Il Palio di Siena is Italy's most famous historical horse race and costumed pageant

Siena's Palio Horse Race
Or How I Became a Caterpillar

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Every year on July 2 and August 16, the beautiful medieval city of Siena comes alive for one of the world's most breathtaking folk festivals, Il Palio. The event is known around the globe as a totally unique horse race, but it is much, much more. Preparations go on all year long in Siena, whose seventeen neighborhoods invest every spare Euro and every waking moment in their efforts to win. The evening before the race it is estimated that 25,000 people eat outside, as each contrada (neighborhood) stages a sumptuous banquet to "rehearse" their surefire victory celebration. In Italy Online's guests are invited to attend.

In the morning, each horse is led into the contrada church to be blessed. After this most solemn event, the city literally erupts, as excited citizens flock to the beautiful shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. 50,000 people file into the middle of the square, while a few thousand lucky souls take their reserved seats on bleachers and terraces in front of the 15th-century palazzi that line the perimeter. Now the pageant begins, and for the next three hours the enthralled spectators are transported back to the Middle Ages.

Later, the horses and jockeys arrive, each passionately hailed by the denizens of its contrada. Officially, the jockeys now attempt to line up their mounts behind the rope which marks the tenuous starting gate, but everyone knows they are really taking their time, making secret deals to crush their patrons' enemies. 120,000 eyes are glued to the jockeys' hands, lips, eyes and body movements. When at last the judge lowers his arm, they tear off around the track at breakneck speed, unaware of the screams of the crowd. No one cares if, in the pandemonium, a jockey is unhorsed. The first horse to cross the finish line will win, with or without a rider.

The backbone of Il Palio are Siena's 17 contrade, which we would liken to city wards or administrative districts. These well-defined neighborhoods were designated in the Middle Ages, basically to aid the many military companies hired to defend Siena's fiercely-earned independence from Florence and other nearby city states. Over the centuries, the contrada has lost its administrative function and become an area held together by its residents' common emotions and devotions. Its role has broadened, so that every important event - baptisms, deaths, marriages, church holidays, victories, even wine or food festivals - was celebrated by, and only by, the contrada. Even today it is not considered a good idea to marry out of the contrada, and if you do, it's probably wise to sleep at your parents' house the night before the race.

...the horses that tore around the Piazza... Naturally, this loyalty extended to the yearly horse race whose "official" motivation since the 11th century had been to give thanks to the Madonna. The horses that tore around the Piazza del Campo at breakneck speed, with or without jockeys on board, wore the colors and designs of the contrade: Tortoise, Wave, She-Wolf, Goose, Shell, Porcupine, Dragon, Owl, Snail, Panther, Eagle, Caterpillar, Unicorn, Ram, Giraffe, Forest and Tower.

The culminating moment of Il Palio, the actual horse race, is achingly brief: a minute and a half, give or take ten seconds. But so much has happened before the pack of frantic animals finally breaks loose from the ancient rope that marks the starting line!

The first time I attended the event, I rode the train up from Rome with my roommate Sheila, who was also from the USA. It was August; once we changed at Chiusi to the miniature cars that make the final leg of the trip, the heat inside our carriage was stifling. We were amazed to see how few people were on their way to Siena on this August 15th, 1975. So deserted was the train that we had time to befriend the conductor, a sweet young man named Mario who had clearly begun to work himself into a frenzy over the next day's event. Completely ignoring the official reason for his presence in our carriage, he sat down in the seat facing ours and began to tell us about his contrada, the Caterpillar.

Anyone familiar with Siena knows that Il Bruco is the smallest (geographically), largest (numerically) and least affluent contrada. Most of its residents are working class blokes, and it has none of the imposing banks, resplendent churches or opulent municipal buildings present almost everywhere else. It's also off the beaten track, tucked just inside the walls on the Chianti side of town where the Gothic church of San Francesco stands. When we first set foot in the neighborhood it hadn't won a Palio since 1956, one of the longest "dry spells" in Sienese history. It spoke volumes about the personalities of the brucaioli that they had turned this singular stretch of bad luck into a "record" to point to with a kind of perverse pride. They also made sure we knew their neighborhood is one of only three to have received the official designation of contrada nobile. Ironically, the honorary title of "noble" was bestowed in the late 14th century, in recognition of Bruco's leadership and heroic participation in a successful uprising against the local nobility.

