“il Palio” (Part 2 of 2)

Race Day

Vicky & I planned to get to the race site early – two thirty in the afternoon – to ensure a good seat, or standing spot, to be more exact. The actual race starts at seven o’clock and is very short – the record is one-minute fourteen-and-a-half seconds. We were surprised to see so few people in il Campo. Taking a second look, all “front row seating” was already occupied. The young people of the contrade had staked their areas. We would have to settle for “second row” and looked for some short people to facilitate the view…

We found a good spot; I was looking for a good background for my photographs and decided on the area just across from the arched entrance of the Capella di Piazza. This would later prove beneficial, as it was the headquarters for the First Aid people.

We came armed with cameras, bananas, nectarines, and a liter bottle of water. You always think of items you wish you should have brought – sun block, a hat, newspaper to sit on, a small object to stand on for photographing over people, and maybe a Walkman or deck of cards to help pass the time…

The piazza started filling up. People were slowly squeezing in on us. People that were behind you magically appear in front of you. A young French couple did just that. To grate on my nerves, they continually turned around in all directions, pointing at everything. You had to dodge their swinging arms. Another young American-looking couple (though Vicky said they were speaking Italian) was to Vicky’s immediate left. Both – especially the girl, – smelled like they hadn’t used deodorant for a few weeks. They were constantly kissing each other. I looked up at the sun that was beating down on all of us; I hoped it would pass behind the buildings but saw that there was no such possibility – for a few more hours at least. I had an urge to toss my cookies – thankfully it quickly passed.

As luck would have it, my 35mm camera was displaying some sort of symbol in the LCD that I had never seen before. I thought it might be batteries and replace them. No such luck. The new batteries were either dead or it was something else. I had no choice but to retire the 35mm and shoot videos.

The smelly dude was wearing a tank top and leaning towards Vicky as a result of the disappearing space. He had a camera and would send a funky breeze our way each time he lifted it to take a picture. Miss Smelly hugged and showered him with more kisses. I noticed people discreetly checking their own underarm scents to make sure it wasn‘t coming from themselves. Vicky turned to me with a disgusting, non-verbal look that could fill this whole page with vile descriptions.

Earlier that day, the jockeys and their horses are blessed inside the churches of their representative contrade. It is believed that a horse that leaves his droppings in the church will be the winner. Out of ten horses, I would imagine more than one takes a dump in the church. I wonder if different contrade members have ever compared notes on this. The procession to il Campo begins.

A cannon shot went off. Actually, according to the book, all of those explosions we were hearing were supposed to only be firecrackers. Sounds like a cannon to me…. maybe even a bomb…Bomb?” Today’s da big day Boyz…a captive audience of 50,000…can you think of a betta target?”

The bell in The Mangia Tower is sounding off continually as though it was the heartbeat for the event. The procession started. A military guard regiment, on horseback and in 15th Century dress uniform, made one long circle of the square then quickly galloped in full charge with swords drawn and ready for battle. That was all it took to wake the crowds up and get the emotions and excitement stirred up. More people on horseback with flag bearers, trumpeters and drummers following. Everyone was dressed in costume of the 1400’s.

I was amazed that this was not, despite the grand show of color and theatrics, a real touristy event. This is a local, traditional happening. The townspeople are all involved and you get the feeling that it would be happening no matter if Bill and Gladys Butler from Summersville, Missouri USA are not there buying souvenir contrade scarves, postcards and capturing it all on Kodak film – or not. Yes, there are many tourists in Siena at this time, especially a day or two before the Palio, but they all seem pushed into the quietness of the background and are hardly noticeable – even as spectators.

Another great thing about this event was the lack of commercialism. No Marlboro, Lipton Iced Tea, Gatorade, Volvo, or Budweiser banners blaring for attention in the background. Hell, neither Fiat, nor Olivetti was there. It just wouldn’t fit in. The only things remotely commercial were the colorful contrade scarves and flags sold by the Piazza del Campo vendors and the beautiful hardbound books on the Palio offered by the two or three bookstores in Siena. Can you imagine that in the US? I didn’t think so….

Next began the long procession of the seventeen contrade. Young children march first. Then come the individual contrade headed by a drummer and two flag twirlers for each contrade, followed by an armored leader, two pageboys carrying the military company insignia, and an older one carrying the contrada flag. Behind him is the jockey dressed in an elaborate noble costume on a parade horse. The barbaresco and the racehorse follow. Obviuosly, the seven contrade not running will be without horses and jockey.

