“Molti corrono al palio, ma uno ‘e quello che’l prende.” (“Many race for the palio, but just one takes it.”) — Dante AlighieriFew events combine the sacred and profane to such dramatic effect as the Corsa di Palio festival in Siena, Italy. In a horserace dedicated to the Virgin Mary, jockeys (fantini) riding bareback use a whip (nerbo) made from a calf's phallus to whack their opponents into submission and their horses to victory. The Italians of Tuscany call a nail without a head a “chiodo Sanese”, or “Siense nail” for a reason: people from Siena have a reputation for losing their heads.
The Palio resembles a medieval heraldic ritual encased in amber that melts into life to parade through Siena's winding, cobblestone streets twice every summer on July 2 and August 16. Dating from at least the 13th century, thousands gather from all over the world to watch ten horses race for ninety seconds around the city's main square.
Siena is located about 2 hours from Florence in the center of Tuscany. The city is carved into 17 competing neighbourhoods known as contrade, forming the basis for the rivalries that infuse the entire event. Every contrada has its own colors and totemic symbol, usually an animal like a dolphin (Onda) or goose (Oca). Loyalties run very deep and a person must be born or marry into a contrada to claim membership -- a change of address just won't do it.
A few years ago, I hopped on a train bound for the festival and was soon cutting through summer fields of droopy sunflowers and beautiful Tuscan vistas on my way to Siena, a town like Rome, built on seven hills. As I entered the city gates, it felt as though some magical threshold between the pastoral countryside and an enchanted medieval pageant had been crossed -- colorful flags rippled in the gentle breeze and banners fluttered from open windows.
The races take place in Siena's Piazza Del Campo, a large shell-shaped square with the 14th century Mangia Tower soaring 300 feet above. As I passed through one of the arches that open onto the square, the clear blue sky unfurled before me. The Sienese have a saying, "la terra in Piazza," which literally means "dirt in the main square" and refers to a party or celebration. As I walked over the spongy, amber soil the air was thick with chatter and the pungent spices wafting out from the surrounding cafes. Anticipation for the next day's final was tangible.
Apart from the official races, five trials also take place in the days before the finals. These dress rehearsals give the jockeys a chance to practice with their horses and negotiate deals with the other riders. In a practice dating back centuries, the jockeys are drafted from outside of Siena to prevent messy tangles of crossed loyalties from influencing their resolve to win. As an Italian proverb goes "money is the shit of the devil" and as in life, it remains a very real distraction in the festival. Some jockeys have been known to throw a race for a lucrative sum. As a result, each contrada fiercely guards their jockey so they are said to not even be able to even dream in peace. The leaders of each contrade keep a sharp eye out, even using binoculars to try and lip-read what may be transpiring during the trials.
On the day of the race I woke up early and began looking for a contrada to call my own. The streets were quiet, but I soon noticed a group of people spilling out into the street from a small pub. A couple of young guys invited me to sit down and we introduced ourselves with giddy attempts at English and Italian. Everyone seemed to be wearing some sign of the Onda (wave) contrada. Men brandished tattoos of their totemic dolphin and women wore scarves or skirts regaled in blue and white. A large bottle of Moretti beer was set up for me and someone wrapped an Onda scarf around my neck -- I had found my contrada.
I soon learned that the Onda had not won a Palio since 1995 and everyone was thirsty for a win. Soon we began to make our way towards the neighborhood chapel where ritual blessings of the horse and jockey were soon to be made. One of the men ushered me through the crowd and up a small flight of stairs past a dolphin fountain. He spoke of good luck signs, one being if the horse shat inside the church. "Look for it," he said, "it's a good omen."
Amid hushes and sighs a horse draped in an ornately designed blue and white cloth was led to the center of the chapel. The jockey stood to its left decked out in his racing uniform. The priest gave a short blessing and sprinkled both with holy water as the crowd erupted into a cheer. I took a whiff and looked to the floor, but couldn't see any sign of the good luck brown.
We spilled out into the street and returned to the pub for more drinks and songs. At about 4 it was time for the beginning ceremony. I said my "ciaos" and made my way through the few blocks to the Campo. I had paid US$250 for my seat, which wasn't too bad considering some go for as high as $800. There are free seats called the "dogs' area" located in the center of the Campo, but it provides very limited views.
Once seated, I had a perfect view of the parade where the official delegations from each contrada entered to shouts and cheers. Everyone seemed to have lost their heads, and the crowd was a sea of frenzied bliss. At twilight, the horses and the jockeys gathered before the rope stretching across the track. They lined up again and again for what seemed like an eternity of false starts. It felt like we were playing a part in a Pirandello play -- a crowd in search of a spectacle. My fellow audience members assured me that this was absolutely normal and sometimes it was known to go on for longer.
Then suddenly the rope dropped and the group lunged forward. They crowd lurched and we all shouted together; the Palio had begun! As the horses shot around the dangerous St. Martino and Casato curves one of the jockeys almost dropped from his horse; another could be seen throttling an opponent with his whip. After 90 seconds it was all over and the crowd flooded onto the track. The Palio had a winner -- the blue and yellow of the Tartuca (tortoise) contrada.
After sunset, the Tartuca team marched around the Campo with their prize banner. Some sucked on pacifiers to symbolize rebirth for winning. For this night everyone became a "Tartuchini," or member of the Tortoise contrada, just to partake in the rare feeling of a victorious Palio celebration.
That night no one got much sleep and the festivities continued until dawn. The next morning, I walked through the Campo one last time. The dirt was being removed with shovels, trucks and high-powered water jets and all the magic of the previous days seemed to be draining away. I climbed up the Mangia Tower and took in the sun drenched view of Siena and the surrounding countryside. As long as the Sienese continue to throw the terra in the piazza, there will always be more celebrations to come.