I closed the last post by saying that the world of the Siena contradaioli (the members of the various contrade) is almost entirely focused on the two days a year on which there’s a horse race, which today is referred to as the Palio, or in Italian, “Il Palio.” Now it’s time to learn more about the Palio itself.
The grand prize
The term “Il Palio” actually refers to the piece of cloth that is the prize for winning the race. This silk cloth, or drape—drappellone—is tall and narrow, and there is a unique new palio made for every race; an artist is selected to design and create the Palio. While the designs vary, they always depict the madonna for whom the race is named. The July 2 race is the Palio of Provenzano, held in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano, and the August 16 race is the Palio of the Assumption, held in honor of the Virgin Mary’s assumption.
During the parade that precedes the race, the drappellone majestically enters the piazza, eventually making a temporary home on the judges’ stand. When the race is over, members of the winning contrada stream to this stand and climb up to claim Il Palio. Long into the night and the next day, the winning contrada will parade through town showing off its new Palio, which will eventually be displayed in the contrada’s museum.
The event called the Palio is really four days of events, a complex dance that weaves together horses, people and medieval rules of life. To kick it all off, the first event is the horse extraction—tratta—played out with all the pomp and seriousness of the race itself several days later. You might be wondering what the heck is a horse extraction?
The contrade of Siena do not have their own horses. There are horses that are bred specifically for this kind of race, and a field of around thirty horses is brought in, from which the final ten are selected. The people of Siena know their horseflesh, and they know which are the best horses.
Three days before the race, there’s a huge gathering in the Campo. The city hall—Palazzo Pubblico—has a signboard showing the ten competing contrade, and in front of that a small stage is erected. First comes the selection of the final ten horses that will compete in the race, chosen through a process involving veterinarians and then the captains of the ten contrade.
And then—drumroll, please—the matchmaking begins. The names of the contrade and the names of the horses are marked onto small balls, which are randomly drawn out in dramatic fashion one at a time, matching a horse with a contrada. If the contradaioli are happy with the horse they’ve received, there will be a big cheer. Either way, the horse is taken by the barbaresco, or handler, and the two of them lead a parade of contradaioli singing the contrada’s song—either boisterous or somewhat muted—as they exit the confines of the piazza. The horse is taken to its very own stable within the contrada, where it is guarded and watched over with loving care. This entire process happens ten times, once for each competing contrada.
Where it happens
The race itself, the trials leading up to the race, and some other events that are part of the Palio all take place in the Piazza del Campo, the beautiful main piazza of Siena. The red brick paving was completed in 1349, with radiating white lines dividing the Campo into nine sections, in recognition of The Nine—Noveschi—who ruled Siena in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Campo is surrounded by buildings from the 13th-16th centuries; while some have been remodeled, the architectural integrity and beauty remain.
The outer edge of the Campo is the site of the medieval parade and the horse race. In the days before the race, dirt is brought from storage. Ever superstitious, the Sienese keep and use the same dirt for every race; it’s then tamped down and steamrolled to a dense, even thickness. Over the next few days, the dirt is sprayed lightly with water to keep the surface tightly packed and relatively hard.
Who is involved
Once each contrada has its horse, then the real fun begins. If a contrada gets a good horse, then the capitano is more likely to spend the money to hire a good jockey, or fantino. Yes, you read that right, until four days before the Palio, a contrada knows neither who its horse will be nor who its jockey will be. In the days until the race, there are six trials in the Campo, a chance for the jockey to get to know his horse, and also a chance for a little extra showmanship for the crowd.
And this is the time when the members of the ten competing contrade start to show their colors. Contradaioli wear their scarves—fazzoletti—nearly non-stop, especially because they’re often participating as a group in the processions when the horse is walked from its stable to the Campo for the trials. Walking around town, you will only see fazzoletti being worn for the ten contrade who are racing, never for the other seven.
The contrada that is labelled the nonna, the grandmother, harbors special hopes. This is the contrada that has gone the longest without a victory (currently Eagle, Aquila), a position that no one wants to hold for long.
The intricate dynamics between the contrade also start to become more obvious. It can be equally important that your enemy does not win as it is that you do. Because of this, there is a lot of deal-making involved in, shall we say, encouraging jockeys to interfere with other horses or riders in order to hinder or help a particular contrada. The only actual rule of the race is that a jockey cannot grab the reins of another horse, although some other behaviors have resulted in punishment. One example is when the jockey for Valdimonte pulled the jockey for Nicchio from his horse during the Palio of July 2015.
Bear in mind that the jockeys, most of whom aren’t even from Siena, are mercenaries, hired for their toughness as much as their ability to ride a horse. Because of the mercenary aspect, contradaioli often don’t trust their own jockey in a given race, because they don’t know if he’s been paid more to lose than they paid him to win. These jockeys may act like playground bullies during the races, but they need to be able to take it, too, because sometimes unhappy contradaioli beat them up after the race.
