them, and trial runs are staged in the Piazza. The square itself is transformed, into a race course set off by stout wooden rails, lined with packed sand, surrounded by steeply tiered bleachers. The glitterati of Siena will look down on the spectacle from the balconies of the elaborate palazzi that surround Campo, each balcony now featuring hanging banners of various colors.

Luckily, our apartment was only a five minute walk from Campo, so we could make our way to the plaza around 2pm and still hope to find standing room. We knew that once inside the inner ring we would not be able to leave until the race was over around 8pm, so we took water and snacks, reading material, our hiking binoculars, and some picnic cloths to sit on. Time passed. Families from Belgium, South Africa and France were near us, as were many Italians. Soon the crowds thickened to standing room only, a sea of people such as we’d never experienced. About 5pm the slow paced Palio procession entered the piazza and made a circuit – a two hour process. The various entities processing included town, regional and state dignitaries, representatives of all the medieval guilds, delegates from towns that had come to Siena’s aid in the battle of Montaperti (1260 A.D. — info at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Montaperti ), contrada no longer in existence, the seven that would not be racing, and finally the ten horses and riders competing today. Good thing we brought snacks!

After about ten efforts to line up the impatient horses and three false starts, the race began. Two horses fell on the first turn, the jockeys unhurt and the horses running with the pack. Two laps, then three, 90 seconds gone, and the winner was……well, the initial call was the Pantera (Panther) district, but after a minute or two of confusion, its flag was pulled back into the Palazzo Publico and out came the flag for Oca (Goose) — disappointed Pantera fans stopped running around the race course and were replaced by Ocaioli – members of the Goose district. It was a jubulent time, a great time to belong to the Oca Contrada. We made our way home, but the city of Siena was up almost all night with drums, bells ringing (even at 2:30 a.m.), celebrating in the streets, and with hundreds of Sienese donning Oca green and yellow scarves if they had any connection to this Contrada. For the next few days it seemed ever third person in Siena, down to infants being pushed in prams, wore the Oca scarf.

The Palio has been the subject of dozens of books and hundreds of other publications — a couple of these include Alan Dundes’ and Alessandro Falassi’s La Terra in Piazza: An Interpretation of the Palio of Siena (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1975) and Mauro Civai and Enrico Toti’s Palio: The Race of the Soul (Siena, Edizioni AL.SA.BA, 2002).


December 10, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Language and Culture, Siena | , , , | Leave a comment