The oldest Palio (1719)

By the time we learned this bit of history, Mario had appointed himself our tutor and guide. He introduced us to his friends, who offered us a cool drink at the local cafe and then whisked us off to the museo della contrada. There are seventeen of these "museums" in Siena, each crammed with mementoes, drawings, paintings, photographs, sacred art objects, locks of horse mane, military uniforms, tiny sets of jockey silks and, most importantly, every single banner (or palio) won by the contrada since they started handing them out. The oldest extent one, dated 1719, is on view at the museum of L'Aquila, The Eagle. Il Bruco has about as few as any, but it boasts a lovely fresco depicting the historic noble uprising.

When we stepped out of the elegant, well-maintained museum onto the narrow winding Via del Comune, the blazing sun had dipped behind the 15th-century apartment houses and the air was starting to cool off. We didn't know it, but the magical momento del Palio had begun. This was why, a few minutes later, as our affable hosts accompanied us on foot to our hotel, they suddenly stopped short, grabbed our tourist street map and showed us how to navigate the winding streets the rest of the way. They had no apologies for their apparent bad manners, but they did explain that they had reached the limits of Bruco territory and simply did not care to "leave home" again until the race. With that, they drew a big red X on our map and invited us to meet them there at 8 for dinner.

...50-foot long tables... I doubt I'll ever forget the excitement of that night. By the time Sheila and I strolled back to our rendezvous, the streets were bathed with soft golden light from hundreds of torches and lanterns. Groups of noisy Geese, Panthers and Tortoises flocked by on their way to what we soon discovered was dinner for thousands: each contrada had laid out rows and rows of 50-foot-long tables in its largest square, and local restauranteurs were serving up huge bowls of pasta, gigantic platters of meat and legendary sides of vegetables. Approximately 25,000 Sienese were eating in the streets that night - so close and yet so far away from each other.

In 1969, the Goose won this palio honoring the moon landing
In 1969, the Goose won this
palio honoring the moon landing

To our astonishment and delight, our brand new Bruco friends treated us like native Caterpillars, sat us down in the middle of a table and proceeded to shout history at us as we munched our fettuccine. It was a very special kind of history, the history of Il Palio. Everyone had a family anecdote, everyone had their own peculiar version of the facts, and with each ruby red pitcher of Chianti, the "discussion" got more "animated." Sheila and I were left behind by the local slang (the Sienese pride themselves on being the only Italians who don't have a real dialect), but we got the gist of it, and we learned more about the workings of Il Palio than we probably knew about the entire Roman Empire.

The first thing to understand about this race is that there is a very delicate equilibrium between the 17 contrade. They don't all hate each other. Bruco, for instance, has a historical alliance with Snail, Porcupine, Unicorn, Shell and Tower and, rather uniquely (another source of great pride), it has no official enemies. On race day, this patchwork quilt of friends and foes translates to last-minute deals whispered between jockeys as they wait for the canape, or starting rope, to fall.

Il Duce But I'm getting ahead of myself, because the real beginning of Il Palio comes months before the race, when each neighborhood carefully selects its delegates for the coming year. The most illustrious nominee is the Captain, who is actually responsible for managing the contrada's money (more about that later), strategies and welfare in the days leading up to the Palio. Then there's the barbaresco, who takes care of the horse once it's chosen. Other hotly contended nominations are for the comparsa, the pages and costumed characters who represent the neighborhood during the pre-race pageant. The two most important comparsa members are il paggio maggiore, who carries the contrada's official banner, and il duce, who parades in full body armor as he impersonates the military commanders of ancient days. For the next few months all these lucky people will spend every free minute planning, plotting, rehearsing and, in the case of the pages, practicing their flag-tossing skills or (ouch!) their drumming techniques.

