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Watching the Palio

LeocornoIf you were trying to create the perfect city, you might begin with Siena as a model. It is large enough to have distinct identities in its 17 contrade, or neighborhoods, but small enough to feel like a cohesive town. Twice each summer, on July 2 (in honor of La Madonna di Provenzano) and August 16 (in honor of Mary's Assumption, the day before), each contrada has a chance to participate in one of two festival horse races, known as Il Palio. It is probably impossible to create a tradition like the Palio; it has to evolve organically. It has been a phenomenon in Siena, in one form or another, since the Middle Ages. As it is run now, ten contrade compete in each Palio, consisting of the seven contrade that did not run in the previous race and three contrade chosen by lot. The Piazza del Campo, the heart of Siena, is transformed into a race track, with dirt packed down into a track around the edge, seating in stands around it, and a large space for standing observers in the middle of the Piazza.

The ten horses are chosen from a field of eligible race horses and assigned to the competing contrade by a random selection called the estrazione. Once the horses are assigned, each contrada guards the animal around the clock, keeping it safe in a special house. The jockeys ride the horses bareback, wielding a large wooden stick that can be used on one's own horse, another horse, or another jockey. The race runs around the Campo three times, in a clockwise direction, the opposite of most other race tracks. Just about everything else to do with the race is open to competitive jostling and bribery, and it can be a pretty dirty sport.

Il Palio di Provenzano, July 2, 2007

In this year's July Palio, one of the ten contrade in competition, Chiocciola (the Snail), saw its horse get injured in the opening prova, or trial race. The reason was that the official starter did not lower the starting rope fully, and the horse was tripped. Jockeys can be replaced, but if the horse is out of the race, that is the end for your contrada. Only nine horses raced on the big day. The starter, who is never a citizen of Siena and therefore impartial, resigned and got the hell out of town before things got ugly. The remaining prove went off more or less without a hitch. The seminar participants were invited to the cena della prova generale, the dinner on the evening of the main trial race, the night before the Palio, in the contrada of Onda (Wave). This was a sit-down dinner for about a thousand people, the residents of the neighborhood and their friends, seated at tables along the main street of the contrada.

OndaAlthough not officially members of Onda, of course, we experienced the Palio mostly from the Onda point of view. (My apartment is actually in the contrada of Leocorno, or Unicorn.) In the exciting estrazione, Onda had drawn an entirely unknown horse, and the reaction from the neighborhood was neutral at first. Over the course of the prove, however, the horse showed it could run fast and had the stamina to run all three laps. The Ondaioli quickly embraced their horse, whose name was Giaguaro (Jaguar), and soon the kids were wearing leopard-skin clothes and jaguar ears and tails and had their faces painted with jaguar whiskers. We were allowed to watch as Giaguaro was brought into the contrada chapel on the day of the Palio, to receive a blessing and have the chance to kiss the reliquary. Horses do not go into church that often, and if they happen to do their business on the floor, it is regarded as the best possible sign of victory.

A few hours before the race, we crammed ourselves into the central part of the Campo at the last possible minute and waited for the race to start. Eventually, the piazza is sealed off and no one can get in or out except for emergencies. There is an incredibly long parade of all of the contrade, including six neighborhoods that do not exist anymore, with pageantry and flag waving (YouTube video), as the horses are taken into the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico. In an exciting historical display, members of the a special unit of carabinieri dress up in 19th-century cavalry costumes and ride horses around the racetrack in a full-blown, sword-drawn cavalry charge. As one of our leaders put it, in the age before tank warfare, it is easy to see from this display why cavalry was so feared.

Cavalry charge of the Carabinieri, July 2, 2007

The jockeys, in colorful uniforms but no saddles, ride the horses to the starting rope. There are no gates to keep the horses in their positions, and no one knows that order they are supposed to be in for the start. The names are read out in the randomly determined order, and the starter drops the rope only when the last horse is in place. Until that happens, and it usually takes a long time, the jockeys and horses move around constantly. This is usually where alliances between contrade are revealed, as a neighborhood may accept a payment to help another one win.

In the July Palio, the first big turn once again claimed a victim, as the Drago (Dragon) horse took a bad fall. The jockey was run over by the Onda horse, but the Drago horse got back up and continued to run. At a later point, the Valdimontone horse also lost its rider. Giaguarro, Onda's horse, drew a good position and got off to a good start but was quickly outrun. The horse from Oca (Goose), named Fedora, took off and seemed to have an unassailable lead by the second lap. Incredibly, the horse from Nicchio (Shell), named Dostoievsky, put up an incredible show and caught up with Oca. In the last lap, right by where we were standing, the Valdimontone horse, which had stopped running and was moving randomly around the course, almost tripped up both Oca and Nicchio. They both made it by and sprinted to a photo finish.

The entire crowd tensely watched the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico, where the winning contrada's flag is displayed to indicate the winner. The Oca people believed that the palio (also the name of the banner that is the winner's prize) was theirs and went to the starting platform to claim it. Then the Nicchio flag appeared in the Palazzo window, and the Nicchio people went to take the palio. There was great confusion, and then another person in the Palazzo took down the Nicchio flag and put up the Oca flag instead. (See the race from the misty-eyed Oca perspective in this YouTube video.) It had never happened before in anyone's memory, but the Nicchio flag had been put up preemptively before the race had been officially called.

Oca sings bad things about Torre

Our friends in Onda were happy, if not nearly as happy if Giaguaro had won, because Oca is also an enemy of Onda's enemy contrada, Torre (Tower). Onda rejoiced to see Torre go from jubilation, when their enemy was in second place (the worst possible outcome in the Palio), to annoyance when Oca took the palio in victory. All week since the race, everyone in the Oca neighborhood has been on vacation and partying around the clock, carrying the Palio around the city and showing off their winning horse. (Fedora is a very handsome gray.) On the Sunday after the Palio (last night), they had a huge party in the Campo, preceded by an absurd parade, mostly to make fun of Torre. That was followed by the drawing for the August Palio. The seven contrade that did not run in the last August Palio already knew they were running, and the three others were chosen by lot. The whole Campo was filled again as the Sienese watched the Palazzo Pubblico to see which three flags would appear outside the windows. Adding to Oca's joy, Torre was not chosen to run.

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