Please donate to help save PopMatters. We are moving to WordPress in January out of necessity and need your help.
Featured: Top of Home Page

Travelogue: The Palio

David Kootnikoff
All photos by David Kootnikoff

A centuries-old, 90-second horse race, a bottle of cheap vino, and days of rivalry, camaraderie, and party-heavy pagentry.

"Molti corrono al palio, ma uno 'e quello che'l prende." ("Many race for the palio, but just one takes it.") � Dante Alighieri, Il Convivio

Nowhere is the sacred and profane combined to such dramatic effect as at the Corsa di Palio festival in Siena, Italy. In a horserace dedicated to the Virgin Mary, jockeys (fantini) riding bareback use a whip (nerbo) made from the phallus of a calf to whack their opponents into submission and their horses to victory. The Italians of Tuscany call a nail without a head a "chiodo Sanese", or "Siense nail" for a reason: people from Siena have a reputation for being quite mad.

I had no intention of witnessing this event. I was having breakfast in my B&B in Florence when I overheard something about a horserace.

"There's nothing like it � they actually ride bareback . . . it only happens once or twice a year in Siena."

The couple got up and left their table. My interest sparked, I lunged for my guidebook and frantically looked up Siena. It read:

"A beautiful Tuscan town tucked away 90 minutes from Florence. Highlights include the July/August Palio horse races -- a must see."

I quickly gulped down my cappuccino and shot upstairs to ask the proprietor about this 'Palio'. She confirmed that was one of the best things Tuscany could offer and if I could, I should absolutely see it. I found the nearest phone and called a recommended, centrally located guesthouse in Siena. A man answered.

Man: " 'ello."
Me: Buon-giorno. Parli Inglese?
Man: Si
Me: Do you have a room available for the Palio?
Man: Are you sure to come?
Me: I think so . . .
Man: Where now are you?
Me: Florence.
Man: Call when you are at Siena.

Aha. Not much to go on, but for an optimist abroad it was enough. I checked out of my B&B and hopped on the next train to Siena. I was soon cutting through august fields of droopy sunflowers and beautiful Tuscan vistas on my way to Siena, a town, like Rome, built on seven hills with a palio festival and�horse blessings.

Upon arrival I called the guesthouse, again. The same man confirmed one available room, but I had to get there within the hour. I took a cab from the station -- a short five-minute drive through the city gates. The moment we entered the city it felt like some magical threshold between the pastoral countryside and an enchanted medieval pageant had been crossed. Everywhere, colours bedeveled the eye; flags rippled in the gentle breeze, banners fluttered from open windows, and people dressed in bright clothing wandered the narrow cobblestone streets.

I checked into my room, flung open the shutters and looked out upon a small piazza, only a few steps from the main Piazza Del Campo where the actual Palio race would take place the next day. I couldn't believe my luck. My spartan room had a firm bed, private bathroom, desk and closet. I placed my bottle of cheap vino on the worn desk and went back to the window.

While I watched the throngs of people moving under the mid-day sun, a loud cheer suddenly erupted. I looked and saw a beautiful chestnut coloured steed being led through the piazza by an elderly man in a cap. They crossed the piazza, away from the direction of the Campo, and disappeared.

The Palio is unlike any festival anywhere. Like some ancient heraldic ritual encased in amber, the Palio awakens into life every summer to parade through the streets of Siena. Dating from at least the 13th century, according to the book La Terra in Piazza (University of California Press, 1984), twice every summer 10 horses race for approximately 90 seconds, or three times around a city square converted especially for the race into a dirt track. Latin for 'banner', a 'palio' designed with an image of the Virgin Mary is the prize. But the race is only a detail compared to the surrounding events that make up the festival.

A relatively small city of 60,000, Siena is divided into 17 competing neighborhoods (contrades), which form the basis for the rivalries that infuse the entire event. Only 10, randomly drawn, however, are allowed to race in each Palio. Every contrada, like a hockey or football team, has its own colours and totemic symbol, usually an animal like a dolphin (Onda contrada) or goose (Oca contrada). Loyalties run deep and one must be born or marry into a contrada to claim membership.

My hotel was in the Oca contrada, and from every window and around every neck flew the white and green colours of its flag. A few blocks away everything changed into the colours of the bordering contrades: green and orange for Selva (Rhino) or red and black for Civetta (Owl). These colors helped me kept track of where I was in the city.

