Wednesday, August 22, 2007
A day at the races
Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Siena, a medieval city in Tuscany, with friends Paolo, Guisi, Carmen, and Magno. The event that we and thousands of others were there to see: the Palio, a bareback horse race that has been held in Siena every July 2 and August 16 since at least the 1600s.
What I didn't know before last week is that the Palio is much more than a horse race. It is medieval pageantry combined with ward politics, turf wars and territorial pride, centuries-old traditions, mob energy, religious fervor, gambling and speculating and fixing – the Kentucky Derby, a bare-knuckle fight, Yankees-Red Sox, Michigan-Ohio State, the Beanpot, Harvard-Yale times 800 years, a mad dash half blind and half chaos, the World Cup in miniature squeezed into brick- and cobble-paved streets of three-story shutter window homes lemon yellow Nantucket red bone white driftwood brown and brick, churches the pivot point around which whorl self-contained universes, walls sprouting fantastical lamps with octopus arms and Wonka Seuss dripping lights lighting the rolling crescendo of neighborhood activity cresting towards the beachhead – a day thronged with the elect and the vicarious, one hungry for victory, bragging rights, a good showing for the old home place, the biannual pinnacle day of flying the ancient colors; the other hungry for spectacle, for a glimpse (recorded in film and photo of course – otherwise, did it happen?) of exotic competition, guide book highlight, word of mouth itinerary must, transport to other times in a place that has one foot then.
The echoes creak in time with the martial drumming, rumbling through the centuries – le contrade, the 17 wards of Siena, each a world apart, insular proud marked by flying flags with coats of arms and the distinctive creatures, fountains (at least one has run with wine after a victory), and of course churches. In la contrada della Chiocciola (Snail), our homebase for the day thanks to a friend of a local resident, Chiesa San Marco acts as chapel, museum, headquarters, community center, barracks – white-washed walls and candelabra, oil paintings and statued niches, flags draped not for Lent or Advent but a horse race.
The blessing of the horse overfilled the chapel with silent faithful. After spending the time leading up to the race in the Casa di Cavallo, the anxious skittish horse was brought into the chapel to the thundering sound of silence. You cannot approach the door of the casa di cavallo before the race if you are not among those who tend to the horse. Try at your own peril; you could end up with a mouthful of fist. As the horse left the chapel, I could see many local residents with tears in their eyes.
After the benediction, the contrada gathers forces in front of the chapel and begins to cheer, sing, and wave their colors. The flag and drum corps starts their marching; they will not stop until just before the horses lineup for the race – almost five hours of drumming, flag twirling, and marching in costume. With the ceremonial horse and rider leading the way, the contrada throngs towards the center of town. From all over the city, streams converge – crowds of people following their contrada’s horse, drums and twirling flags, awash in their contrada’s colors, cheers and songs resounding in the canyons of the close streets – schools of adrenalinized fish following first one flash and then another of flag and drum. The rivalries and alliances are often centuries old as well. For example, Pantera must be friends with Chiocciola because the church they share straddles the borderline between the two contrade. As the altar is in Chiocciola territory, they could say, “No, you may not bless your horse here.” All but the Oca (Goose) have allies, yet it is the Goose with the most victories over the years - the Sienese version of the Yankees.
After wandering the spectacle all day in the company of a wonderful guide, Magno (a knowledgeable Palio attendee with 20 years experience), we settled into folding chairs in the basement of the Chiocciola headquarters to watch the race. The start itself can be another whole chapter of chaos, machismo, maneuvering, deal making, frustration, boiling excitement, and verbal fireworks. Historically, the riders came from the contrade themselves but this has changed over the years. Magno told me, “It is still every child’s lifelong dream to ride your contrada’s horse to victory, beating your rival at the line." Most of the riders today are from Sardinia: they are smaller by nature and used to riding bareback. According to Magno, there has only been one female rider in the history of the Palio; apparently there is a American movie about her out there somewhere.
Finally, after 20 minutes of archetypal jockeying, the horses flew out of the start and we all flew out of our seats. Never I have felt goose bumps so many times in one day; for those few moments when our horse and rider were in the lead, I caught my voice in my throat and felt we had a chance. Electricity coursed through the room as I’m sure it did throughout the city – I can only imagine what the gathered thousands experience in the center of the piazza...
The race has faced growing criticism in recent years because of the dangers it poses to both horse and rider. Although short – the race is over in less than two minutes, it is violent as the riders are permitted to hit their own horses, other horses, and even other jockeys with their crops; falls are common and a horse without a rider can still win. The course becomes especially treacherous at the corner just before the clock tower, as evidenced in this year’s race when our horse, after starting in the lead, crashed dramatically into the padding along the wall. Leocorno (Unicorn) rode to victory and the contrada celebrated through the streets, the cathedral, and undoubtedly long into the night. Chiocciola will have to wait until next year. You can watch the entire race here and see photos we took here. Additionally, watch for footage from this year's Palio in the next installment of the Bond franchise.