Listen to the thunder of the hoof beats, almost drowned by the screaming voices of the crowd. Watch the straining horses race around the sandy track, each jockey urging his mount frantically forward. The lead horse crosses the finish line, and the race is over. Some of the crowd roars in delight as their favourite wins the race. Others rail in disappointment and disgust as their champion trails ignobly to the end.
Later, there will be feasting and singing, dancing and drinking. Tomorrow, there’ll be more than a few sore heads and bitter grudges. In the 90 seconds that it took for the 10 horses to race around the track, however, a visitor to the city of Siena would been far closer witness to the spirit and heart of the people than at any other time.
A city of rivalries
The bareback horse race is the Il Palio, and the jockeys in the races are the representatives of the 17 contradas, or neighbourhoods that make up the city. Nominally, Il Palio is held to honour the Madonna, and is held annually on her two feast days the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. In reality however, the Palio is an all out contest between the contradas to see who’s best. There is strong pressure to win, for at stake is the contrada’s pride.
In many ways, the race embodies the Sienese people, for in this city, life and identity revolves around the contradas. Their origins were in the 13th century, when the neighbourhoods were delineated as military companies to help city defence. Over the years, the contradas evolved into enclaves, each with their own identity, colours, flags, emblems, and traditions.
Today, every Sienese claims allegiance to one of the contradas: Tortoise, Wave, She-Wolf, Goose, Shell, Porcupine, Dragon, Owl, Snail, Panther, Eagle, Caterpillar, Unicorn, Ram, Giraffe, Forest and Tower. There is fierce pride in belonging to a contrada. Children born in a particular contrada are baptised into it, and receive a scarf in the contrada colours. Streetlights are painted in the contrada colours. Families usually marry within contradas. Rivalries are strong between the contradas, and there are only three who have no official enemies to feud with.
Preparing for the Race
The start of the Il Palio takes place months before the race date, when the selection of the contradas to compete in the upcoming races is made by the Mayor. The site of the race is the Piazza del Campo, the main square of the city. Only 10 horses run in each race, as the plaza simply isn’t big enough for more. A few months before the race, 10 flags are hung outside the City Hall to indicate which lucky contrada will be competing. The selection is done by lottery, for which the entire city turns out.
On the third night before the actual day, the tratta are run, races in which the 10 best horses are selected. These races are watched by hawk-eyed men, intent on picking the best steed possible for their own contradas. Fortunately, there is little chance of manipulation: each contrada receives its mount through another lottery. If the horse is good, it is received with exclamations of delight; it the horse is not so good, it is greeted with silence. Once selected, the horse is led away to be inspected, cared for and closely guarded. In more uncivil times, both horse and jockey were targets of sabotage, and today they are still carefully protected until the day of the race.
Once the horse lottery is completed, the rivalry between the contradas kicks into high gear. The qualities of the horse allocated dictate strategy: try to win the race, or just prevent the enemy from winning? This is the time for planning and plotting, for delicate negotiations and quiet deals between the contradas, as friendly contradas agree to help each other, hostile contradas try to sabotage their rivals, and neutral contradas try to do one or the other. The jostling and brokering between the contradas during this period provide rich fodder for the public, who continually debate the over the strategy and sanity of the increasingly pressured organizers.
The jockeys run six trial races to get to know their mounts, and as the day of the race approaches, tempers become increasingly frayed and emotions run alarmingly high. During these tension-filled days, men from one contrada are careful not to enter another contrada, particularly a rival one. Things do happen sometimes though. There was one year when eight policemen landed in hospital after trying to break up a fight.
For the populace not directly participating in the race, they have the solace of feasting, as a grand dinner is traditionally held the eve and the night of the race. Depending on the size of the contrada, these dinners can be seat anywhere from 900 to 3500 people, who all eat, sing and drink lots of wine, with the favourite topic of conversation being the contrada’s chances in the race the following day.
Confusion and Delight on Race Day
The gaiety of the dinner on the eve of the race contrasts sharply with the tension of the populace on the actual day. Each spectator tries his best to secure a prime viewing spot. Some of the families whose homes face the piazza will rent out their rooms to eager viewers. A few lucky tourists manage to squeeze their way in but for the most part, the piazza is filled with Sienese waiting anxiously to see if their contrada will be victors at the end of the day.
The Sienese are proud of their heritage and it shows in the parades held before the actual race. The procession involves almost as much fierce rivalry as the race itself, and is a display of medieval costumes, colour and pageantry. Eventually however the display ends and the real event begins.
On race morning, the horses are brought into the churches and blessed. They then await the end of the parades, when they will take their places at the starting line. This is the time for last minute double-dealing and attacks. There are also the judges to contend with, who refuse to start the race until the horses are lined up to their satisfaction. Finally however, everything is ready. This is the one moment when the entire city of Siena shares a common goal, as everyone waits impatiently for their contrada to win. Then the white flag goes up and GO! the horses dash towards the finish line.
The race is surprisingly fast — in 90 seconds, it’s all over. During the race, rivals will try to unseat or otherwise prevent their competitors from winning, and sometimes a horse will cross the finish line without his jockey. Riderless or not however, the contrada represented by the winning horse will roar with hysterical delight. Everyone is dancing and weeping, and there are screams of ‘daccelo, daccelo!’ as the contrada demands Il Palio. There are thanksgiving prayers to the Madonna for the victory and wild celebrations will carry on throughout the rest of the week. Many of the celebrants will go around with pacifiers, and baby bottles filled with wine, for when a contrada wins, it is considered to be reborn — it is the baby, just as the contrada that hasn’t won in the longest time is consider the grandmother.
As for the rest of the contradas, well, the one that comes in second is particularly scornful of its jockey — second place is considered a great disgrace. There is much disgust over the incompetence of the rider; loud contemptuous snorts over the useless nag that was given to them; exclamations of wonder at the stupidity of the men who decided on a plainly useless strategy; in short there is much complaining and many bruised prides all around — which means that the next race will be even more interesting, as they compete once again for Il Palio, and the pride of being the winning contrada.