“il Palio” (Part 1 of 2)


I had just finished a two week painting class with a group of twelve artists in a quaint Romanesque farm house in the beautiful Tuscan countryside, outside the small village of San Sano, in Italy’s wine region of Chianti Classico. I was totally exhausted but interested in seeing the running of the Palio in nearby Siena. I originally was not in the least bit interested, however, after making a couple of trips into Siena and witnessing the excitement building up to the event, I became intrigued with it. Vicky and I had earlier discussed her coming down after the conclusion of my class and taking a few extra days to look around the Italian countryside but we had decided we would do it another time.

My trips into medieval Siena for art supplies and visits to the Enoteca (where I  bought the wines for our Tuscan wine tasting), the Duomo, Piazza del Campo, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena (National Art Gallery) found me becoming more and more enamored with this charming town. Standing on the rooftop of the Opera del Duomo Museum, high above the city, you’ll see a panoramic view of Siena with its visually exciting, intricately stacked structures with red tile roofs – almost abstract-like in overall design. The buildings are all built of stone or bricks in warm, almost flesh-like hues. In fact, the artist’s pigment Sienna (Raw or Burnt) comes from the sedimentary layers of the surrounding Sienese hills. I was lucky to climb the steps just before noon – in time to hear the church bells ringing near and far like birds singing to each other from distant treetops. The only thing higher than you from this spectacular vantage point is Siena’s familiar Mangia Tower rising rigidly up from the Piazza del Campo like an ancient rocket launch. It’s amazing to imagine this graceful symbol of power was completed in 1348. At closer glance, I noticed the pigeons in its bell chamber were actually people. I could climb those steps and get even better shots with my camera! But my lungs and legs quickly won the argument with my will.

The narrow, winding streets of Siena’s center are in a constant, cool, blue-gray shade from the intense Tuscan heat of August. This was my first visit to Siena. I immediately noticed the differences from Florence – even though eighteen years have passed since I was last there. The fact that Florence and Siena had been warring enemies throughout various points in history probably explains many of these differences. For one, Siena has a sort of Eastern influence. You can see it in some of the architecture and much of the pre-Renaissance painting. The general layout of the city is different too. Siena also had a better feel to me. It was smaller and less touristy. Yet, I loved Florence and the similar feeling I originally had after arriving there from Rome. Siena’s traffic seems more compatible with pedestrians. The people seem friendlier and speak Italian (so I am told) with a more lyrical, singing quality in their voice. And English is not so widely spoken: A big turn-off on our visit to Florence this time was the morning we sat in a nice little outdoor café for a cappuccino and a breakfast pastry; a waiter arrived and with a Brooklynish-Italian accent pleasantly asked: “Good morning, what can I getcha?” In Siena you have to struggle a bit more with key Italian words and phrases which makes it all the more enjoyable of an experience. A pocket guide to Italian food and dining proved invaluable. A pocket Italian / English dictionary was also helpful.

On these trips into Siena, I constantly thought of Vicky and how much she would like the place. The people were much warmer and less distant than the Belge whom we had become so accustomed to. In a strange way, Siena reminded me a little of Puerto Rico and I knew it would be the same for Vicky. She would have to come here. So, when she called me a few days before the end of my stay in San Sano, I told her to buy a train ticket and meet me in Siena…

During my visit to Italy eighteen years ago, I had written my father (to illustrate my perception of no real strong signs of a middle class:)

“Dear Dad,
When traveling in Italy, you either sleep in a first class, luxury hotel -OR- a dump.
I am staying in a dump.”

With the Palio only two days away, I figured finding an available hotel room might be a gamble. Saskia, the daughter of one of the art instructors in San Sano and the chef for the group, spoke fluent Italian and was able to find the names of a few hotels with available rooms. When Vicky & I got into Siena, we found out that our choice of hotels was already booked (they accepted no advanced reservations during the Palio.) We took the first thing we could get which was a room with twin beds and a private bathroom in Albergo Minerva. It was only 100,000.00 lira per night – the equivalent of sixty-five dollars. It was basic and clean. My only complaint was that the room was somewhat hot (no air-conditioning) and they put us under what seemed to be Fred Astaire’s hotel room: This guy was up every morning at six click clacking around. And, oddly enough, he was doing his routine every time we wanted to take a nap or retire for the evening. It was also Palio time, when the Sienese party every night. A nearby apartment dweller was holding all night dinner parties and heated discussions with his guests. But this is just another similarity to Puerto Rico – noise.