Siena's Palio

April 26th marks the opening of parade season. Throughout the next four months, each contrada stages a colorful procession to celebrate its patron saint. This whirlwind of activity leads up to the day of the tratta when, in the presence of countless nervewracked Sienese citizens, the horses deemed "suitable" for this unique race are assigned by lot to each of the ten contrade participating in the race. Yes, you read correctly. Only ten horses run each race, because seventeen overwrought equines would be too much even for this larger-than-life event. As a result, the Captains retreat twice each year to decide which three lucky contrade get to run in both races. I probably don't need to explain the ramifications of the above friend/foe aspect during these meetings. Fans of Machiavelli will delight to the possibilities!

Once the barbareschi have led their charges off to the neighborhood to be "inspected," spoiled and evaluated by every single citizen, it is up to each Captain to decide, based on the relative worth of the allotted animal, whether the contrada's strategy should be to win or rather to make the enemy lose. This is all done by carefully moving the neighborhood's financial resources in one direction or another. Rich contrade like Giraffe, Snail or Tower may have as much as half a million dollars to throw around. Those like Bruco with no true enemies will gladly accept "donations" in exchange for sabotaging the enemies of their allies. From this moment on, rumors fly across every piazza and strada, so that when the horses finally do run that 90-second dash, true Sienese - the 50,000 standing in the square and the thousands more comfortably seated in bleachers and at every single window in the Piazza - are just as interested in the politics behind the race as in the race itself. Perhaps that is why they don't seem to mind that it always takes three or four attempts to line up the horses at the rope: they know the jockeys are using that "wasted" time to make last-minute offers of assistance and treachery. Lip-readers are in heavy demand on the day of Il Palio.

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Il Bruco's Paggio Maggiore
Il Bruco's Alfiere
After the tratta, all life in Siena is focused on the race. Six trial races are held so that the jockeys (race track professionals who receive astronomical sums from the contrade) can get to know their mounts. Locals say the fifth trial is the most dangerous day of all, because spectators can no longer control their emotions. This harrowing day is followed by a "dress rehearsal" dinner, where all the contrada members can practice the celebration they hope to repeat the following night. Sheila and I were amazed to discover the sumptuous banquet to which we had been invited was nothing more than a "rehearsal." We spent the evening listening to complicated analyses of equine withers, the going prices for bribes, the duplicity of jockeys and the way in which all of these elements would combine to end Il Bruco's dry spell the next day. We too were included in the mix as unexpected good luck charms.

It was long after midnight by the time our friends took us to the usual contrada state line. Before kissing us good night, they invited us to meet them at 2:30 p.m. the next day at the church of the Visitation of Mary. As we walked the rest of the way to our hotel we were invited to toast the good fortunes of both the Dragon and the Giraffe. We graciously accepted, but part of us felt bad. We knew the brucaioli would have called us "as unfaithful as jockeys."

The next day we slept late, and we had alot of trouble concentrating on the sights we diligently tried to see. We lingered a while in the Piazza, watching the workers spread the layer of golden dirt that would become the race track. But neither of us could wait for 2:30, so we arrived at the church a few minutes early and found a large crowd milling in front of the minuscule façade. We eagerly greeted our friends of the night before. They were polite, but strangely subdued, so it was a relief when Mario rushed up, grabbed us both by the elbow and pushed us into the church. It was barely bigger than a basketball court. The pews had been removed, and what seemed like hundreds of people were crushed into the nave, leaving only a narrow aisle down the middle into which Mario shoved Sheila and me. Now I realized why the people outside had been cool: we two perfect strangers had been allowed to take up the last precious inches of space, probably because of our powers as good luck omens.

