The Pleasures of the Palio

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

(See also: Austin Kelley’s article in Men’s Vogue)

Late summer in Italy. Whether you’ve been there during the dog days or not, you probably have a pretty good idea of what it’s all about. In the big cities, retail stores, museums and other businesses open – if they open at all – for, say, two hours in the morning followed by another narrow two-hour window in the afternoon. A tough target. Ringing phones at the furniture factories go unanswered, while interior designers in New York curse on the other end of the line. Even in the countryside Italians flee to beaches, lakes, or other havens of breeze and quiet. Each year my relatives make the trek from their Eastern Sicilian home in Furla to their tiny summer villa approximately 5 miles outside of town.

But if you go to Siena, you will find that many have stayed put. The Sienese have to schedule their family getaways around a traditional blood-feud-cum-horserace known as “Il Palio”. To say that the Palio is a horserace, though, would be like saying the Last Supper was dinner with friends. Il Palio di Siena is a frantic, short-track, bareback free-for-all around the city’s main piazza in honor of the Virgin Mary. The seventeen Sienese neighborhoods – or contrade – compete in the event. (Read more about the contrade in part two.) For days up until the race the members of the cutely-named contrade parade around town in period garb, talk trash (“The Snail is a cuckold! Long live the Giraffe!”), worry, forge alliances, conspire, feast, then parade some more. The whole spectacle is marked by pomp, violence, and randomness. It’s everything you could want in a Medieval sporting event.

The final event resembles nothing that you would witness at Saratoga Springs. The Palio, rather, reduces horseracing down to its deranged core. The jockeys ( fantini ) must ride bareback. They are permitted, if not encouraged, to use whips ( nerbi ) made of stretched and dried calf phallus (air cured, perhaps?) both to spur their own horses on and thwack opponents. Chaos reigns right from the start. There are no gates, and although the cavalli are assigned positions, this quickly devolves into a mosh pit (I have no basis for this, but this may be the origin of the term “jockey for position”). What’s more, due to the slender track, which can only fit nine, the tenth jockey and his steed must set up behind the field outside a rope. To offset this poor positioning, the pair is given a running start; a sort of reverse pole position. Then a firecracker blasts, and they’re off (Watch videos of the Palio at the bottom of this page).

The Palio takes place, as it has in the same form since the 1650s, in the Piazza del Campo, the sloping, shell-shaped main square of the city. This course makes for a dangerous race, as the row of mattresses placed against the walls at the dicey San Martino corner would attest. Three turns about the Campo and it’s all over (Start to finish the race lasts only about 75-90 seconds). The whole thing makes the brutish world of short track speed skating seem to be an organized, civilized affair. With all the whipping, tugging and elbowing, in fact, it is not uncommon for a jockey to be tossed. No worries though, as this does not disqualify a horse. Sometimes a horse-sans-jockey gallops on to victory.

Some races are particularly bloody. The 1994 Palio Dell’Assunto was declared a “palio of dread” when a horse was killed. It had an ominous start with the Nicchio, Valdimontone and Leocorno – three of the contrade – violently colliding and crashing out (Horses flying into the stands injured some spectators). On the final lap, the Bruco jockey took a turn too sharply, and his horse Amoroso struck its head into a flag pole and broke its neck.

The Palio occurs twice each year, precisely on July 2 (Palio di Provenzano – in honor of both the feast of the Visitation and a local festival celebrating the apparition of the Virgin) and August 16 (Palio Dell’Assunto – marking the feast of the Assumption). As you would expect, the level of pageantry borders on the liturgical. The contrade have their feasts and parades for days. Then on race day the horses and jockeys are blessed in their neighborhood churches (A horse shitting in the church is good luck). There is a grand procession that includes flag wavers, folks in old clothes, some military stuff, and something of a passion play about Siena’s past glories and defeats.

At the heart of the competition, there is a stunning element of randomness. First off, because there are only ten places for seventeen contrade, they must draw straws for a spot in the race. One would expect that the competing wards breed or buy their own horses and groom their own jockeys. Not so. Private owners offer their steeds and a committee picks out the ten for the race. Then, only 3 days before the big event, another lottery assigns the horses to the contrade. This means the jockey has only a few days to practice with the horse, and it leaves precious little time for strategizing and conniving, which is important. For example, if you are the Snail (Chiocciola) and you’ve drawn a nag, instead of trying to win, your interests may be better served by helping your friend, the Caterpillar (Bruco), or sabotaging your lifelong enemy, the Turtle (Tortuca).

There is something else you need to know: the second place contrada is the loser of the race. I’m not quite sure what this means, but I imagine that the runners up must make a walk of shame through the town, as did Marcelo Mastroianni in Divorzio all’Italiano, to the chants of “vergogna!”

All of this – the mercenary jockeys, drawing of straws, secret pacts, calf phallus whips, jockey-less horses – pulls inexorably toward a single phenomenon, something that is the ultimate testament to the vitality and relevance of the Palio: cheating. Or perhaps more precisely, suspecting others of cheating (Italy’s national pastime). The contrade do not trust each other, and they, as a group, do not trust the jockeys. The jockeys are mercenaries. They have no allegiance to any one contrada (Quite a few are not even from Siena). Many have raced for more than one contrade (Trecciolino, the famous jockey whose nickname means “ponytail,” has won ten Palios under six different flags).

For centuries the city stewed in suspicions that there was a secret society of jockeys that decided who would win and placed their wagers accordingly. Even today, from the moment that the horses are assigned, the contrade keep a dubious eye on their jockeys until they mount their horses on race day. It is said that they are not permitted to depart from neighborhood soil. Lip readers are hired to ensure that the jockeys are conniving on behalf of their clients rather than themselves.

Remunerations abound. Contrade pay off other contrade and jockeys. Jockeys pay officials (14 time winner Aceto [Vinegar] wrote a tell-all book in the early 90’s in which he admitted to paying off a starter). In fact the word fantino has come to mean “crooked” in the local dialect. It is also not beyond the pale to drug horses, or kidnap a jockey before the race.

While in office, former Siena mayor Pierluigi Piccini brilliantly diffused allegations that the Palio was corrupt by admitting everything. “The Palio has two components: the first is fate and fortune, which you’re powerless against, and the second comes from trickery and skill, which counter-balance fate,” Mr. Piccini said, and added that rigging the Palio by paying off certain players was legitimate according to the race’s unwritten rules. “We think of Greek myths and scenes from antiquity, which have nothing to do with corruption.”

But corruption or no, the Sienese love the Palio. At the end of each June the city transforms the square by erecting bleachers and laying down the earth, also known as the terra in piazza. For the race, spectators pack the bleachers and cram the “infield.” The well-heeled peer down from the loggias and balconies of the residences that enclose the improvised racetrack. (Landlords include provisions in the leases of the properties that overlook the Campo that require tenants to make themselves scarce for the big race.) With this spectacle transfixing the city, the glory and shame of its inhabitants hanging in the balance, there is no place the Sienese would rather be. The Amalfi Coast can wait.

For the poetic waxings of Federico Fellini, Umberto Eco, and others on the Palio, click here.

Read about the contrade in part two.

Oh. My. God. What a gorgeous illustration!

— Em    Sep 8, 07:02 PM    #


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