|Frenzy around a turn in Siena|
As they dust off funky hats and mix batches of mint juleps in Louisville for the Derby; refrigerate milk in Indianapolis at the 500; ice down Coca Cola for Charlotte’s 600-mile stock car race, and chill champagne at Monte Carlo’s Grand Prix, in Siena they are preparing for two 90-second horse races filled with months of ceremony and celebration.
Each year, on July 2 and August 16, ten horses and bareback riders dressed in the representative colors of their districts, or contrada, circle the Piazza del Campo three times for the honor of winning the Palio. “Honor” is hardly appropriate, however, for Il Palio, as it is known to the locals. It is all about frenzy and war on horseback. The prize for winning is called the pallium, which is nothing more than a hand-painted silk banner, but it carries great significance for the victorious district.
|Piazza del Campo, Siena|
Following the initial mouth-dropping awe of the setting, the first thing visitors notice is that Piazza del Campo is anything but flat. The square slopes downward toward a row of administrative buildings known as Palazzo Pubblico, which, in turn, feed to the dangerous San Martino bend of the track. So treacherous is San Martino to navigate that during the races mattresses are placed against the walls to protect jockeys from injury if they fall. It’s not uncommon to see riderless horses at the finish line.
|Race day at the Campo in Siena|
Space in the center of the track is equally congested but far less desirable because the throngs of humanity become sequestered for several hours until the race has concluded.
The Palio is not a manufactured tourist event. Rather its roots lie deeply ingrained within the history of the city. The Sienese (Contrade) are passionate about their races and, though they embrace anyone and everyone who wishes to participate, the Palio is a major part of the city’s identity.
|Less than two minutes of chaos on horseback|
For many decades
and other cities, held horse races and competed in other games as part of their
religious and ceremonial events. Today, only the Palio survives as a
celebration of giving thanks to the Madonna. Siena
The July 2 Palio honors Madonna dell’Assunta who protected
in the year 1260. The second race on August 16 is called Madonna di Provenzano
resulting from a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near houses once
belonging to Provenzano Salvani. Florence
|A gala traditional ceremony|
Selection day brings great excitement to Piazza del Campo when a traditional ritual announces the chosen ten contrade to compete in the race. Thousands gather as the banners of the selected individual districts are slowly unfurled from the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico. Tension mounts dramatically as each new banner displays, while officials agonizingly taunt the crowd by delaying the tenth, and final, pennant.
|Dropping the rope, the race begins|
During the day parades of flag-waving minstrels dressed in medieval clothing make their way through the winding streets of the city.
Not to missed are the muse della contrada, or district museums. Each neighborhood has one that displays memorabilia, drawings, paintings, photographs, uniforms and costumes from previous Palio events.
When race time finally arrives, spectators pack themselves along both sides of the track anxiously waiting for the starting rope to drop and the three lap clockwise sprint to glory to begin.
A brief 90 seconds later a riotous cacophony of colorful, enthusiastic celebration erupts in the square. Though the Palio has concluded, preparations are already underway to see who will earn bragging rights in the next demolition derby on horseback known as The Palio.