I was right about Vicky: She immediately fell in love with Siena as well. She was able to understand a lot of the Italian spoken. My little bits of Spanish and French probably helped me more than most Americans but Vicky seemed to have no difficulty communicating. I had gone into Siena with several French-speaking people from the painting class and noticed that, they too, could easily understand Italian. Vicky is now determined to learn Italian, that is, after we learn French.

Vicky is also not much of a coffee drinker yet she seemed to (as I also did) enjoy Italian cappuccino. It seemed richer and more flavorful – I don’t know, maybe it was just the wonderful surroundings…

[Another 2007, snobby, foodie note: keep in mind, this was way before the explosion of Starbucks and venti latte’s.]

We had a nice dinner at Ai Marsaili, a restaurant near the Duomo. Although this restaurant was air-conditioned (somewhat), the daylong heat makes you quite thirsty and I was happy to see the first question was regarding the acqua minerale – gasata o naturale? It seems that most restaurants already assume you’re having bottled water…which is nice – it’s not a major expense as the standard six to twelve dollar bottle is in Brussels. The restaurant had a good wine list. We enjoyed a Pommino Rosso, a DOC made from a blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot grapes. It was incredibly smooth and round, I imagine as a result of the Merlot. We discovered something very typical to Tuscany that we liked very much – bruschetta

[Modern day 2007 snobby foodie remark: OK, this is embarrassing – I mean, isn’t Denny’s even a restaurant where you can find bruschetta these days? I think you can even find it in the frozen food section of your local grocery store. Just goes to show how far we’ve come in 14 years – from the exotic to the neatly packaged frozen Swanson’s box.]

– thick slices of bread rubbed with garlic and topped with wonderful fruity extra virgin olive oil, chopped freshly ripened tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, black olives, and [sometimes, depending on where you order it] capers. For the next course I had penne with a Gorgonzola sauce; Vicky had Risotto alla Dragonella (risotto with tarragon). I later learned that tarragon and rosemary are two herbs commonly used in Tuscan cooking, with tarragon being very typical to Siena. You cannot go into a restaurant and not smell fresh rosemary. Vicky then had a veal scaloppine with a lemon basil sauce. I had a thin cut of beef covered in local mushrooms and sauce. On the side we both had something also very Tuscan and probably Vicky’s favorite of all foods tasted: Fagioli bianchi, or white Tuscan beans simmered with olive oil, bits of pork, salt, sage, and bay leaves. The Puerto Rican loved it, but pointed out the one thing missing – rice!

“Do you think they’d bring me a little more of that risotto?” she asked with a satisfied smile.

For dessert, we shared another Tuscan specialty: Pan forte, a rich, spicy fruit cake-like treat.

An unforgettable practice run…

The next morning we were up early to catch the trial run for the Palio – a semi dress rehearsal, if you will. There are several trail runs leading up to the Palio, all held in the fan-shaped heart of the city, the Piazza del Campo. It is a very unusual piazza made of hand-made bricks laid in a fish-bone pattern and divided into nine strips branching out from a shell-shaped drain at the lowest point of the concave slope of the square. The nine divisions represent The Nine Lords who governed the town from 1285 to 1355. There are small posts (approximately five feet tall) outlining the large fan shape in the center of the piazza. The surrounding buildings repeat the fan shape with a space of maybe twenty-five feet separating the buildings from the central area. It is in this space that the race is run. Several days before the race, a mixture of clay and dirt is brought in to cover the brick and allow the horses better traction. It is frequently watered to pack it down and harden the surface. During race time, wooden fences are put up connecting all of the posts and thus enclosing the central area. From here is where the majority of the crowd will view the race. Admission is free, however once you go in, you can’t go out – that is, until the event is over. Opposite the course, along the side of the surrounding buildings, bleachers are set up for more fortunate ticket holders. At least here you can sneak away through one of the many small alleys leading back up into the streets of Siena. I understand tickets are hard to come by and it’s like trying to buy good seats to the Georgia-Florida football game the week before. Even more fortunate people are invited to observe the race high above from private apartments or one of the various palaces lining The Piazza del Campo.

