Palio di Siena

Twice a year each year in June and August, the people of the Italian city of Siena, crowd by their thousands into the Piazza del Campo to watch fast paced, ferocious adrenaline rush of a horserace that dates back to the 14th century.

While the city’s Piazza has been the site of sporting entertainment for centuries, hosting everything from jousting, to bullfighting, to an all-in-brawl boxing match known as ‘pugna’, it was not until 1590 when bullfighting was outlawed that the horse race became popular.

Starting as a buffalo race, the Palio eventually developed into the pageant filled horserace it remains today. For usually no more than 90 seconds, 10 jockeys ride their horses bareback around a tight and dangerous track (the paved piazza which is covered in sand for the event) and not only is whipping your horse allowed, so is the whipping of other rider’s horses to throw them of track.

The riders represent their ‘contrada’ or city wards of which there are 17 in total, each in turn represented by the waving of colourful battle flags.

Being that the track is so treacherous and many jockeys fall of, the race is actually won by the horses who represent the contrade, not the riders. So the first horse to cross the finish line is the winner. The triumphant contrada then receives a hand painted banner called the Palio or drapellone (the rag).

The race is fiercely contested between the city wards and is a matter of pride and honour and rivalries are the centuries old rivalries are very real.

Director Cosmina Spender has recently released a documentary capturing the intensity of the race. The passion of the race is summed up perfectly on the film’s website…

“Imagine that all Yankees or Red Sox fans (or Chelsea and Arsenal fans) had been baptised in the church of their team and lived as near neighbors their whole lives. Imagine that their neighborhoods had been enemies for hundreds of years but only got to compete against each other once or twice a year. Imagine if the players and the ball were blessed in their churches before every match and the centre of the city came to a standstill for a week beforehand – now you begin to understand the intense and passionate civic rivalry that animates the Palio.”

See the trailer here. http://www.thepalio.com

Jonathan Bartoletti






Photo Credits: Guillaume Bonn from Palio – The Film and  (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters) 

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