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‘Il Palio is Madness!’

August 16th, 2014 · No Comments · Italy, tourism, Travel


That was the subject line on an email my daughter sent me 14 years ago.

“Il Palio is Madness!”

Her brief account of the horse race run inside the medieval Piazza del Campo of Siena, which she witnessed while studying in the hilltop Tuscan city in the summer of 2000 … and it put in the back of the mind the notion of “some day I would like to see that”.

Today was that day. And it most certainly was madness.

Sublime, unforgettable madness.

Il Palio.The name comes from the Italian word for the painted, silk banner awarded to the winning neighborhood (henceforth known by their Italian name, contrade).

The race, which lasts about 75 seconds, is the climax of several days of celebrations, originally religious in nature, in the stony city an hour south of Florence.

The religion aspect is not gone, but the final day of the Palio, held twice per year (July 2 and August 16) is the event which draws tens of thousands of people, including a subset of tourists from all over the world.

It is difficult to find measurements of the campo, but a guess is about 100 yards long and 75 wide.

Dirt is brought in to cover the brick and stone of what will be the running track for the horses, 10 of them — chosen from the 17 contrade, each with its distinctive symbol.

At least one crowd estimate suggests Il Palio regularly draws more than 60,000 people — which is interesting because the entire population of Siena is about 55,000.

Nearly half of the crowd sees the race for free, from inside the campo, in an area fenced off from the race track. Inside the track is the preserve of the young, who do not mind long periods of standing — with no toilets — often under the rays of the Tuscan sun and are stuck inside the perimeter from 4:30 p.m. until the race finishes, about 7:30.

The others pay for the privilege of watching (while sitting) from outside the course — most of them packed on benches four or maybe six rows deep, or standing on balconies — or any other vantage point of the race, including the tops of buildings and the bell tower.

Ahead of the race come various tradition-steeped parades, which make up about 99 percent of the event.

The parade begins with mounted police, in Napoleonic Era uniforms, jogging around the track, and concludes with a lap meant to resemble a cavalry charge — complete with drawn sabers.

Our group of eight happened to be sitting in the front row of the stands about 60 yards from the start-finish line. We couldn’t help but imagine horses or jockeys ending up in our laps. After the “cavalry charge”  we noticed hoof prints no more than a yard from where we sat. We could have touched the horses, had we stretched.

It’s that intimate aspect of the event that helps focus and multiply the excitement overload.

After the cavalry charge came a marching band, followed by 17 groups of men dressed in bright/garish medieval-style outfits (looking a bit like the jacks and kings of a deck of cards), representing each contrade and carrying their own banner and led by at least one knight wearing plate armor and carrying a deadly weapon.

(This is done with great dignity. None of the 700 or so participants laugh or even smile.)

The 10 contrade with horses in the race (seven are left out each year, because 17 horses would be beyond madness) also are represented by a mounted knight, and behind the knight comes the horse, led by a groom, that will represent the contrade in the race. (And the horses are assigned by the drawing of lots. Randomly. None are thoroughbreds.)

Later, come more horses, children linked by garlands and, bringing up the rear, a cart drawn by four enormous white oxen, yoked in pairs, and carrying civic dignitaries.

The “palio” for that day’s race is run up a staff, near the start-finish line, like a sort of flag. It will not be there long.

The 10 horses (nine this year; one was injured the day before) then appear with their jockeys, and they need to line up (more or less) side by side at the starting line, which is represented by a thick rope. (No gates here.)

Then, finally, after the hours of anticipation, when the horses are deemed to be pretty much in position, the race begins with a loud explosion. Originally it was a cannon. Now, it is just a really loud firecracker.

The race is a sprint, run in tight quarters, with sharp turns, no saddles and very few rules. Traditional horsemen would be horrified.

Jockeys may whip their horses. They may whip other horses. They may push or jostle (punch?) other jockeys. During the race.

Inevitably, a horse or two fall and a jockey or two is unhorsed.

Imagine, too, the 60,000 spectators are smashed in a space not much bigger than a basketball arena. Everyone strains to see what is happening and finds himself shouting. (This race could never happen in the U.S.; “personal injury” lawyers would kill it dead.)

The race often is won in the first lap, with the fast-starting horse hard to catch. This year, the quickest horse skidded in the second turn, throwing its rider. (One of two unhorsed during the race.) We were sitting directly in front of his father and brother, who seemed almost in shock.

Two horses separated themselves from the pack and, at the beginning of the final of three laps, the horse representing the Owl contrade, overtook the leader, and hung on to win, with the rider, Andrea Mari, rising his arms in victory as his horse, Occule, crossed the line.

Then came the true madness. As if what we had already witnessed was not memorable enough.

The release of emotion at the end of a race is a sort of group hysteria. Hundreds of members of the winning contrade seem to materialize on the track within seconds of the race ending. One batch runs towards the horse and rider, who have come to a halt in the first turn, and others run to the start-finish line to haul down the “palio” banner.

Others dash back and forth between the clots of humanity, with the need to run seemingly paramount.

Nearly everyone is weeping. Tears of joy. Tears of relief. Men, women, children. Despite horses still being on the track. Despite no easy access to the track. A mindless, overwhelming explosion or emotion.

The emotion is infectious. Those of us with no rooting interest find our hearts thumping and our eyes welling. The jockey is a conquering hero. The horse is immortal.

It is then that we realize Il Palio is not a modern event. It is not of this age.

Those of us who have been to major sports events … well, no celebration is quite like this. Not among fans. Not a Super Bowl. Not a World Cup.

The emotions are outsized. Wild. Uncontrolled. From some other era, when feelings were raw and unfettered and allowed to run their course without shame or censure.

At the end, that is the madness of the Palio. From a distant time, when life was short and perhaps brutish, and traditions meant more than they do now, and victories are savored without restraint.

And I would love to see it again.


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