The official races are scheduled for 2 July and 16 August, but five unofficial trial races, or 'prova', occur during the three days leading up to it. These 'dress rehearsals' give the fantini a chance to practice with their horses and negotiate deals (partiti) with the other fantini. The Palio has strict regulations banning bribery, but arranging deals on behalf of certain deep-pocketed contradaioli (members of a contrada) is expected. The Sienese view these as negotiations, an attempt to influence destiny and a necessary part of life itself.

The fantini for each contrada are drafted from outside of Siena in a practice dating back centuries to prevent messy tangles of crossed loyalties from influencing their resolve to win. In this way, they resemble mercenaries hired to fulfill a duty. As an Italian proverb goes "money is the shit of the devil" and as in life, it remains a very real distraction in the Palio. Fantini have been known to throw a race for a lucrative sum.

To counter any such enticements, each contrada fiercely guards their fantino, so much so they are said to not even have the right to dream in peace. The only time they're unguarded is during the prova trials. As they run around the Campo, they can be seeing talking with each other. Chances are they're not just exchanging pleasantries, but negotiating pay-offs. Ultimately it's a mystery, but the capitani (leaders) of the contrade keep a sharp eye out, even using binoculars to try and lip-read what may be transpiring.

I caught a prova on TV as I was unpacking my bag and noticed some banter, but nothing much else. I had other pressing issues on my mind, like getting a ticket. I was told one would be difficult to find, so I decided to take a walk and check things out.

You don't actually need a reserved ticket to attend the race, but it provides some security (a seat number) and some very important comfort. Spectators without one are herded into the center of the Campo, known as the "area of the dogs", where a view of the race is extremely hard to get and a toilet impossible to find for the three plus hours that the square is overtaken with festivities.

I passed through an arch into the Campo and the clear blue sky unfurled before me. The Piazza Del Campo is a large shell-shaped town square with the 14th century Mangia tower soaring 300 feet above it. The Sienese have a saying, "La Terra in Piazza", which literally means "dirt in the town square". It refers to a party or celebration and denotes a great feeling. More specifically, it refers to the ritual of bringing dirt in from the surrounding countryside through the city gates to lay in the Campo for the race. As I walked over the amber soil I noticed how spongy and tightly packed it felt. The air, mixed with the dust and chatter from the crowd, was thick with the rich smells of the surrounding cafes and restaurants. The anticipation for the next day's race was tangible.

The information center at one corner of the Campo had tickets. I was assured that they had a very good seat at $250US and that it would go quickly. Everything in Siena threatens to disappear fast during the Palio. For this price, I was assured, I would have a view of the parade and be directly in front of the starting line. I pulled out my Visa and snapped up the ticket. Not too bad, when prices are known to go as high as $800US.

I sat down for a meal at a table on the Campo. My waiter was from the south in Calabria, where, as he said, "all the gangsters come from". He told me I had to watch a blessing the next day... a horse blessing. "Get up early," he said, "it's tradition". A horse blessing? In Siena, the sacred and profane take on all shapes. I filed it away.

That night no one in Siena got much sleep. The entire city was alive and kicking and all the shops were open. Two young men, arm and arm and smoking fat cigars, shouted for a picture as I passed by. In broken English they told me that they were childhood friends who returned to Siena every year to meet up for the Palio. They looked in their mid-30s, but fooled around and mugged for the camera like mischievous kids.

After some more carousing, I met two young Israeli women just out of high school who had been backpacking around Europe for the summer. They said they felt safer here in Siena than inside their own country. While we talked a guy in his mid-20s sat down and joined us. He was a law student from New York who had been in Manhattan on 9/11. Like many European festivals, the Palio attracts people from all over the world. But it's only recently that it's been struggling with the commercial demands that tourism brings.

I finally made it to my room around dawn and slept for a few hours. I woke up and headed away from the Campo. It was the day of the Palio and I needed to find a contrada to call my own.

The streets were quiet and I wandered around for a while looking for some sign of activity. I descended a hill on the south side of the Campo and found myself surrounded by the blue and white flags of the Onda (Wave) contrada. It was about 11am and I noticed a group of people spilling out into the street from a small pub.

