I stood in awe of the crowd gathered in the Piazza del Campo in Siena Wednesday evening, June 30. Thousands sitting in the bleachers, standing in the center of the piazza, others on balconies or hunched at their windows in the buildings that line the piazza. I think come Saturday, as I head to the Piazza for the Palio, I will wish I knew someone in those buildings.
Wednesday was the first prova or trial of the horses and their jockeys set to run in Saturday’s Palio, Siena’s storied horse race that happens every July 2 and August 16. I’m a rookie here, an outsider, soaking it all in and trying to go with the flow. Once I accidentally floated along with a group of contrada members, contradaioli, as they sang their contrada song. I wasn’t trying to be a joiner. They didn’t seem to notice.
For the Senese, this isn’t some annual festival where they celebrate their history. As I’ve written here before, this is their livelihood. The Palio is simply one very big part of the life here. You are proud to represent your contrada, the neighborhood where you live or where you are from. During these days leading up to the race, the contradaioli sing, they chant, they proudly wear their fazzoletti, (scarf) around their necks and they study, analyze, opine and study some more the horse that is racing for their contrada. They watch the trials, which are televised, to get a sense of how they might do come race day.
“These are nervous days for us,” said Dario Castagno, an author, Palio expert and proud member of the Nobile Contrada of the Bruco (caterpillar). “I won’t even watch the race. At one point, I stop watching.”
Dario took 12 of we Palio rookies on a tour of the contrada’s headquarters this week. We started in the small chapel, where their horse be walked in and blessed by a priest a few hours before the race. We went through the rest of the headquarters, which has a spacious garden in back. Tables are set up for dinners held almost every night during the week of the Palio. Friday night is the big one, with more than 1,500 people there. We’ll be at the guests table.
Like the Tower contrada I visited last year, Bruco also displays the costumes for the participants in the pre-Palio pageantry, the corteo-storico, with flag-waving and drumming. These costumes are made of silk, velvet and damask. Dario showed us one drummer’s costume that weighed 30 pounds. Imagine. Also on display are banners of past victories (a banner is called a palio incidentally), flags and other artworks.
After the tour, we headed to the Piazza for the horse selection. This is a random drawing of contrada-and-horse which decides which horse will run for which contrada. After that, the riders, or fantini, reach out to the contrada or vice versa. Money is thrown in the mix, of course, but not just for a victory. If your contrada doesn’t get a good horse, or if you’re contrada isn’t even in the race, you don’t want your rival to win either. So the strategizing begins, or most likely, has been going on for awhile.
“What you call bribery we call strategy,” Dario said. “But it’s part of the game.”
Remember, it’s all about the horse. Not only is the horse blessed in the chapel, but the winning horse also makes an appearance at the victory dinner in the contrada a few months later. If the fantino is thrown from the horse during the race, the horse doesn’t stop. A riderless horse has won the Palio in the past. Dario recounted one year when a fantino hit the riderless horse’s rear with the whip, which sent him to victory, ahead of the fantino who was in first place. That fantino also happened to be the rival of the riderless horse. We won’t go into the repercussions of that performance.
But back to the horse. A few thousand people were in the Piazza for the selection, after which the horse caretaker leads the horse out of the Piazza, the contradaioli in tow.
Then Wednesday evening was the first prova. The fantini come out, line up at what will be the starting line and they do a run-through. The race is three times around. Some of the horses are jumpy. One in particular, Quadrivia, was so jumpy that he just kept on stepping backwards from the start. It took a good while before he even got close.
He did the same on Thursday night, to the point where the fantino, Giovanni Atzeni, had to hop off and lead him in to starting point. Friday morning when he went right in, everyone applauded. Right after the prova, the contradaioli join the fantino on the track, and then they all walk together, behind the horse, back to the contrada, deep in discussion about the performance.
Thursday I was right at the starting line with a big crowd. As I scanned the thousands in the Piazza, I asked a woman from Australia standing next to me if this is what Saturday will be like. “Oh no. It’s ten times more,” she said.