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Getting Medieval

A traveler visiting Siena, Italy, for only the day of the Palio would see little more than a horse race. To be precise, he would see a long, slow, colorful parade of elaborately costumed men and boys followed by 10 jockey-ridden horses running three short, frantic, and dangerous laps around the Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped, 14th-century town center. If the visitor presumed that the horses—all of which run under apparent team names, most of which are animal monikers—and their riders were in pursuit of no greater purse than the silk banner that gives the race its name, then regardless of his view of the race, he would be blind to the dramas playing out before him.

For the Sienese, the Palio is not just a horse race; it is a ritualized, brutally public reshuffling of the social order. Often unpredictable and somewhat unfair, it decides who will cheer and who will weep, who will fly their flags and who will take theirs down, who will parade until dawn and who will head to bed early.

The July 2, 2006, Palio unfurled like so: the Eagle (Aquila) horse, whose jockey wore yellow silks with a large, black, double-headed eagle on the back, shot ahead of the nine other competitors to establish an early lead. Four jockeys—the riders representing Unicorn (Leocorno), Giraffe (Giraffa), Ram (Valdimontone), and Tower (Torre)—fell in a first-lap pileup at San Martino, the racetrack’s harshest curve. Their mounts continued on without them, and though a horse can win the Palio riderless, it did not happen this time.

The Eagle horse held its lead but seemed to slow during the last turn of the third and final lap. The Panther (Pantera) horse, whose jockey wore red and blue silks with a big cat on the back, began the race in the undesirable ninth position out from the inside lane, but it gained ground steadily throughout and seized the chance to squeak past the Eagle horse after its jockey artfully navigated that last turn. During the final meters of the race, both jockeys rained whip-blows on the same horse—Panther’s—one urging it to run faster, the other trying to slow it down. But the Panther mount bested Eagle’s by half a horse length. The race lasted about 90 seconds.


The Panther jockey and horse were running for the honor of its namesake contrada, or district. It is one of 17 that make up the Tuscan city of Siena, where the architecture and street layout remain just as they were in the Gothic period. The contrade (the plural form of contrada), too, are rooted in medieval times. Siena once contained more such districts—perhaps as many as 60—each of which was required to support the city’s defense needs by supplying soldiers. After a devastating plague in 1348, the population contracted and the contrade followed, dwindling to 42 by the year 1723 and prompting frequent territorial squabbles. In an effort to end these arguments, Princess Violante of Bavaria, then the ruler of Tuscany, issued a decree in 1729 that reduced the number of contrade to 17 and fixed their borders precisely.

Although this decree remains in effect today, it has never quite ended the turf wars. The Palio horse race, which began as a form of entertainment (among many others) during medieval festivals that honored saints, has evolved into a vehicle for the Sienese to express these tensions and also celebrate their civic history.

Full-blown contrada rivalries eventually arose. Currently, six robust hate-hate relationships enrich the Palio with story lines to which the uninitiated viewer would be oblivious. The enmity between the Panther and Eagle contrade might have begun with the Palio of August 16, 1752. According to one account, Eagle lodged a protest against Panther for causing it to lose to Tower. Eagle alleged that zealous Panther residents tried to prevent the Eagle horse’s imminent victory by running onto the track, and worse, during the distraction, the Panther jockey seized the bridle of the Eagle horse. Panther was deemed guilty of these offenses and ordered to pay for a duplicate Palio banner to compensate Eagle’s loss.

Thus, when Panther’s horse surged past Eagle’s to claim victory in the race this past July, it was not just an exciting come-from-behind performance; the race added another chapter to the Panther-Eagle saga. In an eyeblink, the Panther contradioli, or members, were catapulted from misery to joy, while the happiness of the Eagles—several of whom had run onto the track to greet their jockey and carry him away on their shoulders—was snatched away so swiftly that they were too stunned to feel anger.

Certainly, the Eagle contradioli would like to forget their horrific loss, but that is not the Sienese way. When the Medicis conquered the city in 1555, the powerful Florentine family asserted its dominance by affixing its crest to the facades of Siena’s important buildings, including the town hall, which overlooks the Campo. Like the other structures, it still bears the Medici mark. Some contemporary Sienese find the crests vexing and advocate for their removal, but most residents, while conceding that the crests are unpleasant, want them to remain because they are a part of the city’s history.

The July 2006 lineup featured horses from the seven contrade that did not compete in the July 2005 Palio, plus three others that were chosen in a lottery conducted three weeks before the race. (Only 10 horses run in any given contest, for safety reasons.) Each year a second Palio is held in August, and it follows the same format: The participants include the seven contrade that did not have a horse running in the previous August race and three that are selected in a lottery.

The contrade receive their horses through a lottery held three days prior to the race. (The animals are supplied by owners and breeders who are paid a bonus if a horse of theirs is selected for inclusion.) Contradioli gather in the Campo to see whether fortune will grant them an excellent horse—one that has won in the past—or a less experienced and thus less desirable one. Another lottery determines the order in which the 10 horses will line up against the starting rope. Even the finest animal can be undone by a poor starting position, one that is far from the inside of the track.