...Vai e torna vincitore! We still had no idea why we were packed into the smallest church I had ever seen, but the mystery was revealed almost at once when we heard the sounds of hooves clip-clopping against the marble floors and looked up to see a magnificent bay strutting down the aisle. A resplendent priest had materialized at the altar and the crowd suddenly grew quiet. The horse snorted, the altar boys filled the air with clouds of incense, the prelate held a cross above the animal's head and intoned a few words in Latin, the onlookers recited a few verses, the priest said Vai e torna vincitore (Go and return a winner), and then it was over and we were pushed back out into the streets amid a feeling of mounting tension as harrowing as I've ever felt in my life. Everyone rushed across town, ignoring the contrada border line now in their hurry to get to their accustomed section in the middle of the Piazza, as close as possible to the finish line.

The roar of the crowd was unforgettable. Anxious faces were everywhere, except in the baby blue waters of the fountain (that would come later). Many of the thousands standing with us in the square wore scarves and hats with their contrada colors. Now and then a group of spectators would burst into a song you could tell was their neighborhood anthem. Friends would smile; foes would whistle and boo. At around 4:30 they sealed off the square and that was it: the only way you could get out of there before the race ended was on a stretcher (we saw three of them that day).

the War Chariot
There followed three hours of medieval pageantry. It included delegations of carts and floats from nearby towns, the Sienese academicians, the trade corporations, a "charge" by a legion of mounted carabinieri officers, the well-rehearsed pages and drummers of the contrade, first those participating and then those not involved this time around, followed by the city authorities, the noble families and, our favorite, the war chariot, drawn by two enormous doe-eyed white bulls and bearing the Palio, the banner to be awarded for that particular race. Sheila and I called it Il Palio, but everyone standing near us referred to it as il cencio, the rag: probably a superstitious attempt to be blasé.

...when the rope finally doeas fall... I'm sorry to tell you this, but it's a waste of words to describe what happens once the steeds and jockeys arrive on the scene. Utter pandemonium breaks loose. Fans scream, banners wave, whistles blare and cannons are fired as time after time the officials try to line the horses up in the correct order. You keep thinking the mossiere is about to raise his arm to signal the start, but then he nods imperceptibly, the air fills with tens of thousands of groans, and the horses all file out to begin again. You get so used to this rhythm that when the rope finally does fall, you are taken by surprise and have to refocus on the magnificent animals hurtling by at breakneck speed. You must look carefully, because they'll only be back this way once again.

Alas, Sheila and I did not bring il Bruco the miracle it had been hoping for. That bay which had so impressed me in the church turned out to be a brenna (nag) and the jockey? Well, anyone could tell that the jockey was the scum of the earth. Our friends were alternately crestfallen, infuriated, speechless and full of invective, and some of them got into shouting matches with the winners as they hopped over the fences to get to the Judges Stands in time to see the Palio being lowered to their Captain. In the wink of an eye they were gone, following their rag to the cathedral to thank God for their victory. We hung around and thought we'd never get the pitiful look off Mario's face, but at some point after darkness fell, his spirits did lift a bit. He took us by the arm and walked us back across the contrada line to enjoy yet another open-air banquet. When we first arrived the mood was gloomy, but by the time our new friends deposited us at our hotel, they were grinning and hopeful again, imploring us to come back the following year to see their certain victory. We embraced them and exchanged addresses, and as we climbed the stairs to our room Sheila and I decided perhaps their renewed faith was the miracle we had brought.

Since then I have met many Sienese from more illustrious and wealthy contrade, but I will remain a Caterpillar until the day I die. And if I'm lucky, I'll live long enough to see them win Il Palio.

Kristin Jarratt

Since this story was written a few years ago, the Caterpillar has fulfilled my greatest dream: with the help of a horse called Bella Speranza (Beautiful Hope), Bruco won the Palio in August, 1996. And then once the dry spell was broken, we seemed to have found our footing and we went on to win again in 2003.

