The Days of the Palio of Siena

I never thought I would get choked up watching a horse being blessed. I stood in the back of a few hundred Dragon contrada members, watching as a priest sprinkled holy water on the horse. Then he ordered him to “Go and come back a winner!” Such is the tradition of the Palio of Siena.

The priest blesses the horse, Phatos de Ozieri, ending with the command, “Go and return a winner!” I don’t know how to explain it, but I got emotional watching this.

This was my first Palio, Siena’s storied horse race, and it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen.  As an added bonus, I saw a little bit of history made. The contrada, or district, that had gone the longest without a victory was Lupa (She-Wolf). They last won 27 years ago and were affectionately called la “nonna” (grandma) because of this distinction. Now the title goes to L’Aquila (Eagle) because Lupa won on Saturday. In a thriller. I’m lucky to have been here for it. It was fantastic!

I stood inside the Piazza del Campo with 35,000 or so other people to watch it.  I didn’t have that bad of a view of the race itself, which goes three times around the Piazza and lasts about 75 seconds. The two fantini (jockeys) nicknamed Tittia and Trecciolino, both with Palio victories on their resumes, lead for almost the whole race in first (Tittia) and second places. When the finish line was a mere seconds away, Lupa passed both of them on the inside and won. I have since learned that Tittia’s horse lost a shoe just before Lupa passed him. Oh what might have been. . .

Race day! I’m wearing the fazzoletto of the Nobile Contrada del Bruco (caterpillar). I sort of adopted them and was proud to represent.

Now imagine thousands of people in an explosion of unbridled joy.  Twenty-seven years they’ve waited.  As per tradition, the Lupa contingent then marched to the church of Santa Maria in Provenzano to give thanks to the Blessed Virgin. Then they hit the streets of Siena with their drums and flags, carrying the Palio, the banner of victory, into the Piazza. They were still at it around midnight and didn’t show any signs of calling it a night.

Part of the tradition of the Palio is to hold dinners in the contrade every night leading up to the race. The big dinner is held the night before, right after the fifth trial run in the Piazza.  I attended Bruco’s dinner along with new friends I made this week. Our Palio guide and Brucaiolo Dario Castagno secured the tickets and we joined about 1,800 other people in the contrada’s beautiful garden.  I stopped in the Piazza on my way home in the wee hours and the atmosphere reminded me of when I lived in New York. The hour didn’t matter and the place was bustling.

I had dinner on Thursday night in the Torre (Tower) contrada with group of friends from the Saena Iulia language school where I studied last year. The school’s director Mauro is  a member of Torre, a Torraiolo. Torre wasn’t in the race and so the dinner was a bit more subdued than in years they are in it. Still, there’s something about alfresco dining on the streets of a Medieval city in Tuscany with 700 others that makes for a lovely evening.

As I wrote last week, there are trial runs held in the Piazza, (six total) mostly to watch your horse and to get the horses acquainted with the course. On our way to the Friday evening trial, we stood near an entrance to the Piazza while every contrada marched by us, horse in tow, fantino in tow, singing and chanting. Tradition. In the attached videos, you’ll hear  fight songs, with the same melodies but different words to according to the contrada and what they’d like to say to their rivals.  They also sang their contrada’s own anthems.

Saturday, the day of the race, I went to the afore-mentioned horse blessing and then watched the Corteo Storico, the pre-Palio pageantry replete with drummers and, flag-tossers from every contrada. Also represented are the contrade that no longer exist. Then the Palio banner made its way around the Piazza.  When it passed, every contradaioli waved their fazzoletti.

Then I couldn’t believe what I heard: 35,000 people in the Piazza del Campo, plus about 1,000 more in the buildings and bleachers, all went silent for the announcement of the horse lineup.  All it took was a “Shhhhh” that spread. However, the lineup is important. It’s decided behind closed doors, according to tradition, by shaking upside down a silver container with colorful balls representing each contrada. How they fall determines the order of the horses.  So everyone needs to hear the position of their horse and, maybe more important, their rival’s post.

Oca (Goose) was called for the first position, next to the rail, and the groan of several hundred Torre contradaioli followed. Torre and Oca are rivals. I glanced over at Mauro. I knew to not ask any questions. Oca finished the race in second place.  You don’t brag about being second. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the Torraioli were pleased with the results. (Torre does have some bragging rights as they won last summer’s July 2 Palio.)

Two rivals, Istrice (Porcupine) and Lupa were right next to each other. The last position went to Bruco. This is not a good place to be. True, he gets to decide when the race begins. He hangs back until whenever he determines is the right time. We were lucky. The race went off after about 20 minutes of this tension-filled period. It’s taken more than an hour some years. Then the horses went flying by, through the tricky curves and straight-aways and Lupa made history.

Two days later, I stopped in the office of a Palio archivist, Sergio Profeti, to get his take on how this Palio compares with others, mostly because of the Lupa victory. He said you can’t compare one to another. “Each one is different. And they’re all special,” he said.

I agree with that assessment. I’ve learned a lot this week about the Palio, life in the contrade and the Senese. Their passion, not only for the Palio, but for maintaining these traditions is something I admire. Winning the Palio is everything. I think the one thing that I’m as passionate about . . . is Italy!



THE CORTEO STORICO (pre-Palio pageantry)


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