We left our hotel around 8:00 in the morning and made the steep climb up to the center of the city. We really had no idea what we were about to witness, nor did we fully understand what was going on. As we turned a corner onto a street that would take us to il Campo, we met up with a cheering, singing crowd that was following its hopeful horse and the horse’s handler. Many were carrying flags of the same design or insignia. We ducked into the procession, not knowing if we were supposed to be there or not – but what the hell, it looked fun! We followed them all the way to the piazza. Along the way, we passed side streets with competing horses and their fans – also singing, cheering and carrying their special flags on their way to the event. It was exciting – and this is only the practice run, I thought. We arrived into The Piazza del Campo; Vicky and I quickly found an open spot next to one of the posts inside the central area. We watched the police putting up the fences all around the central area.

“I have to pee,” Vicky announced.

“Honey, you’ll have to hold it or go take a dip in that fountain over there…” I responded.

“You didn’t tell me we were gonna be locked in!” she protested.

“How-the-hell do you think they’re going to run a horse race here?” I snapped. Ladies & Gentlemen of the race committee, please excuse me…my wife has to pee…could you postpone the start for about ten minutes?

“The race should actually only last for a minute or so. They only go three laps around the square,” I assured her.

“But I don’t know if I can wait that long…”

I decided not to argue any further on this one. Sweetheart, you’ll make it OK…

A very loud cannon went off. It startled us both. I contemplated Mafia bombs and the best Italian targets t go after this weekend. “Enough of this sissy art museum stuff…let’s go for some real carnage!”

The bells from the Mangia Tower started ringing. Later, a procession of drummers, flag bearers and men blowing horns started around the racecourse. Another cannon went off. Then we heard a roar from the crowd and looked to see what all of the commotion was about: The jockeys, all ten of them, were on their horses and making their way to the starting point. They waved proudly to the crowd. Some were heckled and jeered. The noise from the crowd was adding to the excitement.

The starting point was on the far side of the piazza from us. I was busily taking pictures from both the 35mm and the video camcorder. I had a 300mm telephoto lens on the camera and was trying to make sense of it all. The jockeys were circling one way then suddenly one might go in the opposite direction. I had no idea what was going on but figured it must be similar to the start of a regatta, where you have to be crossing the starting line at just the right moment when the gun goes off. Because of the crowd, we could only see jockeys from the waist up.

The crowd roared at about the same time another loud cannon went off. The race had started! The horses were bolting off in a dangerously-too-fast speed around the track. The noise of the crowd did not let up. It was almost deafening! I was scrambling with the two cameras. I decided to just use one, for it was only a matter of seconds before the whole thing would be over. I wanted blurred shots of the horses as they ran past me – giving a real feel for the speed of this event. I would shoot at a relatively slow shutter speed and pan slightly with the horses as they ran by me. The background would be in a whirl with the horse being a bit frozen in action but still somewhat blurred. It was all a gamble but a nice effect if it’s pulled off correctly…

At that moment Vicky was caught up in the hysteria as I heard her shriek with wild excitement. The crowd gave an even louder shudder in chorus…

“Did you SEE THAT?” she shouted in my ear.

Within a split second, a gray, rider less horse came flying into my viewfinder. The image was almost like a mad, haunting spirit completely out of control. Where is your rider? I thought….

“That jockey was thrown off at that turn!” Vicky gasped.

The horses were coming around for another lap. There was mass confusion around that sharp turn. I couldn’t see clearly for someone was jumping up onto the railing in front of us. The crowd was almost in a riotous state. The noise was incredible. The gray ghost came running by in front of the other horses. By now, some of them had no riders as well. Vicky and I exchanged quick, wide-eyed glances.

Before we knew it, the whole thing was over. It was like surviving a car wreck; You couldn’t quite explain what had just taken place, for it had happened so instantaneously – yet it lasted for an eternity!

“That was some fucking practice run, huh?” I said smiling to Vicky.

