Imagine being transported back to medieval times, surrounded by a procession of men in armor, white oxen pulling carts, and the frantic hoofbeats of horses racing around a town square, piloted by jockeys who ride bareback. That’s exactly what happens twice each summer — on July 2nd and August 16th — when the Palio, is run in the Tuscan town of Siena. My family and I were visiting Siena a couple of weeks ago, too early to see the race, but we had the chance to walk through the Piazza del Campo, where the race is held, and step back into history. It’s a fascinating city to walk through, enjoying the cobblestone streets and thinking about the thousands of feet that have been there before you. What struck me at the time was how small the piazza was to hold a race in, and how difficult it would be to make the turns around the track at speed.
The whole square is amazingly fit for such manifestations because its shape is that of a medieval Roman amphitheater closed at the base by the straight line of the Palazzo Pubblico. Besides being semi-circular this peculiar square is also funnel-shaped like the theaters of the imperial age. Eleven streets run into it. All around the track, perched up against the walls of the houses, seats are arranged one behind and above the other like bleachers. Windows, balconies and loggias, too, are made ready for the visitors; 33,000 seats in all, but they are far from sufficient and are always sold out long before the day of the performance. In the center of the square there is room for about 28,000 people to stand, but this is not enough either and the roofs, the turrets and the cornices of the old houses looking on to the square are also crowded. I can’t say that I would have felt comfortable being in a crowd of that size; Siena seemed crowded on the day that we visited, but nothing like what’s seen in the videos.
The Palio dates back to the 13th century, and most likely began as Roman military training. Originally, the races were initially run on buffalos, which were replaced by donkeys and now by horses. Siena’s Old City is divided into 17 contrade—or districts—each with its own political administration, club, church, symbols, property, and territory. The contrade consider themselves miniature republics and engage in diplomatic relations among themselves, contracting alliances and stoking rivalries. Each of the contrada participate in the Palio race — which serves as a culmination of the ongoing rivalries and a type of catharsis for the residents. Let’s just say, everyone is very vested in the outcome.
The word “palio” means banner in Italian — and that’s what the winning contrada takes home: The Palio prize is called “Drappellone” or large drape. It’s a large painted canvas, or banner, designed and created by different artists each year. The winning contrada displays their drappellone in their contrada museum and flaunts their win until the next race.
But the Palio is more than just a horse race. For the residents of Siena, it represents a rivalry that is as old as the town. People grow up fiercely loyal to their contrada, and they take the race very, very seriously. Emotions run high in the days running up to the race. Although their are 17 contrade, only 10 get to participate in each of the races. The first seven are those who did not get to run in the previous race, and three are selected by draw.
Considering the importance of the competition, it’s interesting that while each contrada hires its own jockey (who may or may not be a member of their district), the horses are assigned by draw, just four days before the race. The horses are selected from a pool of animals who have trained on a similar track, so are familiar with the style of the race. The horses are chosen in various phases, first by a veterinarian, to assess soundness, all the way to the last selection where the captains choose the ten best suited horses, basing their decision on the horses’ health and sturdiness. Current regulations are that the horses must be of mixed breeds, pure breeds are no longer allowed. The best Palio horses, are those that are not only fast, but quick out of the starting area, precise on the curves and have enough stamina to withstand the rigors of three fast laps around the hard packed tufo track. Temperament is also considered. Since the public is very close to the horses during the entire race, calmer horses who can handle the atmosphere without panicking, are preferred.
Once the horses are assigned, the new horse/rider combinations get to know each other in six trial runs, or heats. The piazza is prepared by putting clay turf down on the cobblestones and some of the tight turns are padded. But the race is still dangerous for both horses and riders. Riders are all bareback and there is no prohibition against knocking a rival jockey off his horse. In fact, jockeys beat each other with whips made from bull penises (!) as they attempt to dislodge their rivals. However, a riderless horse can (and sometimes does) win the race. While jockeys can be substituted before the race begins, the horse is the star of the race. Once a contrada is assigned their racer, it cannot be changed. Although the jockeys are paid to ride in the race, there is a lot of subterfuge and potential betrayals. Jockeys are bribed by competing contrada to throw the race, especially if another contrada believes it has been assigned a poor horse. There is no official betting on the Palio, but allegiances are often purchased and thousands of dollars change hands.
The lead up to the race includes a two-hour pageant, the Corteo Storico. More than 600 people in historical costume, many on horseback, began moving slowly around the piazza representing not just the 17 remaining contrada, but all 59 of the original districts. Looking at the photographs taken by a friend of mine during the July Palio, it’s amazing how incredibly medieval the participants appear — not just due to their costumes, but also because of their sharp features and and narrow faces.
The start of the race takes place in the “Mossa”, an area designated by two long pieces of thick rope. Nine of the horses stand behind the rope, in the order in which they were drawn. The tenth horse enters the area at a gallop and the race begins. For the start to be valid, the horses must be in their proper positions, which can take some time! The Palio is different from other horse races in that it involves more than just winning the race; it also involves preventing your rivals from winning. The loser is not the last horse, but the second horse to cross the finish line which is a position to be ridiculed. The Contrada that has the longest period without a win is derogatively called Nonna (Grandmother).
The race itself lasts about 90 seconds and consists of three laps around the Piazza (approximately 1070 meters). Some of the turns are very narrow and dangerous. To help reduce the chance of injuries (mostly to the horses) special barriers made of PVC, similar to those used in Formula One racing, are being placed around the most dangerous parts of the track. To prevent doping, horses are tested before the event. despite these precautions, 51 horses have died since 1975. Despite protests from animal rights activists, Palio support still runs high in Siena, with no plans to discontinue the race.
I have mixed feelings about a race like this one and hope the organizers find more ways to make it safer for the horses. I appreciate the history, but not the carnage. What do you think?