Essay from Robert Thomas

Palio: Back In Time

Jockey on a horse takes a sharp turn at the Palio race in Siena. Dirt path, old tall buildings, lots of spectators.
Trecciolino alla curva di San Martini


I have visited Italy a number of times. The country and culture keep pulling me
back, luring me from the modern simplicity, and chain store repetitiveness of new world America, into an old world that has lovingly retained its ancient patina of history. Italy always tugged at my deep sense of aesthetic with its art, architecture and culture.
From the ruins of a city born of Romulus and Remus to the rebirth of the classical form
in Renaissance Florence; from the creative genius of Da Vinci and Michelangelo to the
works of Ettore Sottsass and Renzo Piano, Italy has brought forth a vast array of eras
and genius, whose creations have enhanced its geographic walls, turning it into one of
the world’s great museums.


I return again. This time to Siena. However, rather than remain a passive observer
of art and architecture, as before, I now immerse myself in one of Italy’s cultural
masterpieces: Il Palio Siena, the annual bareback horserace which began in 1633, and
has continued almost unabated ever since. Twice during the summer, in July and
August, Siena reaches back in time as Medieval costumed residents participate in the
Corteo Storico, a parade that winds through the back streets, and around the central
piazza before the historic race takes place. The city becomes a glorious pageant,
decked with colorful flags representing the seventeen competing contrade or districts.
A single horse and rider represents each contrada. While only ten horses race in any
single heat, those not selected in the July race will enter the August race. In both
months, the streets of Siena echo with the chorus of fraternal song. Boisterous
taunting ensues between nemici (enemy contrade), and an air of intense rivalry mixes
with festivity.


With bag in tow, I head down Via Salicoto towards my apartment located just under
the Mangia Tower overlooking Piazza del Campo. I wondered if Tony, my Bay Area
friend, arrived before me. He and I planned the trip a year prior, as a brief stag getaway from our beloved partners. Tony, a stout demonstrative fellow, born in Tricarico, a small hilltop village in the ankle of Italy, never visited Tuscany. His family moved to Milan after the war, and after spending some time in Northern Italy, he emigrated to America. He never planned to stay, but only to learn English and a trade, before returning back to his homeland. However, the fates had other plans for him, as he fell in love with an immigrant woman, Elena, and married. He developed a successful trade, the proceeds of which went into buying up real estate. Like many other immigrants to America, with little in his pocket, a limited education, and much
ambition, he found a successful niche for himself, and decided to become an
American.


Via Salicoto is a narrow lane wedged between high villa walls of brick and cut
stone. The thin passage only allows for sunlight to reach the cobbled pavement during
a short period of time during the height of the day. This was a blessing, as it was hot,
and the buildings shadow afforded me a degree of comfort as I pulled heavy luggage
behind me, the small rollers frequently catching in thin crevices between cobbles.

Gazing ahead I could see the bright open space of the Campo. I quickened my pace in
anticipation of viewing the famous tufa and clay packed racecourse. As I walked out
into the bright sunlight, the ornately carved white marble loggia, the Cappella di Piazza, appeared to my left. Built in 1352 to honor the Virgin Mary following the end of the Black Death pandemic, its tall niched pillars held statues of saints revered by the
locals. Towering above it stood the crenelated Torre del Mangia, supposedly named for
a gluttonous bell ringer. I could only glimpse the top stories of buildings that
surrounded the Campo. A high thickly padded barrier blocked my view of the entire
campo. The fence allowed for residents to have access to the campo, while providing
protection from the riders and their horses that sometimes careened into the sides of
the racecourse.


I followed the fence line to number 78, located just outside a large iron-studded and
arched wooden double door. Inside the entry I encountered a small sunlit courtyard
with a stairway leading up one flight to my rented residence. The proprietor sent me a
door card, which I touched to the entry lock. The spacious place had two bedrooms, a
large bath, a kitchenette and a living room, with windows that overlooked the Campo.
Tony and I selected this flat specifically so we could scan the entire racecourse during
the event without having to stand shoulder to shoulder with a horde of others out in the
heat.


I heard a knock at the door, and expected to see Tony, but instead, an attractive
woman in her 30s stood before me.
“Buona Sera, I want to introduce myself. I am Maria Sciponi. I am the caretaker of
the apartment, and I am available if you need any assistance.”
She spoke fluent English, and I assumed she knew I was American, based on the
reservation information. Maria gave me a quick tour of the apartment, and instructed
me on several kitchen appliances.
“Is this your first time in Italy?” she asked. “
“No, I have been to Italy several times, and this is my second visit to Siena.”


Maria had a wonderful lilt to her voice, enhanced by a sweet Italian accent. Bright
red lipstick highlighted her lovely smile. Her eyes were dark, accentuated by heavy
black arching brows reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. She explained that the apartment was
within the Torre contrada, and they had a horse racing in this week’s Palio. Before
leaving, she left me a number of brochures from various restaurants, and a timetable of Palio events.