“My God!” she said.

We were speechless and probably wondering – right then – what the real thing was going to be like…We left the piazza in search of a bathroom.

It was now mid-morning, Sunday. The real Palio would be tomorrow at seven o’clock in the evening, with festivities starting around three thirty. We enjoyed a cappuccino and later did a little shopping. The first thing you notice is how inexpensive everything is – or – in our case, prices seem much more in line with those of the States. I wanted to buy some good quality Tuscan olive oil. I bought two bottles – one was rosemary-flavored. We also admired the assortment of grappa in artfully crafted hand blown glass bottles. We bought two large beautifully hand-painted ceramic pasta bowls. And while painting in San Sano, I constantly listened to Italian opera on the radio with my Walkman and was now an enthusiastic opera fan. I picked up a CD of Verdi’s Rigoletto. I’m listening to it as I write this.

We did some sightseeing of the Siena landmarks mentioned earlier. While in the Duomo admiring the stained glass and the black and white marble striped pillars, a procession of flag bearers and drummers, obviously related to the Palio, entered the Cathedral. This Palio thing was becoming a real curiosity to me. I had to learn more…

I picked up a book on it and did some reading.

The Palio Story

The story of the Palio is, essentially, the story of the Contrade. Each is quite dependent of the other. The Palio was probably run long before the development of the Contrade – and in other parts of Italy as well. Yet the Contrade is an exclusive Sienese institution. The Contrade are not only seventeen geographical districts of the city of Siena, but important social, religious and civic institutions steeped in the traditions of Siena’s past. They came into being around the end of the 12th century… evolving around the church or chapel where community inhabitants would meet to discuss various matters. The contrade had designated mayors with elected advisors and were handed administrative powers such as tax collection, serving as urban police, road maintenance and cleaning of the fountains and wells. For the Sienese, they developed as a center of life and represent a very close-knit brotherhood of Sienese society.

The Contrade are not without rivalry. Some are even notorious enemies with others. The contrada that you belong to depends solely on where you were born. Even if your father and mother are from two different outside contrade (and marriages among different contrade were often frowned upon – not so much today though,) you will take membership of the contrada where you were born. In the past, parents would. often move temporarily to have a child born in a certain desirable contrada. In times of war, military companies existed for bringing together men between the ages of eighteen and seventy to fight. Despite their differences, the contrade were easily brought together for a common cause such as defending their city.

Vicky and I both were pleased to see the young people of Siena dedicated to preserving their rich historical past through year-round involvement with the contrade. The children are brought up from an early age with the contrada playing an important part of their education. The young people seemed to take much pride in their involvement with all of the activities that the Palio brings along each year. It got me: thinking about other places in the world, namely the United States and the Caribbean, with soaring crime rates strangling their populations. Sure, no one would argue against the idea that a society decays when its families’ ties and values fall apart. Yet with the Sienese contrade, you get a feeling that the young people have something more than close knit family ties and strong family values.

The seventeen contrade are represented by [mostly] animal symbols. They are: Nobile Contrada dell’ Aquila (Eagle), Nobile Contrada del Bruco (Caterpillar), Contrada della Chiocciola (Snail), Contrada Priora della Civetta (Owl), Contrada del Drago (Dragon), Imperiale Contrada della Giraffa (Giraffe), Contrada Sovrana dell’Istrice (Porcupine), Contrada del Leocorno (Unicorn), Contrada della Lupa (She-Wolf), Nobile Contrada del Nicchio (Shell), Nobile Contrada dell’Oca (Goose), Contrada Capitana dell’Onda (Wave), Contrada della Selva (Woods), Contrada della Pantera (Panther), Contrada della Tartuca (Turtle), Contrada della Torre (Tower), and Contrada di Valdimontone (Ram Valley).

Each contrada has its emblem on a colorful flag or banner. The colors or color combinations are usually unique to the contrada as well.

The word Palio actually refers to three things: the entire festivities, the race itself, and the vertical banner that is hand-painted on silk by a specially appointed artist and awarded as a race prize to the winning contrada. The Palio is held twice a year – on July 2nd (in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano) and August 6th (in honor of the Assumption of Our Lady.) Occasionally, it will also be run in honor of a very special event that might take place.

