Il Palio di Siena: PART 2
That evening, and over the next three days leading up to the day of the race, six trial races (prove) are held to acquaint the horses with the Palio procedures, noise, and to build suspense ahead of the main race. During this time the jockeys and captains engage in tense negotiations to settle which contrada each jockey will ride for. The best jockeys will typically follow the best horse or the most attractive financial offer.
Oh hey there Tartuca
Getting up at 7am was worth it for this view
However, surprisingly, not only do most of the jockeys have no affiliation to the Contrada they race for, but many even come from outside Siena. In this way, the Sienese have a complex relationship with the Palio jockeys (fantini), who whilst considered crucial to their hopes of winning, are also considered mercenaries and subsequently referred to by the Sienese as i dieci assassin, or the ten assassins.
However, perhaps the climax of these preparations manifests itself most of all in the special dinners held the night before the race in each participating contrada. With hundreds of contradaioli and their guests coming together for a good luck dinner, the streets of Siena become the scenes of endless lines of tables, food, wine and singing. More importantly, it is during these meals that tactics are discussed and finalised with the captain meeting his counterparts after dinner from other contrade to agree the final ‘partiti’ (financial agreements covering who will support or attack who during the Palio the next day).
Le Cene…A lot of tables indeed
And finally the day itself came.
After a short morning mass for the jockeys known as La messa del Fantino, there is one final morning prova in the campo called the ‘provaccia.’ At around 2:00pm, each horse is then paraded into the church of the contrada for a special blessing under the commandment, "vai e torno vincitori", (go and return victorious).
It was around about this time that my friends and I, along with many others -most of whom had already nabbed the edges of the Piazza- decided to find ourselves a well positioned spot to camp out for the duration of the day. Bearing in mind that the actual race itself wouldn’t be taking place until later that evening, if we wanted a good position, there was nothing else for it. In hindsight, waiting all day in nearing 37 degrees Celsius heat, armed with nothing but a rucksack filled to the brim with melon, peaches and a plentiful supply of water, yet fully aware of the non-existent toilet facilities, probably wasn’t the best of ideas….especially as throughout the day we began a tally of people being carried off in stretchers. Nevertheless, if only for the atmosphere, it was most definitely worth it. Ok so it may have been rather nice to be perched upon one of the overlooking balconies, or even on one of the rickety, wooden teared benching set around the track for the day. However, in a truly authentic reflection of Renaissance Society, if you wanted to see the race for free, and still be able to afford dinner that night, there was nothing else for it but to gather in the square and play the game of who could spot Berlusconi’s balcony first.
Il Giorno del Palio…
At around 4:30pm, with the Campo nearly full, the pre-race pageant, il Corteo Storico; a parade over 700 people in traditional medieval dress marching for around two hours through the streets of Siena from the Duomo to the Campo, was in full swing. Filled with representatives of possibly every Sienese kind, dressed in medieval costumes, performing elaborate flag manoeuvres and those oh-so-familiar drumbeats, it was certainly one of a kind.
Il Corteo Storico entering the Campo
Il Nicchio in full swing
In fact, it wasn’t until around 7:30pm when the horses were finally brought out into the Campo to the cheering crowds….only for it to take over an hour for the horses to be lined up correctly. Yes, it has been said that this process has once taken so long, that the Palio had to be postponed to the following day. Luckily this time this was not the case, however as the crowds and contradaioli began to grow restless, tensions were certainly running high.
As the order of the horses is not determined until this very minute, during this period of ‘jockeying for position’ as it is known, the jockeys are busily talking amongst themselves, refining agreements made the night before, or creating new ones based on their position between the ropes.
On this particular day, it seemed from the booing of the crowds that the oca (goose) was being ‘tactfully’ particularly disruptive…
Nevertheless, at nearing 8:45pm suddenly the horses were off, the crowd cheering, and a year of emotion and preparation unravelled. The atmosphere was simply ecstatic, particularly as in the flash of a second, next thing I knew, two horses were riding with no jockey. Yes, Nicchio had been strategically pulled off by Valdimontone (the Rampant Ram). That’s right, with the only rule being that a jockey may not grab the reins of another’s horse, essentially it is a free for all with all jockeys both trying to win and sabotaging the other jockey’s chances in the three laps of the Campo. As long as the horse is still wearing its headdress when they cross the finish line, they are the victor, regardless of whether the jockey is still on the horse.
It goes without saying that the celebrations of the winning contrada are still going on, and will do for up to six months.
Il Corteo della vittoria della Contrada della Torre…A mere snapshot of yesterday’s festivities I walked into on my way to the supermarket
Finishing the day off with a late trip to a local prosciutteria for a truly authentic meal of much cheese, cured meats, wine, and all other things Italian, I have come to the conclusion that, without a doubt, I chose the best place in Italy to spend my semester abroad.