I am too excited to do any research this morning, waiting for my parents to arrive from the States. Their plane will land in
Florence in mid afternoon. So, while waiting to go pick them up at the airport, I decided to write about the Palio di Siena, which is a traditional bareback horse race held twice a year (July 2 and August 16) in Siena. It just so happened that yesterday I watched the Palio broadcast live on national TV. I must say, even though I do NOT approve of animal races or anything that puts animals in danger, not at all!, the Palio manages to hold me spellbound, mainly because I don’t want to hear about or see any horses being injured. If any of you has ever seen the Palio, during which ten horses race madly around the dangerous corners of Piazza del Campo (three times), you will know what I mean. Yesterday, though, no horses were seriously injured (one horse was slightly hurt during a trial run, but that’s it), so that was a big relief! (By the way, these are photos I took in 2006 at the Palio of Ferrara, not the Senese one, see below.)
Yesterday’s Palio was interesting because two horses, one from the contrada (city ward) of the Nicchio and the other from the contrada of the Oca, crossed the finish line neck to neck. The judges had difficulty assigning the Palio (a silk banner made specifically for each race), which went first to the Oca, then to the Nicchio, then back to the Oca. The contradaioli, or inhabitants of each contrada, began pulling the silk Palio back and forth above the crowd. The TV commentators said that nothing like that had ever happened before. By the way, for a bit of Palio history, you can check out Wikipedia. I would just like to mention that the Palio probably originated in the Middle Ages; however, the first modern Palio, with horses racing around Piazza del Campo, took place in 1650 ca. (before then, donkeys and even buffalos were used).
There are fierce competitive feelings among the inhabitants of the different Senese contrade, 17 in all (but there used to be 40 or so). Even the children of Siena are brought up in this competitive atmosphere, but for the most part it’s all in good fun. Before yesterday’s race, a husband and wife belonging to two different contrade were interviewed. Their baby girl belongs to the mother’s contrada (but if they have another child, he or she will belong to his father’s contrada). This is a serious matter: every year, on the contrada Saint’s day, all the children born that year are baptized at the fountain of their contrada church. They then become members for life of that particular contrada, and are like brothers and sisters to the other members. It’s okay for two members of opposing contrade to fall in love, but during the days of the Palio they become rivals. In many ways, this ancient tradition adds to the wonder and appeal of this lovely city. However, at the risk of offending any readers from Siena, in my opinion it is time to stop the horse-racing part of the Palio. It is simply too risky for the horses. An example: during the August 16 Palio of 2004, a horse fell and was trampled to death by the other horses. Incredibly, the race was not stopped, even though it could have caused other horses to fall. Any comment would be superfluous.
Traditional Palios held in other Italian cities are not as famous as the one in Siena, but perhaps equally spectacular. Last year, my husband and I spent a long weekend in Ferrara, where the most ancient Palio in the world (dating back to the 13th century) is held. We didn’t go see the horse race, which was just as well, since in 2006 three horses were lamed and had to be killed. We went instead to watch a couple of the magnificent flag-throwing competitions, accompanied by the sound of drums and trumpets played by inhabitants of the contrade dressed in Renaissance costume (see my photo). Absolutely stunning. We couldn’t move because of the huge cheering crowds surrounding us (not my favourite thing, crowds, I confess), but we got caught up in the excitement and began cheering, too. Of course, we cheered everyone, even the few competitors who dropped their flags. But I noticed that, whenever a flag was dropped, the entire crowd would let out a howl of disappointment. That is, there was no cheering from opposite factions. Very nice. The young man who won the single flag-throwing competition was handling and whirling and throwing so many flags that I lost count. And he didn’t drop ONE flag. I can’t tell you how incredible this was. Never seen anything like it. And it goes to show that a Palio can be exciting even without being dangerous both to humans and to animals. So let’s keep the spectacular flag competitions and the magnificent costume pageants and ban the dangerous horse racing.