Siena’s Palio is culminated in a 90 second horserace held twice a year in the Piazza del Campo that dates back to the 14th century. I have learnt from my first month living in Siena, however, that it means much more than a simple horse race to the population of Siena. Within minutes of arriving into Siena, my taxi driver informed me that I was very lucky to be in the city during what was not only deemed ‘The Palio’ but an ‘extraordinary Palio’. From then on the theme of the ‘extraordinary Palio’ persisted in almost every conversation I had with Italians and soon became impossible to ignore.
Siena is split into thirteen ‘contrade’, or districts, with each district having its own flag, song, church and horse to race in the Palio event. With the most anticipated event of Siena’s calendar just weeks away, I was fortunate enough to experience the historical rituals prior to the horse race from my bedroom window because I live opposite the church of Nicchio’s, my district’s, church. Constant parades, singing, drum processions and flag throwing filled the streets for weeks prior to the main event. It became clear that the event was an outlet to demonstrate civic pride and created an atmosphere of anticipation as the countdown to the iconic horse race commenced.
With less than two weeks until the horse race, ten districts out of the thirteen districts were drawn to race. This in itself was a public and highly anticipated affair in the Piazza del Campo packed full of locals. As each chosen district was announced a celebratory chant started from a different corner of the piazza, whilst simultaneously causing several fistfights between rival districts. It became clear that the Palio is vital part of the lives of the members of the districts, as displays of joy and anger filled the Piazza.
As I walked home from my lecture the following evening, my street was filled with long tables and chairs for the celebratory ‘Contrada Dinner’. The selected districts communally ate, drank and sang together in the days leading up to the event. Every member of the district, from children to adults, all sported their district’s flag around their shoulders as a signal of their identity. The horse race was clearly used to unite the community of the individual districts, whilst also dividing the city as whole in the run up to the main event.
With three days to go, my walk to lectures became increasingly more difficult as crowds of people dressed in medieval outfits coupled with horses dominated the streets of Siena. The horses and their respective jockeys were parading the streets before one of the few trial runs on the piazza before the main event. It was incredible to witness the horses charging around the square with the local people judging the horses’ performance as they ride past. The sheer amount of noise from the galloping horses and the cheers of support from the local people created a truly unique atmosphere.
When race day finally arrived, my flat was full of my flat mates’ friends and family members who travelled to witness the famous event. There seemed to be only one topic of conversation – which district will win. Talks of corruption and districts making pacts between other districts came into play in this discussion. In fact, even the police could not intervene in the 90 seconds of pure anarchy in the piazza. There is only one rule; the jockeys cannot touch the reins of another jockey. Pushing a jockey off the horse, whipping another jockey, making deals at the start line - anything goes.
With little under five hours until the race commenced, it was time to stand in the blazing heat in the piazza to get a good spot. Intermittent loud bangs signified the countdown, while impeccably dressed politically important members of the districts watched from the balconies. Medieval-style parades flooded the square, with multi-coloured flags lighting up the piazza. We were positioned near the finishing line, with a good view of the panoramic square. Finally, the competing horses got into position at the starting line. The buzz of the crowds was electric.
After much stalling and last minute deals between the jockeys, the ten bare backed horses and their experienced riders shot off the starting line. The crowds went wild as they all tried to catch a glimpse of their horse. The first lap was breath-taking as the ten horses filled the track at full speed, accompanied by the raucous shouts of the local people. Lap two. On the second bend of the track, a jockey crashed into the wall and fell. The horses continued. Another jockey fell and another. Within fifteen seconds all ten horses went from having riders to two. Chaos as a crash on the second bend caused a pile up. The horses continued at full speed. A horse with no rider crossed the finishing line first. Celebration commenced, as the horse without a rider won for the ‘Tartuca’ district. All the seemingly obvious questions – ‘what happened to the jockeys?’ ‘Are the horses that were in the crash okay?’ did not seem to matter. The ‘extraordinary Palio’ finally had a winner, who could celebrate their luck into the small hours of the morning.
The evening of the event consisted of partying in the streets for ‘Tartuca’ or crying in the streets for the other districts. However, the event that brought the city together began to divide the city once more as news arose that one of the horses was fatally injured during the event, and a jockey was seriously injured. One of my teachers justified the brutality by saying and ‘the Palio will never stop’ and ‘it is tradition’, whilst another saying ‘when a horse dies part of herself dies with it’. I find it hard to come to a clear opinion on whether the notion of tradition justifies the brutality of the event, with an average of one horse dying each year as a consequence the Palio. It is certain, however, that the Palio and all the historical and cultural significance that comes with it, is embedded into the lives of the people of Siena to the extent that the brutality is often brushed over. I do not suspect the end to this distinct horse race is nigh…