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Palio di Siena: Medieval Tradition Brought to Life

Guest post sent by Alban from Siena | Published : 01/Jul/2006 00:00

Botero Palio
The Palio of Siena is a twice yearly horse race in which neighborhoods compete for a painted banner (the one pictured here is by Botero, and was awarded in 2002) and get back to their Medieval roots. The race is anticipated, celebrated, or talked about during the remaining 363 days. Indeed, the rhythm of Siena can be felt with the cycle of feast days, special baptisms, and neighborhood gatherings and parades which are almost all Palio-related.

The city is divided into 17 “contrade” (neighborhoods) which have totem animals or symbols such as the Owl, Tower, Porcupine, Panther, the She-Wolf, Unicorn, Giraffe, Dragon, and Snail (I wouldn’t want to be the last come race time) etc. You are born into a contrada and you belong to that group forever, a tradition that shows how deeply rooted Sienese families are. Newborns are baptised at their respective contrada church not once but twice: first as a Cristian and second as a Snail (or a Turtle etc.). For them this is a very serious matter and I wouldn’t joke about it in front of a “senese”.

The festivities surrounding the Palio might look odd to an outsider. You might see people throwing toilet paper, sucking on pacifiers, dressed in funny outfits, and other bizarre activities. During Palio week the people of the neighborhoods eat together at long tables situated outside in their contrada’s territory. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is invited although they’re usually very welcoming, especially towards pretty foreign girls that hopefully don’t speak much Italian.

After three days of rehearsals where the riders show off their horses and selves to the townspeople the big day comes and everybody is exited and restless. In Piazza del Campo tourists try to stake out the best spots in the early morning. It’s really hard to stay in the square until 5 pm, when the festivities begin in the Piazza with an historical parade. At 18:30 the square will be closed completely and you will be able to escape only if you faint. Sometime when the start of the race is delayed until dark, the race must take place the following day. We have attended the Palio several times, and the most exciting points are always the cannon blast start and the “curve of San Martino” (translation: curve of doom) in the lower corner of the piazza. Sometimes the horse wins the race without a rider, since it’s the horse that counts.

Right after the race is over the people of the winning neighborhood go to the church of Provenzano (in July) or the Duomo (in August) to sing the thankful Te Deum. Following them might be their enemy contrada, and the ensuing brawls occasionally turn violent, so make sure you’re not in the way. After the church, the winners go to celebrate (meaning getting really, really drunk) and continue in this manner for a month. Big parties are in order, and everyone’s invited.

The unmentioned part of the race is that often the injured horses are killed after the race. There are also secret bets and billion dollar set-ups between riders and neighborhoods, for parading with the Palio is a matter of pride and respect, and playing fair and square is less important than winning the prize.