Twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th, after a three-hour parade in Renaissance costume has unfolded, jockeys representing ten of Siena’s seventeen factions challenge each other in the Piazza del Campo. They race for a handmade banner—a palio—and for the honor its possession confers. This is the Palio, Siena’s famous horserace, dating from the Middle Ages.
At each bi-annual showing, a hundred thousand bystanders from around the globe jam bleachers, balconies, rooftops, windows and the center of the shell-shaped piazza, cheering one faction or another.
Jockeys line their skittish horses between two ropes stretched across the track. When the rincorsa–the last horse–enters, the rope drops the racers tear away.
The jockeys careen around the Piazza perimeter three times at break-neck speed. Frequently horses crash into mattress-covered barriers at the right-hand curves of San Martino or the Casato.
Last July, one fallen horse had to be put down. In the August race, horses fell but weren’t fatally hurt. Often jockeys are treated for broken ribs if not worse. When the race is over, members of the winning faction seize their prize and carry it to the church of Santa Maria in Provenzano (July) or to the Duomo (August) for blessing.
This August 16th, the Palio horserace was handily won by the Giraffe contrada or faction. Homegrown and professional paparazzi alike had flocked to Siena in the days prior and were on hand to record the event. Indeed, so many cameras were visible, so many were taking pictures of the pageantry, the race and its aftermath, that photography—getting the great shot, freezing the Palio in a series of frames for analysis afterward—seemed to take precedence over participating in the event without a lens as intermediary.
Were most of these intense photographers snapping pictures for blogs? I wondered. Were they—like me—hoping their published pictures and videos would somehow go viral? On WordPress, YouTube, or, thanks to the Gregory Brothers, maybe someday on iTunes? I’ve witnessed several Palios, yet this was the first one where fancy cameras hung around every neck and wrist.
In the days since, I’ve kept tabs on the net. Videos have been uploaded. Photos too (including some beautiful stills by professionals such as Luciano Valentini). But as far as I can tell, so far no worldwide fame has yet been garnered by anyone shooting this year’s race.
Thus, Luigi Zampa’s 1957 movie, La Ragazza del Palio (translated as The Love Specialist), starring Vittorio Gassman, Franca Valeri and Diana Dors, by dint of its many years of showing, is still probably the most famous bit of film of the Sienese Palio to date with an uncounted number of “hits” (the 2004 documentary, Visioni di Palio, recounted by 16 well-known Italian writers, and shown several times on Raisat television, may be close behind).
La Ragazza del Palio airs on local tv stations in the days prior to the race. Although over fifty years old, it still adequately depicts the feverish atmosphere of Siena during Palio season, albeit minus the photo-op-hungry-camera-toting spectators—a recent development.
This August’s much photographed race was quickly over and visitors soon quit the piazza and then the town, posted their pictures and afterwards made plans to move on to consume the next global venue (Venice, the Regatta Storica?).
But for the Sienese themselves, the outcome of this race (as well as every other) lasts 365 days. While the Palio to the outsider may seem an ornately-staged tourist event, in reality, it is anything but a superficial show. Instead, the Palio is part of the modern fabric of life in Siena.
Thus, this August’s victors—the Giraffes—will stage parades and banquets over the upcoming year. They will beat dreams, wave flags, blow whistles, celebrating their own prowess while ridiculing the losers. Meanwhile, the defeated will plot and plan and bide their time until next year when the endless cycle begins again.
According to Falassi and Dundes, the authors of La Terra in Piazza, the definitive book on the Palio:
The taste of victory is so sweet that the winners are reluctant to stop savoring it…celebration lasts through the autumn and well into the winter… boosting the spirits of the winners through the more dreary seasons…. No Palio is ever forgotten and memories of past Palios and hopes and dreams for the future are never far from a Sienese mind.
The significance of the Palio is linked to the importance of the contrada to the Sienese. The word itself means quarter or neighborhood. Over the centuries, Siena has been divided into the present-day seventeen geographic territories. But in Siena a contrada is more than geography. Still today the contrada defines its members’ social identity. For example, the Aquila (Eagle) contrada boasts that it received an official “Nobil” (Noble) title by Charles V in 1536. Oca (Goose) celebrates in song and speech that its members are the people of Fontebranda, a very old public fountain. Istrice (Porcupine) vaunts its four-color flag; all others have only two or three colors in theirs.
When one’s contrada wins the Palio, it is more than just winning a race. It’s a victory for one’s special family. The more noise the winners make, the more pleasure they feel; loud proclamations heighten the shame, disappointment and pain of losers and enemies.
In fact, many contrade have traditional enemies with reasons for the ill will long forgotten. Torre “hates” Oca (Goose), Istrice (Porcupine) can’t stand Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Seashell) detests Montone (Ram) and so forth. Fistfights often break out between enemy factions. Bribery and attempts to fix the race abound. Indeed, so much fixing and tampering takes place that the effect is deemed to be null and therefore harmless. Nevertheless, jockeys are beaten if suspected of accepting bribes from rivals and losing the race deliberately. During Palio week, the emergency room at the local hospital sees its share of cuts, bruises and broken bones. Rivalry is so intense that families may break up (temporarily) if husband and wife are ‘enemies’.
Irreverence is part of the Palio too. Several times in history, Saints have been ‘punished’ when they have not helped a contrada win. In 1888, for example, members of the Snail faction threw a statue of St. Anthony down a well when they lost the race.