As I got closer a couple of Italian guys invited me to sit down. We negotiated introductions through giddy attempts at English and Italian. Everyone was wearing some sign of the Onda. Men brandished tattoos on their shoulders and arms of their totemic dolphin; women wore scarves or skirts regaled in blue and white. One older man I called "Papa Contrada" sat off alone, coolly looking over the scene behind dark sunglasses. A large bottle of Moretti beer was set up for me and someone wrapped an Onda scarf around my neck. I had found my contrada.

As Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" played on the stereo, I learned that the Onda had not won a palio since 1995 and everyone was thirsty for a win. The contrada church, a few blocks up the hill, was where appeals to divine intervention would soon be made. Every contrada has its own small chapel and this pub was where everyone was gathering before the ritual blessing of the horse and jockey. I was advised to show respect, and then I could join the group inside to watch this sacred and profane event. Once again, I couldn't believe my luck.

At around 2:30pm, everyone began to make their way towards the church. I couldn't see any sign of the horse or jockey, yet. A man next to me took to being my guide and ushered me through the crowd and up a small flight of stairs. He spoke of good luck signs, one being if the horse shat inside the church. Look for it, I was told, it was a good omen if it happened.

Suddenly, amidst hushes and sighs, a horse draped in an ornately designed blue and white cloth was led to the center of the chapel. To its left stood the fantino decked out in his Onda racing uniform. The priest gave a short blessing and sprinkled both with holy water as the crowd erupted into a cheer. I looked to the floor, but unfortunately couldn't see any signs of good luck.

We all piled out into the street and returned to the pub for a few more songs and beer. At about 4pm, it was time to go to the Campo for the beginning parade. I said my "ciaos" and walked the few blocks to one of the entrances.

All the entrances had been closed off and I was told only one remained open, but I had better hurry before it, too, was closed for the parade. I made it inside Campo and was guided over to my seat in the bleachers. I had a perfect view of the parade where the 'comparsa' or official delegation from each contrada dressed in the magnificent costumes that give the Palio its unique luster would enter the Campo. As each comparsa enters, members called 'alfieri' do skillful flag tricks and somersaults while continuing for one lap around the Campo before exiting.

I was sitting between an American woman from Atlanta and a couple from Florence. I gazed across the tracks at the poor herd of people cordoned off behind barricades in the "area of the dogs". I was sure that most of the huge crowd there couldn't see much more than a brief flash of colour every few seconds.

Shouts and cheers greeted every new contrada as its colors were paraded around the Campo. The sustained festival atmosphere was unlike anything I'd experienced. I tried to compare it to something I knew, like the Stanley Cup Finals, but it was futile. The palio includes 10 competing teams, and they were gloriously presented one time. Everyone had lost their heads-the crowd was a sea of frenzied bliss.

At twilight, the horses and the fantino gathered before the canapo, or rope that is stretched across the track. For what seemed like an eternity of false starts the group lined up again and again. It felt like we were playing a part in a Pirandello play, like a crowd in search of a spectacle. My fellow spectators assured me that this was absolutely normal and sometimes it was known to go on for longer.

Then suddenly the rope dropped and the group lunged forward. The whole crowd moved and shouted together. The Palio had begun! As the 10 horses shot around the dangerous St. Martino and Casato curves, and as they executed the difficult hill towards the finish, one of the fanitino almost dropped from his horse. One could be seen throttling another with his nerbo. After 90 seconds it all ended. The Palio had a winner: the blue and yellow of Tartuca (tortoise).

Within moments the crowd flooded onto the track to begin one last night of revelry. A little while later, after sunset, the Tartuca contrada marched around the Campo displaying their prize: the banner bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. Some sucked on pacifiers to symbolize the feeling of rebirth of winning the Palio. They continued through the Campo and around the streets of Siena. For this one night everyone became a 'Tartuchini,' or member of the Tortoise contrada, just to partake in the rare feeling of a victorious Palio celebration.

The next morning, I walked over to the Campo one last time. The dirt was being removed with shovels, trucks and high-powered water jets. All the magic of the previous days seemed to be draining away. I climbed up the Mangia Tower and took in the sun drenched view of Siena and the surrounding countryside. For as long as the Sienese continue to lay the terra in the piazza, however, there would always be hope of more good times and horse blessings to come.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





© 1999-2020 PopMatters Media, Inc. All rights reserved. PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.

Collapse Expand Features

Collapse Expand Reviews

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.