Few horse races are as charged with emotion as the Siena Palio, a bareback horse race that has been held in the city’s Piazza del Campo since 1633, which takes place each year on July 2nd and August 16th.
Each horse represents one of the 17 contrade (districts) of the city, a source of ancient rivalry and pride, of which only 10 are chosen to participate in the Palio each year. The town gets into the spirit several days before, and as many as 2000 locals sit down to enjoy a rowdy open-air dinner in each contrada the night before the race.
The morning after sees tensions run high, as the horses and their jockeys receive a blessing before slowly processing through the crowded streets and filing into a flag-strung Piazza del Campo, where 50,000 spectators stand squashed in the centre of the piazza, line its walls or gaze down at the spectacle from surrounding windows. Those who didn’t make it in time to claim a spot instead throng in the streets outside or watch it on TV in a local bar, keeping an anxious ear open to the tone of the crowd.
A magnificent procession of 600 figures bearing the colours of each contrade and ancient Sienese guilds brings the already taut tension to a knife’s edge, and when the starting pistol fires, the piazza erupts into a roar, unleashing fierce competition between the jockeys. Shoving, pushing and whipping at random – both one’s own steed and whoever happens to be galloping past, be it horse or an unlucky fellow jockey – are part of the struggle to cover the three laps of the piazza to the finish line, and a brilliant but brief 90 seconds later it’s all over.
Not is all as it seems, however, as it’s the horse and not the jockey who is considered the winner, and so even a riderless horse can win the Palio. Ironically, or perhaps to rub defeat in the loser’s face, the losing contrada is not considered to be the one whose horse came last but rather the one that was pipped at the post and came in second place.
THE SIENA PALIO
Dates: July 2nd (7:30pm, with processions from 5:15pm) and August 16th (7pm, with processions from 4:45pm).
Cost: Standing room in the piazza is free but it fills quickly several hours beforehand.
www.ilpalio.org/palioenglish.htm (English) or www.comune.siena.it/La-Citta/Palio (Italian).