In 2005 I returned to see the July Palio. We had been lucky enough to draw one of the best horses, Berio, the lean bay with whom we'd won in 2003. We were also able to secure the services of "Trecciolino," the jockey who had ridden Berio on that glorious day. The evening before the race, 2100 people attended the rehearsal banquet, held as always in a leafy walled garden. The event was unusually subdued, with very few songs and even fewer speeches. It was as if the whole contrada wanted to make sure no evil spirits saw us or heard us or in any way were able to jinx our portentous good fortune. To make matters even worse, our beloved duo had easily won the final rehearsal that afternoon – something no contrada really wants to do, because there is an unspoken feeling that it's nigh onto impossible to win two days in a row. We left the banquet early, still holding onto our dreams of glory.

The next day we got to Siena about 3 pm and parked in our favorite structure (which will have to remain a secret, I'm afraid!). No matter how you approach the inner center of this perfectly medieval city, the first part is straight uphill. As we climbed the deserted street, we could hear voices in the distance – they grew stronger and stronger until we walked under a soaring arch, thus breeching the inner walls and entering Palioland, where the streets had been converted into veritable rivers upon which seemed to float a horde of semi-hysterical contradaioli as well as foreigners, emergency health care workers, imported carabinieri, local policemen, and souvenir hawkers. Every five minutes or so a contrada delegation would float upstream, announced by rolling drums. Each delegation consisted of: the drummer himself, several brightly costumed pages brandishing banners with the contrada's colors and emblem, at least two flag throwers, a large workhorse draped in the same colors and mounted by a costumed rider and, bringing up the rear, anywhere from 50 to 150 female contradaiole who periodically stopped to sing their contrada's special female anthem. Over the next hour we saw most of the contrade that would be running today, which were Bruco (of course!), Onda, Torre, Chiocciola, Valdimontone, Civetta, Leocorno, Aquila, Lupo and Nicchio.

At about 5:30 we decided to make our way to our seats, and we wound up in the midst of a throng of a few thousand people inching forward from behind the Town Hall (up a steep hill, naturally) and into the Campo. When we finally made it to the top we peeled off, showed our tickets to a Carabiniere and were escorted to the Casato di Sotto, which is in the southeastern corner, the first part of the Campo to receive the shade. Before going upstairs we paused to gape at Berio, who happened to walk right past so close that we could have reached out and stroked his lovely muzzle.

The pageant began, right under our noses as our seats were at the very entrance to the Campo. Each contrada's pages, flag throwers, drummers, captain, dray horse and race horse assembled directly below our terrace and then stepped out onto the dirt track to the cheers of their protectors and the other onlookers. Flags were thrown directly in front of us. First out were the ten contrada racing today – with Bruco finally bringing up the rear. Unlike all the other horses who had pranced elegantly out into the sunlight behind their stable hand, Berio literally burst into the open, bucking and rearing and charging so fearsomely that he had to be dragged off and hidden inside in disgrace. A terrible omen!!!

The pageant continued for two more hours, during which entire time a steady stream of people were patiently filing into the Campo as a small squad of valiant men rang the huge bell on top of the tower far above our heads. By 7 pm, when it appeared that not even one more soul could fit inside the rails, we turned our eyes to the alley below our seats and watched while four exquisite white oxen were led out of a building and hitched up to the cart. Then they trod into the Campo, their milk-white flanks rippling gently as they pulled the Palio into everyone's sight. In honor of John Paul II, it depicts a Pope and the Virgin as well as a horse on a black and silver field. Any of the contrade would have been doubly honored to possess a Palio dedicated to one of the most beloved men of our times.