The horses, starting positions, and jockeys will vary from one Palio to the next, but the contradioli’s zeal never wavers. Their relationship to their contrada transcends fandom: Each contrada has its own chapel in which new members are baptized. Though the baptisms take place annually in a house of worship on the day of the contrada’s patron saint, the ceremony is secular. Older children and adults also can be adopted into a contrada by undergoing the same ritual performed on the infants. Once inducted, each new member receives a scarf bearing the contrada’s colors and logo. Most contradioli keep their scarves until they die, and no Sienese would ever don any scarf other than that of his own contrada. It just is not done.

Maria Elena Torchio distributes Forest (Selva) scarves to a group of American travelers who are seated at a long dinner table that has been placed outside of the city’s 14th-century baptistery. “These are the genuine colors,” she says of the scarves, which depict a pea green tree against a carrot orange background that is bordered in white. “They are a bit duller. The souvenir scarves are too bright.” Torchio, a member of the Forest contrada, is leading a Palio-themed trip offered by Smithsonian Journeys, a travel company affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. She has secured seats for the visitors at the outdoor feast that Forest is hosting, as per custom, on the night before the Palio. (The next Smithsonian Journeys Palio trip will take place from June 28 through July 4, 2007. The cost is $7,000 per person and does not include airfare to Florence.) Together, the 10 contrade participating in the race will feed some 25,000 people beneath the stars this night.

The Forest children have their own table, and they break into song, twirling their scarves over their heads. The adults follow their lead. Often they end with the cheer “Se, Se, Sel-va!” The contrade all have their own songs, which they sing to boast about themselves, to demand respect, to harass their enemies, and to recall past victories. Some lyrics are vulgar. The English-language version of the book La Terra in Piazza: An Interpretation of the Palio of Siena (Nuova Immagine, 2005) translates part of one song that the Porcupines began singing after their 1972 Palio victory, in which their horse drew a disadvantageous starting position but squeezed past the She-wolf horse to win:

We have started in eighth position

You have boxed us

But we screwed your ass

And we will get drunk.

The Forest contradioli decline to identify a specific rival. Forest member Vincenzo Pascucci says that the contrada lacks one because “there’s no reason to have an enemy.” Torchio cites practical reasons for remaining above the fray: “When you have no enemies, it’s easier to get a good departure [start in the race], because you aren’t blocked by your enemies. If they aren’t in the race, they can pay to block you.”

Whether it is a strategy or a default position, neutrality has rewarded Forest. It has won 35 Palios overall and has claimed 13 since World War II. But Pascucci points out that disentanglement can have its disadvantages. “When you have no enemies,” he says, “sometimes, all the others are enemies.”

The dinner’s head table is occupied by Forest leaders who include the capitano, the official who supervises the contrada’s Palio planning in the weeks preceding the race, and Alberto Ricceri, the jockey (fantino) whom the contradioli hired to represent them. The young man, who has ridden for several contrade but not yet for Forest, attends the dinner clad in blue jeans and his orange and green silk racing shirt. Most of the contradioli seem pleased with the choice of Ricceri, whom they call by his nickname, Salasso, a reference to the medieval medical practice of bloodletting. All Palio jockeys have nicknames, typically given to them by the first contrada for which they rode.

In his dinner speech, the capitano reveals that Salasso has Sienese roots and family in the Forest contrada, but some Forest members are suspicious. Distrusting jockeys is a long-established and well-justified tradition. According to Palio, a 1983 book published by Monte dei Paschi di Siena, a local bank that underwrites some Palio-related activities, Forest suffered a flagrant betrayal in 1855, when Francesco Santini, who had won 15 Palios in his career, permitted the Snail contrada’s horse to win. Confronted the next day by angry Forest members, Santini allegedly said, “But why should I have won for you skinflints who were giving me a hundred and forty, when I got a hundred and seventy out of it?” Forest sued Santini, and he was fined 200 lire.

However, contradioli do not always wait for the courts to dispense justice. La Terra in Piazza includes two undated color photos, one showing a Forest jockey climbing a balcony to flee from enraged contradioli, and the other depicting a Giraffe jockey who failed to escape. Clad in his red and white silks, he sprawls on the ground as the police who surround him warn furious Giraffe members to stay back.

Contradioli invest their hearts and souls in the Palio, but they also invest the contents of their wallets. They pay dues, offer donations, and attend fund-raising dinners, dances, carnivals, gaming nights, and other events staged year-round to benefit the contrada and its Palio war chest. The Forest diners paid 60 euros apiece for their meals.

Some portion of the Palio budget is earmarked for partiti, deals that are struck before the race to assist or frustrate other contrade. Pacts are made between, against, and on behalf of various entities, and the bargaining continues until the last second. For example, if the Forest jockey draws the third position and will have the Eagle horse on one side in second and the Goose horse on the other in fourth, the jockeys from Panther and Tower might offer the Forest jockey money to hinder their contrade’s respective enemies. Most often, only the winning contrada will be compelled to honor its partiti debts.