The race is run by only ten of the seventeen different contrade. For the July race, for example, all of the seven contrade that didn’t get to run the previous year’s July race will be allowed to run this race. Then there is a lottery for the remaining three spots, which takes place a month before the race. The same method applies to the August Palio. This drawing is a celebrated event and is usually a start to some of the excitement. The whole town takes on a transformation and pulsates with electric energy building up to three days before the race when the horses are chosen and and continuing on until the explosive climax of the Palio itself. Anyone may submit their horse to be picked, however, the ones chosen are usually from a group of a of aficionados with many horses being returning champions or ones that have run in many previous Palii. A first selection is made by the city veterinary. These will make a trial run in groups of four or five. Those that are too nervous, slow, or difficult on the sharp curves are eliminated by a panel of race officials and Contrade’s Captains. The contrade do not pick their choice of horse – there is a drawing to determine that. Naturally, there is much celebration that evening if a contrada is paired with an exceptional horse. The horse is now temporary property of its respective contrada. A barbaresco (person in charge of the horse) is a member of that contrada who cares for the animal’s feeding, massaging, grooming, walking, and often sleeping on the stable floor near the animal. He is also the one who will administer “the stimulating beverage” that is forbidden by the race regulations. It is also his duty to watch over the pre-race actions of the jockey.

The Palio is perhaps one of the most grueling races in the world. Many world famous jockeys have claimed they would never race in it. The Palio jockeys are a special breed and hired independently by the individual contrada. The race is bareback. Only bit & bridles are allowed. The jockey is allowed to block his adversary, squeeze him out along turns, or simply hit him or his horse with a riding crop. This riding crop is of special issue by the race officials, a stretched, dried ox penis. Jockeys wear metal helmets to protect their heads from blows with these. It is forbidden to grab the opponent’s horse by the bridle or to use one’s hands in retraining another jockey. This is to say that it does not happen anyway. The nature of the course with its sloping curves makes it quite dangerous, especially for the horses. Three horses were killed this past July over the three-day span of trials and the actual Palio. There have been no jockey deaths in recent years, however, there are numerous serious injuries and some racing careers have abruptly ended. The jockey faces not only a dangerous race but quite often an angry mob – from losing competitors if he is a winner, or furious employers if he performs poorly or terrible loser. The winning jockey is usually escorted away by police after a race until emotions are calmed. Often a jockey in fear of losing might “fall” from his horse to be under protection of the first aid people or police. An important fact to remember is that it is not the jockey who finishes first who necessarily wins; it is the horse that comes in first that really wins the race – rider or no rider. Many jockeys will also “fall” to make a fast horse even faster.

To say the Palio is rigged is too simple of a statement. One thing I very well understood about the Palio was its highly complex makeup in all respects. Each contrada has a Captain who is in charge of the money collected for the “partiti” to make secret deals with other contrade, jockeys or whomever might have some sort of influence on the outcome of the race. The money is collected from voluntary taxation from the contradaioli, or members, according to their means. Some will pay out all at once; others make installments. Sometimes the contrada might even take out a loan from the bank. The Captain and several ruling contrada members determine race strategy -including actions or events leading up to the race -. A contrada with a not-so-good horse might be approached by another contrada with a good horse to help slow its competition from a third contrada. They will decide upon the use of the riding crop, the blocking, etc. The idea is not only to win, but also to not allow your enemy to win. Sometimes deals are made on top of deals. Add to that jockeys who might have their own agendas…. You can already see the complexities building. And yet, on race day, the win or lose situation might simply change due to the starting position. A not-so-good horse may find itself in a spot to win. Race strategies might change at the last minute – adding to hostilities among contrade and possible deals that may prove null and void.

In the meantime, the festive atmosphere builds. Flags are put up all over the city. Young people march through the streets carrying their contrada’s flags and singing of the virtues of their contrada, horse, jockey, etc. The tune of the song is often the same for all contrade – only the words have been changed. They might even sing about their competitors’ inadequacies in quite crude ways. Occasional scuffles might break out.

The night before the Palio, big dinners are held in each of the contrade that are running the race. More singing, speeches, wine….


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