At this point the rails were closed and no one else was admitted to the Campo. By 7:45, the flag throwers had completed their final toss, the local street sweepers had tidied up the dirt track, anyone who felt sick in the infield had been loaded onto a stretcher and carried off – again right beneath our seats. It was now time to get those horses lined up, so they danced out of Town Hall, their appearance causing a massive roar to echo through the entire city as tens of thousands of spectators greeted them. The two ropes had been stretched across the ring just about 100 yards from our seats; the horses circled around in front of them as the mossiere drew lots and called out the name of each contrada in the order it would file in: first and closest to the infield, the position most people consider to be favored, was Torre, followed by Valdimonone, Onda, Bruco (who had managed to draw the worst spot, right in the middle – another terrible omen!!), etc., etc. Last was Aquila, the contrada to whom our seats belonged. Anyone who doesn't consider the first spot to be the most advantageous thinks this is the best one. As the names were called and the jockeys led each horse between the lines, there was not one sound from the huge crowd. Hardly anyone even dared to take a breath! But Aquila, whose honor it is to start the race as the last horse in, simply refused to start the race. His elegant dappled horse stepped forward and backward along the line of ever-more agitated horses waiting for the signal to take off. Lupo was facing backwards 90% of the time, Civetta kept moving out of place, eliciting loudspeakered reprimands from the mossiere, Torre and Onda pranced circles around Montone, and in the midst of this utter chaos, Berio, the firebrand who had had to be banished for his outlandish behavior, stood like a statue, never moving, staring forward at the track that he was simply dying to put behind him.

Suddenly the horses took off! Unfortunately, Aquila STILL did not want to begin the race and so the cannon was fired, signaling a false start. Everyone re-assembled, the track was tidied up again, the ropes were restrung, and most of the jockeys dismounted, handing their charges back to the stable hands. But Trecciolino did not dismount. He stayed astride Berio, calmly walking him round and round in a circle so many times it was a wonder the animal didn't keel over from dizziness. Finally it was time to line up again, and once again the same thing occurred: Lupo back-to-front, Torre and Onda squeezing Valdimontone, mossiere scolding Civetta, Aquila refusing to start the race, and then the rest of the horses took off without him and the cannon once again was fired.

By this time the crowd was at wit's end, tempers were flaring, nerves were frayed, catcalls and whistles and boos were being hurled by everyone but the Aquilani, who of course completely approved of their jockey's inexplicable behavior. The horses, on the other hand, had now had a chance to get all of their pent-up energy out in two useless turns around the ring, and they stood between the ropes in perfect order, not moving one muscle, looking for all the world like a peaceful landscape painting. Even Lupo was facing forward. There was simply no excuse for it, and Aquila had no choice but to dash forward around the flanks of Nicchio, thus officially starting the race. A magnificent roar filled the air and they were off.

What did our eyes see! Wonder of wonders, Berio was out in front!! No, no, we thought, hold back and leave something for the end! But in a flash they were nearing San Martino for the first time and Lupo inched forward, neck and neck with us, on the verge of overtaking. Our hearts leapt to our throats until we saw Trecciolino bear just slightly to the left, nudging the poor Lupo horse just enough to push it off balance and send it crashing into the mattresses. Horse and rider were down. The former quickly jumped to its feet and joined its opponents, three of whom trampled the hapless jockey. We took note of all this, but only for a split-second, because then our eyes shifted back to the head of the pack, where glorious, courageous, invincible Berio tore along, completely unchallenged for the next two laps, until the final cannon exploded and yes, our horse had won.

We had done it! Despite every bad omen ever known to a Senese, Berio and Trecciolino had led from start to finish in one of the most stirring races of recent memory. Within the blink of an eye, the entire Bruco contrada poured out of the Campo and the stands onto the track.

I won't say that I became a good luck charm for the contrada but let's just put it this way: I am always welcome to any Palio race for the rest of eternity! And I hope that you too will get to witness this unique event at least once in your lifetime. When you do, remember to root for Bruco. And do it as the brucaioli do: at the top of your lungs scream, "Bru-bru-bruho-o-o-o-o-o!"

Want to buy tickets to the Palio? Click here!

Visit a contrada headquarters and learn the history of the Palio.

Information about events leading up to the Palio.

In case you have a favorite contrada, here is a list of all winners since 1900.

Information about the contrada museums.

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