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Il Palio di Siena

Valdimontone, Drago, Istrice, Civetta, Aquila, Chiocciola, Nicchio, Tartuca, Giraffa, Torre.
These are the ten contrade which raced in the Palio on 16 August 2001, the first Palio dell'Assunta (Assumption) of the third millennium. The contrade are chosen by lot according to a strict set of regulations that have been in force since 1745. And so Siena moves into the new millennium together with its greatest tradition, the Palio delle Contrade. Its date of origin is uncertain, but it is said to have been in existence as long as Siena has, and to have evolved and changed together with the city over the centuries, whilst preserving its popular roots.
The first races were run 'lengthways', that is through the widest streets of the city, with the finish line at the old cathedral of S. Bonifazio. The prize for the winner, which then also became the name of the race, was a "pallium" - a banner of precious fabric.

In the 13th century, the finish line was moved to in front of the new cathedral, and in the 16th century the race started to be held in Piazza del Campo, 'in the round', as it is today, even though only ten of the seventeen contrade in the city can participate. Before the 1348 plague there were eighty.
The Palio is not a show for the benefit of tourists, even though they flock to Siena from all over the world to see it. Rather, it is an expression of the spirit of the city itself, a display of the pride, strength and faith of its inhabitants.

The oldest document about the Palio dates back to 1238 and is a judicial ruling, while a parchment from 1265 provides information about the constitution of the contrade; although different in number to the ones that exist today, they were already a vital part of the fabric of the city. In 1729, Beatrice Violante of Baviera, the Governess of Siena, decided to put an end to the endless controversies and issued an important proclamation fixing the number of contrade at 17 and establishing the boundaries between them. This is still in force today.
From that time on the contrade began to draw up capitoli (a kind of constitution) to organize and regulate social life, shared spaces, the oratories and headquarter buildings where the contradaioli belonging to the same contrada could meet.

Belonging to the contrada is of great importance to the Sienese, and the contrada is present at salient moments throughout the lives of the contradaioli: at baptism (conducted by the prior using water from the spring of the contrada), at marriage (if the bride and groom belong to different contrade, they will each have a pageboy from their contrada behind them), and at their funeral, which takes place in the presence of pages dressed in the colours of their contrada.
The Palio emerged as a popular manifestation of joy following the great political and religious feast in August to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, queen and patroness of the city and the state of Siena. Everyone - from the most humble to the richest person, including the city noblemen - had to take an offering of tribute in pure wax as an act of devotion to the Madonna dei Senesi. The quantity depended on the offerent.

On this occasion Siena was transformed into an "open city", and became very lively as goods and animals started to arrive for a large-scale market. Jesters, acrobats, buffoons and healers also came in from the surrounding area to amuse and entertain the public.
Traditionally the Palio is held twice a year: once on 2 July in honour of Maria in Provenzano, and the more famous Palio dell'Assunta on 16 August. However, others may sometimes be organized to mark special occasions.

The two principal events begin respectively on 29 June and 13 August. In the three days preceding the race, one of the major processes is the tratta, that is the matching by lot of horse and contrada. All that happens before this is that the horses are given a veterinary inspection and ridden three times round the piazza to check their adaptability to the track. As each horse is assigned to a contrada, the Barbaresco takes delivery of the selected horse and leads it to the stable of his contrada accompanied by a following of contradaioli.

The jockey and horse then have six trial runs (in the morning and evening) to get accustomed to the track. After each trial, groups of contradaioli escort their horse back to the contrada. The fifth trial is the 'dress rehearsal', at the end of which members of each contrada meet for the big propitiary dinner. If a pair of newly-weds are from different contrade, they split up, each one going to the dinner of their own contrada.
Early in the morning on the day of the Palio, the archbishop celebrates the messa del fantino, a Mass for the jockeys, in the chapel adjoining the Palazzo Comunale. Then there is the last of the trial runs, known as the provaccia; however, the riders are saving themselves for the actual race. At 10.30, in Palazzo Comunale, the segnatura dei fantini - the marking of the jockeys - takes place in the presence of the Mayor; from this moment on there can be no changes or substitutions. In the early afternoon, each horse is blessed in the private oratory of the contrada.

After this, members of the contrade and city council representatives dressed in ancient multicoloured costumes parade through the streets of the old city centre, stopping in Piazza Salimbeni at the "casino dei Nobili" in front of Palazzo Chigi Saracini and in Piazza Duomo where there is a flag-waving display. They then move off in a strictly determined order at about 5.00 in the afternoon for a ceremonial parade round Piazza del Campo.
When the procession is over, attention shifts to the flags; the alfieri line up in a row and to the beat of their own drum, they perform the sbandierata della vittoria - a highly-skilled and artistic victory flag-waving routine beneath the windows of the Palazzo Comunale.

After this complex ritualistic procession has finished, a firecracker is released to announce the eagerly-awaited entrance of the horses from the Entrone. Each jockey is given an ox whip, with which they can urge on their horse or, as more frequently happens, block their adversaries and defend themselves during the race.
The horses and jockeys then enter the mossa, that is the starting point, which lies between two thick hemp ropes. This they do in a pre-established order. When nine of the contrade are already in position between the two ropes, the race starts when the tenth enters suddenly and the Mossiere (a kind of starting judge), providing the rules have been observed - sometimes the process has to be repeated - releases the rope stretched in front of the hooves of the horses, which by this time are very restless and agitated.
The horses rush away from the starting rope and in little more than a minute complete the three circuits of the dangerous track.
For the contradaioli, however, the race seems to last an eternity, and is experienced with an apprehensive mixture of fear and hope.

Little more than a minute to run uphill, downhill and round corners at breakneck speed in a bitter, passionate race, a brief instant of falling horses and jockeys, whip lashes and desperate cries, all going on around a delirious crowd.
Even a horse which is scosso, that is riderless, can win the race for its contrada.
The Palio is a race where one participates solely to win.
After the race, there is pandemonium - the triumph of the victorious contrada and the awarding of the Palio, fist fights, vendettas against disloyal jockeys, the utter despair of the losers.

The victory procession goes to Provenzano if it is the July Palio or to the Duomo if the race is in August, where a Te Deum of thanks is recited.
The victory procession then heads back to the home contrada, where in the late evening there is an official visit from the city authorities and courtesy visits from allied contrade.
In the autumn, between September and October, the victorious contrada puts up decorations and holds a victory dinner, attended by all the contradaioli. The place of honour is occupied by the winning horse.
The reason why the victory is celebrated so long after the race - a frequent question many people ask - is summed up in this typical Sienese response: "the greatest joy is finishing a Palio and starting another one, because at Siena the Palio is run all through the year".


Picture by Sandro Santioli

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