The evening before the Palio, all the contrade have communal dinners for their members and guests. Streets and squares are filled with folding tables and chairs marked with the colors and mascots of the contrade. For those who are competing, these dinners are especially festive, with enthusiastic speeches, singing, and appearances by the contrada captain, the jockey and the horse, all met with rousing cheers. Contradaioli clearly feel the moment keenly, displaying a gamut of emotions from focused intensity to gleeful abandon.
In 2015, friends and I were welcomed by a small group of partying women in the Lupa contrada. They noticed us and welcomed us to their group. There was a lot of singing, which somehow got louder with the growing count of empty prosecco bottles. It was great fun to be part of their celebration!
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for!
Race day dawns with one more trial, and then the horse is taken back to the contrada for the blessing. Led by the barbaresco and followed by enthusiastic contradaioli, the horse is led to the contrada’s chapel to be blessed by the priest. The blessing is pretty consistent, always ending with something along the lines of “go and come back victorious.”
The center of the Campo begins to fill with people, and then under the late-afternoon sun, a truly wondrous event begins. It is the two-hour medieval parade—corteo storico—honoring the gloriously successful Republic of Siena (13th–16th centuries). Thus the costumes are designed and made in intricate detail to reflect costumes of that era, using no modern devices like zippers or velcro, and using authentic materials such as wool, velvet and leather. Men in tights. And full-metal armor. Did I mention that the weather is hot, really hot?
The pageant begins with the first peal of the bell atop the Torre del Mangia; that bell is rung steadily—by hand!— for the duration of the pageant. Flags wave, and the mounted and sword-wielding carabinieri enter the Campo, taking two turns around the track. The first lap is a walk, the second is a full-speed charge with swords pointing forward. It’s a little dose of adrenaline before the solemnity of the parade that follows. This pageant is carefully paced, it is a great honor to participate, and the weight of history is palpable. All of the contrade are included, along with representatives of other cities historically allied with Siena. There are knights and pages, drums and trumpets, chain mail and plate armor.
For the ten competing contrade, there are drummers and flag-wavers—alfieri— who compete for another prize: the masgalano, the award for style and visual artistry. Boys begin training at a young age to become alfieri, and the moves they practice are carefully choreographed. On my most recent visit, one of our hosts, Franco, gave me an impromptu demonstration of his own skills from his days as an alfieri. For the corteo storico, the flag competition ends with a dramatic toss of the flags high into the air.
The parade finishes with the arrival of the drappellone, on a large wooden cart pulled by an ancient breed of huge white cattle called chianina. The drappellone is hoisted up to the judges’ stand, the track is cleared, and the crowd becomes relatively quiet. A cannon boom signals that the horses are about to enter the Campo, and the air is suddenly electric with anticipation.
The race, or carriera, is about to begin. Well, it will begin sometime, but there could be a long wait. There is strategy and mystery here, too. First comes the announcement of the random placements of the horses for the start: “one” being the best position, inside the track, and “ten” being the worst. You can hear the moans of the contradaioli as the numbers grow larger and their name hasn’t been called. As the first nine contrade are called, each jockey positions his horse in the start area, between two ropes that run across the track. The tenth horse—the rincorsa—does not enter the starting area, but rather waits just outside, because …
The tenth position has a low chance of winning the race, but he has great power: this jockey determines when the race starts. He does this by running his horse toward the starting rope, which is then instantly dropped in time for all to cross. But, as with everything else about the Palio, first comes some tussling and maneuvering, as jockeys use various tactics to block or harass other horses and jockeys. For example, if the jockey in the tenth position notices that his enemy’s horse is facing backwards, he might decide that’s the perfect time to start the race. The decision often comes lightning-fast.
And here we are. After several days of events, the long pageant, the maneuverings at the start, and most of all, the build-up of a wide range of emotions, the race itself seems to be over in a flash. The race lasts about 75 seconds, three times around the course. It’s a ferocious bareback race, and jockeys frequently tumble off their mounts. A riderless horse can still win the Palio, because in the end, the horse is always more important than the jockey. When this happens, it’s called cavallo scosso, and it last happened in 2004.
There is a winner, and chaos erupts. The winning contradaioli stream onto the track, some to surround the horse and jockey, some to retrieve the drappellone. People are shrieking, they are hugging each other, and mostly they are both smiling and shedding tears. Members of losing contrade sometimes beat up their jockey for losing, or for somehow allowing their enemy to win. Fights break out between rival contrade.
The winning contrada escorts its horse and jockey to the Church of Provenza (July) or the Duomo (August) to sing the Te Deum, a prayer of thanks. The champions have won the race, and have won the drappellone, but most important, they have won bragging rights for a whole year. The contradaioli gleefully parade around town all night and through the next day, showing off their new Palio. Many of them walk with pacifiers in their mouths to signify their re-birth as the newest victor.
The Palio of Siena is a wonder-filled experience. This is a magnificent city, with a rich and fascinating history. The combined traditions of food, wine and camaraderie are alone enough to entice anyone. Add to that the mysterious ritual of the Palio, so complex for outsiders to grasp, and you have the makings of a visit filled with awe and wonder. Go, and return victorious!