Thus, on the good side, as illustrated by the Palio, the Sienese are extremely close-knit and loyal—especially to their core group and to a particular territory. So much so, it is hard for an outsider to break in. They also like to celebrate, to have parties. They like to eat and drink and sing rowdy songs until late night hours. They are playful and fun.
On the down side: they lie, they cheat, they are proud, they exclude, they beat each other up. They are like willful children in need of a little discipline, but this, ironically, is part of their charm.
At the end of this August’s race, I snapped pictures of the overjoyed Giraffes who had flowed into the streets from the Piazza and were heading triumphantly toward the Duomo with the palio for their blessing. Inadvertently, I got in the way of a girl wearing the green-and-yellow Caterpillar scarf (Bruco). She was racing up the street, away from the Duomo, back toward her contrada.
She shoved me, shouting, “levati dai coglioni!” (“Get the fuck out of the way!”) Offended, I asked my husband who was born in Siena and is a member of the Porcupine contrada what he thought her problem was.
The Giraffes had just won, he explained. Her contrada’s enemy. A fight had broken out between a group of Giraffes and Caterpillars. She was, no doubt, heading homeward to join the cause and vent her disappointment at having to endure an entire year of Giraffian chortling. He told me if I’d been wearing the Giraffe’s red-and-white scarf I might have gotten a slap but since I was just a scarfless spectator with a camera all I got was a shove.
I shrugged, shouldered my camera and snapped her picture as she retreated. I still didn’t like it, but I thought I understood.
–by Natalia Sarkissian
This photo essay first appeared in Numéro Cinq Magazine in September, 2011.
15 Responses to “Siena’s Palio: A Medieval Horserace Turns Viral, Text and Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian”
- Kim Aubrey says:September 6, 2011 at 11:14 amThis is fascinating stuff, Natasha! Siena was my favourite town in Italy–so beautiful and cloistered, making my husband and I feel like we’d travelled back in time, but only in the evening after the tour buses cleared out. Your description of the Palio and the tradition of the contradas explains that sense of timelessness we felt. We weren’t there for the race, but ate dinner in the Piazza and tried to imagine it full of spectators and racing horses. Your photos have filled in the blanks in my imaginings. Thanks for this window into an intriguing and unsettling tradition!Reply
- ns says:September 6, 2011 at 11:21 amGlad you enjoyed the photos and descriptions, Kim. If you ever get a chance, come back for a Palio. The whole experience is stunning — in terms of the beauty and the adrenaline.Reply
- Kim Aubrey says:September 6, 2011 at 12:15 pmI’d love to be there for the Palio.Reply
- beebee says:September 6, 2011 at 12:45 pmme, too…just once.Reply
- ns says:September 6, 2011 at 1:28 pmI hope you both do, at least once!Reply
- Joby says:September 7, 2011 at 10:20 pmNatasha –All of the excitement and energy of your day at the palio was as vivid as the bright colors of the flags in your photos. What an interesting story about the up and down side of contrada culture – congratulations on a good piece about Italian life in a charming and ancient setting.Reply
- ns says:September 8, 2011 at 3:24 pmThanks Joby! Nice to see you here on Numéro Cinq!Reply
- Eileen says:September 7, 2011 at 10:59 pmNatasha, I love this one too. I am dimly remembering BP saying that you took her to the Palio. true?Reply
- ns says:September 8, 2011 at 3:25 pmYes, we did go together–I think we got a window spot that time.Reply
- Eileen says:September 7, 2011 at 11:01 pmand I just now realize that’s you in the Porcupine Contrada photo. very cute !Reply
- ns says:September 8, 2011 at 3:25 pmVery observant. A few years ago when the boys were small….Reply
- lq says:September 10, 2011 at 11:30 amNatasha – Once again we have the pleasure of a rich vicarious experience lived through one of your skillful photo essays. Thank you!Reply
- Natalia says:September 10, 2011 at 4:59 pmThanks for reading & commenting, Lynne.Reply
- FRANCES says:December 7, 2011 at 12:05 amFantastic! & very clever & techie, including a video…Keep ’em comin’Reply
- J.D. says:May 16, 2012 at 2:49 pmI enjoyed your piece, and the photos. Takes me right back to it. Two things jumped out at me, though–“hundred thousand bystanders”. If you include people watching it on TV back in their contrada clubhouses, and ex-pats and palio-philes around the world you might reach that number, but the campo doesn’t hold that capacity (I think we’d all be dead if it tried to!). Wembley arena holds 90,000, Yankee stadium holds about 55,000 maximum, just to give you an idea. Still, I think the spectators at the Palio can out-shout the Yankee fans any day of the week, and they’re a lot more fun. The second thing, which I actually find interesting, is that the Palio officials don’t determine when the rope at the mossa drops. They do decide if they need to line up again (as you may have noticed happened a couple times this past August). The Rincorsa decides when the rope drops–he’s the Fantino that stays back from the ropes. It’s advantageous to him in one way, that he can see if his main rivals are struggling with their horses, etc. and he can start when they’re at a disadvantage. The intricacies are amazing, aren’t they?
Sorry about the bad experience with the woman who shoved and cursed at you. Not exactly displaying la bella figura. They do get worked up over the results, though, don’t they?
I also appreciated the last photo with the mess left behind—I’m so impressed with how clean Siena is, and how quickly they can make it look like there wasn’t just a gathering of thousands. They seem to have it down to a science.
Keep up the great photos. Are you going this year? If so, I’ll enjoy it vicariously through your pics.Reply