Besides awarding the Palio to the winning contrada for the fastest horse, a separate award goes to the contrada for the best presentation, involving stateliness, drumming and skillful handling and twirling of the flags. The flag twirlers are of special interest to watch as they make almost a dance out of it. The flag is twirled by their motions until, in unison, both flags are hurled high up into the air and return spinning into the hands of the opposite flag bearer. These are young men who have been trained in this art through their contrada since early childhood. Not all are successful in catching the flag and you certainly feel for them when they miss.

After they make one full circle of the square, the people in the parade seat themselves in grandstands set up in front of the Palazzo Pubblico.

The procession lasts a good long while. The costumes are beautiful and you get a good idea how people might have actually looked in the 15th Century. The crowd is somewhat entertained yet you can feel the anticipation for the Palio to get underway. People are hot, exhausted from the night before, and locked in a sea of bodies, that is if you’re doing the free admission route. We watched the ongoing parade as fainting victims were rushed away on stretchers to the first aid area. I joked with Vicky:

“All you have to do is faint and I can get some great shots from over there,” I said, pointing to the first aid area set up under the archway across from us.

Little did I know that my wish was about to come true.

More time passes. The Smellys are still going strong. The wiggling French couple has given up. I am standing behind a post with one arm leaning on it for support and also to mark my space. Several people have attempted to get in front of me. No such luck! A photographer has been sitting on top of the post. I think about how sore his butt, balls and legs must be. That thought is interrupted by how sore mine are.

The Palio is paraded around the square. It is on a cart with trumpeters and knights from noble Sienese families. Large, white oxen pull the cart. The Palio is placed above the judges’ stand. The race is getting closer…

Another cannon [firecracker?] goes off. The jockeys appear having changed into riding wear and are on their mounts headed for the starting point. The crowd cheers wildly. You’d think that Mick and The Stones just leaped onto the stage. The same tension and energy is in this crowd.

Now comes the tricky method of getting horses and riders off and running – in an orderly manner. There’s an official starter who is in control of the front rope stretched across the track at the front of the starting point. A little further behind, another rope is stretched across with a small space left for horses to pass through. There is a drawing for the order with which the horses enter the space between the two ropes. The starter announces this and waits for the tenth horse to enter and releases the front rope, as he deems appropriate. Only he can release it to start the race. If he feels there has been a false start, the cannon [firecracker] is sounded and the horses and riders return to try again. Numerous starts are common. As they were waiting to start, I could see some of the jockeys hitting the horses and each other with their riding crops.

After the first false start, the crowd was really getting antsy and began jeering some of the problem jockeys. You could feel the energy of the crowd nervously holding its breath. Vicky gave a big sigh and said she was starting to get a little dizzy. Oh shit…I thought. I looked to see if there was a clear spot to give her a little extra breathing room. Nothing. She leaned her head on me as we watched the second false start. I looked to see if she was OK. Her eyes were closed but she seemed all right.

Then I felt dead weight on my shoulder. I quickly put her on the ground. The crowd instinctively opened up for breathing space, as though they had done this many times before. Miss Smelly automatically grabbed Vicky’s legs to elevate them. I felt terrible about all of the bad thoughts I had about the poor girl. I dabbed Vicky’s forehead with a little water. She opened her eyes with a strange look, sort of like Dorothy arriving back home in Kansas.

“Hey sweetheart, are you OK?” It’s me…Toto… “It’s just me. You went out for a few seconds…”

She had a horrified look as she saw Miss Smelly holding her legs up. She immediately tried to get up as if nothing happened.

“It’s alright honey, stay there….” I tried to reassure her.

It all happened so fast. The first aid staffers were right there asking if I wanted to put her on a stretcher.

“No,” Vicky answered.

“Vicky, I think you better go just to be safe…”

I got her on top of the railings as the policeman on the other side helped her down. I asked the policeman if I could go with her. No problem. I grabbed all of our stuff and was over the fence with his help.

So, Vicky might have been one more reason why the 755th biannual Palio was delayed that hot Monday evening of August 16th, 1993. She was raced across the track via stretcher. Wilberto was in tow with the camera gear, remaining water, banana and one nectarine (we lost the other one.) She was the only patient in the designated area at that time. They checked her blood pressure as I was (and hate to admit it) licking my chops thinking about the great photo ops that were just ahead! But I knew Vicky was fine and in good hands. The medics now simply had her resting on the stretcher. Poor thing though – she was so embarrassed by the whole thing and she kept wanting to get up. She was still lacking color. Every time she sat up, I would make her lie down again. She was like one of those gag gifts – those snake-like spring things that come flying out of the jar when you open the lid. As her color returned, I asked:

Are you all right? You’re sure?…Because I’m gonna step over here and take some pictures of the race…It’s about to resume.”