It is difficult to confirm the sum that a contrada spends—including the price of the partiti—on a victory. La Terra in Piazza states that about 30 years ago, the cost of glory hovered between $69,000 and $86,000, but it notes that “Prices may reach ten times as much, it is said, or even more.” Ask a contradiolo about the size of his contrada’s victory budget, and he will grin and say “millions” and not offer anything more specific. It is rumored that in August 2005, Tower paid its jockey, who ended the contrada’s 44-year Palio drought, 200,000 euros, which was sufficient to convince him to race to win instead of seeking a more lucrative payday through partiti.

When Salasso leaves the table at about 11 pm, the capitano tells the diners that the jockey is headed to bed. But in all likelihood, he is departing so that he can help negotiate partiti that will benefit Forest—and that Forest would have redeemed if Salasso and his horse had won the Palio.


After the July race, the costumed delegates that represented Panther in the pre-Palio parade remain dressed in their tights, floppy hats, and fur-trimmed tunics. They sing as they march through the streets of Siena, accompanied by drummers (tamburinos) and flag-wavers (alfieri). Panther last won a Palio 12 years ago, but this victory is especially enjoyable because it was unexpected, and because it has plunged the Eagles into an unfamiliar circle of hell.

In most horse races, the order is win, place, and show, but in the Palio, it is win and shame. La Terra in Piazza identifies four types of losers: the enemy of the winner, the one who placed second, the one who drew an excellent horse but still lost, and the one who held the lead for most of the race but ultimately was overtaken. By this reckoning, Eagle is a triple loser, spared complete humiliation only by receiving a mediocre horse in the lottery.

“For Panther, this is a lifetime orgasm. It’s very rare for this to happen, and right on the finish line,” says Dario Castagno, author of the book Too Much Tuscan Sun (Globe Pequot, 2004), a fluent English speaker, and a member of the Caterpillar contrada since 1996. “Eagle was so destroyed, they didn’t even think about the jockey for an hour,” he adds, explaining why the contradioli refrained from inflicting their frustrations on him.

Panther’s groom (barbaresco) escorts the winning horse, an 8-year-old gelding named Choci, around town after giving it a pedicure: Tradition calls for painting its hooves gold. Also, a pacifier is attached to its bridle. Sienese believe that a contrada is reborn when it wins a Palio, and the victors indulge themselves by embracing the symbols of infancy. They drink wine from baby bottles and suck on pacifiers. In contrast, the contrada with the longest losing streak is derided as the granny (nonna), because it is furthest from rebirth. This unenviable distinction is held by Owl (Civetta), which has not won since 1979.

The Panther procession includes a number of teenagers, who are clad in their uncomfortable and ridiculous-looking outfits, parading for hours in the summer heat in front of everyone they know, swigging from baby bottles and sucking unselfconsciously on pacifiers. The teens’ endorsement underlines the truth of the race: The Palio is not a Disney version of something that the Sienese used to do, and it is not performed for the benefit of tourists. The race is broadcast on national Italian television, but the Sienese would continue to run the Palio even if the locals were its only viewers.

Mario Bandinelli, a 50-year-old lifelong Panther, watched the race the way most Sienese do: while standing in the Campo with friends. “It was terrible, because we thought Eagle was going to win,” he says. “I was with two girls, and they were on the ground, crying ‘We lost, we lost.’ Then we stood up and jumped [over the Campo barriers] to catch the Palio.”

Until that moment, fate seemed to conspire against Panther: In addition to getting the number-nine starting position, in the lottery, the contrada had received Choci, a horse that made his Palio debut in August 2005 and placed last. “[Before the race], we were very sad. We thought the Palio was finished for us, we thought we had no chance,” Bandinelli says. “This was a good surprise.”

Eagle still could ruin the party, however. The two rival contrade were going to meet again on August 16, in the second and last Palio of 2006, and if Eagle were to win, it would sour the joy Panther is savoring. “It’s terrible when you win the Palio and then your enemy does immediately after you,” says Castagno, a Caterpillar who in 1997 endured seeing his former enemy, Giraffe, achieve a cappotto—back-to-back July and August Palio victories—a feat that occurred twice in the 20th century. “It doesn’t cancel the victory completely, but Panther will be crying and ashamed. Eagle will rub in everything Panther rubbed in them. They can get revenge.”

As he considers the possible ramifications of the August race, Bandinelli has his Palio priorities in order. “First, you beat your enemy,” he says. “Second, you win.”

Panther did not have to endure any revenge, and Eagle was spared the misery of watching Panther score a cappotto. Forest triumphed in the August Palio, despite receiving a debut horse and drawing the 10th starting position. Salasso, the jockey who rode Forest’s horse in July, secured the contrada’s 36th Palio victory. Fittingly for Forest, the contrada that avoids making enemies, its winning horse is named Caro Amico, which in Italian means beloved friend.

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