There were four or five stretchers in a row, most likely waiting for injured jockeys. As Vicky felt better, she moved over to where I had stationed myself with the video camera. She had been lucky that she had such a good husband who didn’t video her while she was on the stretcher! I now kind of wish I had…

At this point, the real race – the real start, had gone off. I lost count on the actual number of starts but I think it was four or five. The crowd was roaring ever so loud. I could see horses darting by. It reminded me of the buffalo stampede in the movie, How The West Was Won. One riderless horse flew by, signifying a possible arrival of an injured jockey. There were screams of panic from the crowd. We were up above ground level but inside a gated area so I had to jump back and forth to see what was going on. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. The first aid staff was scrambling around. More riderless horses go by like blurred freight trains.

Sure enough, an injured jockey came sliding in on a stretcher. I believe he was the same guy who was thrown the day before. He was in pain; no fake falls here…but nothing really serious. His horse was the gray ghost I had seen. Judging by the colors he was wearing, he was riding for the Wave contrada…. Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how….

I felt a little morbid as I videoed the unfolding events. Yes…I’m here in my Baghdad hotel room as the incoming missiles are landing all around us just outside the building…

I focused on the San Martino curve, the really sharp one. I later reviewed the videotape. I had caught a few horses coming around the corner, but for some strange reason, I started panning along the balconies with all of the people looking below. I guess I was also caught up in the excitement and not thinking completely straight…

A cannon [firecracker] went off signifying the end of the race. The Dragon Contrada was victorious. People jumped onto the track like bodies going overboard on a sinking ship. All hell broke loose. I was glad we were in the safe confines of the first aid station. The elegantly costumed marchers went running madly by. This is the point when the winning contrada seizes the Palio ad starts off on a march of revelry through the streets of Siena that may last all night and into the next day. There were loud roars from the crowd. I jumped into position to see what was going on: People were running in the opposite direction as if the bulls of Pamplona were on their tails. More roars. Looks of panic on people’s faces. The police riot squad charges past. An ambulance screeches to a halt in front of the first aid area. I can’t believe what I’m seeing! The ambulance picks up the jockey and heads off with its accordion siren wailing. Fights often break out at the end of the Palio; we didn’t see any but we did see large crowds of people making chaotic dashes, as if they were running from something.

In the midst of all the madness, I couldn’t resist turning the video camera around to film myself:

“This is Robert Leedy…CNN…somewhere in the battlefields of Siena, Italy…”

The Palio, the race anyway, was over.

It was ten minutes before eight. We had dinner reservations at eight. Along the way to the restaurant a few blocks away, we came face to face with the Dragon Contrada marching victoriously through the streets. Interestingly, it was not just a group of excited, rowdy kids; the procession was headed up by mothers pushing baby strollers in front; there were people of all ages merrily singing and proudly carrying their newly won Palio through the streets.

It bears mentioning here that the Palio is often criticized by animal rights groups for the frequent deaths of the horses. I originally was not interested in the race and this was one reason I had for not wanting to go. As I mentioned previously, my curiosity brought me to learn more about the race itself. Through that I learned of the Sienese people’s strong love and devotion for their horses. They are pampered during Palio season. They are cheered on at race time. They are blessed by priests who exclaim, “Go little horse and return a winner!” They even have a reserved place with a special trough set up for them at the celebratory dinners held one month after the Palio. For they are the race winners – not the jockeys. The death of a horse as a result of breaking its legs in a bad fall will bring many tears. And the natural death of an old champion brings just as many, often more. Children have a special affection for these horses and quite often grow up alongside the racing career of a certain horse. That child, as he grows older, might later see his favorite and may even secretly hope for him to win a Palio, even if he is running for another contrada.

I’m not exactly sure about my own opinion on this – the jury is still out. But I now realize there is a lot more to the story than what a person may read on the surface.

I didn’t think Vicky would feel up to going to the restaurant. Yet we did and I was very surprised at her voracious appetite that evening. We enjoyed multi-courses of great pasta, Tuscan beans, a bottle of Antinori Tignanello, followed by coffee and grappa. We joked about Vicky’s fainting spell and my perfect opportunity to take pictures. The Griswaldis had done it again!

Afterwards, we stopped for ice cream on the way back to our hotel. The night air was cool and inviting. We heard the Dragons cheering in the distance.

I guess I’ll close with a copy of a letter I sent:


If you missed Part 1, READ IT HERE


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