“Ciao, enjoy yourself,” She whispered in a soft seductive voice, closing the door
behind her.
I opened the large shuttered windows facing the Campo. Before me lay a vast
scallop shaped piazza surrounded by multistory buildings. The race track encircled the
entire outer edge of the piazza. In addition to the padded wall below me, steep
temporary bleachers, shielded by a low wooden fence along the track, ringed the
remaining plaza. Narrow openings, the ends of passages from various parts of the city,
broke the symmetry of stone edifices. Along these streets the contradiaoli (district
residents) led their riders and horses into the Campo from the various districts
throughout the city. A low fence encircled the inside circumference of the race track,
creating a large central area where people, unable to rent an apartment above or one of the bleacher sections, could gather to watch the race.


“Hey, Bob…Bob.” A voice called out from below the window. Tony arrived, waving
frantically to get my attention.
“Ciao Tony, come through the wooden entry, and up the stairs. I’ll meet you at the
door.” I opened the door and watched him slowly climb the steps. After a good hug
and some back patting, I showed him to his bedroom, where he set down his luggage.
I immediately went to the kitchen, and fixed us both a Negrone. Exhausted from
having toted his bag through several blocks of crowded pedestrian lanes, he sat back
on the sofa and sighed. He complained of losing the directions to the rental, and
having to rely on locals to find the place.


“They don’t speak Italian here,” he grumbled.
In spite of having spent some time in Northern Italy, Tony still retained the
Lucanese dialect of Basilicata, a dirt poor region of southern Italy. The area remained
quite feudal with a very unique dialect of its own. It remained the poverty belt of Italy
even after WWII, and no public education system was ever established while he lived
there.
The tongue of Siena was primarily Tuscan; therefore, Tony had some difficulty with
the nuances of directions people offered him. Given Tony’s penchant for belaboring his
gripes, I hoped the differences in dialect would not interfere in our ability to relate to the locals. It was getting late, and the sun was already below the line of terra-cotta
rooftops capping the city.


“Let’s hit a trattoria for dinner,” I suggested. Tony agreed, and I grabbed a number
of brochures left by Maria. The top brochure listed Trattoria La Torre, located on Via
Salicotto. We headed out and around, finding the restaurant close by. Outside the
entry hung a colorful flag representing the Torre contrade. The narrow street
discouraged any alfresco dining, and since it remained hot, we opted to dine in, and
headed towards the entrance. An extensive and inviting menu hung next to the door.
Some of the names of the Secondi were unfamiliar to me, but I counted on Tony to
translate for me.
Diners filled the tables. The waiter escorted us around them and down a flight of
stone stairs into what seemed to be a hewn out cavern. Chisel marks covered the
arched limestone ceiling, as well as the walls. A series of tables lay end to end, with an
elderly couple sitting at the far end of the table. The waiter seated us at the other end,
poured us a couple glasses of wine, and handed us our menus.
“At least I can read the menu,” Tony groused.

I then knew that this was going to be an ongoing issue throughout the trip.
“We’ll see if these people can cook real Italian.”
For Tony nothing short of Southern Italian cuisine would satisfy him. I loved his
cooking, and looked forward to the great meals he created in his kitchen. However, hot
peppers always infused his cuisine. From previous visits to Tuscany, I remember the
food being on the mild side. I guessed he would not find the food to his liking, but he
would put up with it. We agreed on an antipasto of Caprese, and ordered the ravioli
pomodoro to start, deciding to wait to see how full were before ordering a secondo.
We talked of the next day’s events, which included individual contrada celebrations
taking place among the warren of streets radiating out from the Campo. Suddenly, we
heard a round of applause from the upstairs room. Next, rhythmic clapping
accompanied the sound of a rousing song.

“It’s their contrada song,” Tony noted. “I guess they’re starting early.”
Shortly after the chorus subsided, the waiter led two gentlemen down to the table
and sat them near us. An elderly man, and a younger male in his twenties or thirties,
both wearing fazzoletti (kerchiefs) of the Torre contrada, sat opposite each other with
the older gentleman facing Tony. As they read through their menus, Tony suddenly
gasped, and in a loud, and excited voice he uttered,
“Giordano, Giordano Pace!”
The older man turned, looked toward Tony, and immediately stood up.
“Tony Calano,” he replied.
Tony immediately stepped around the table to greet the man. Exchanging multiple
hugs, they engaged in a highly animated Lucanese conversation with each other.
Giordano introduced the younger man as his son, Stefano.
“This is an old friend of mine from Tricarico,” Tony informed me. “We grew up
together.”

Conversation between them continued throughout the meal, as they made up for
lost time. Between animated bouts of Italian, Tony kept me informed of their
conversation. The Paces moved to the Siena area shortly after the Calanos left to go
north. While living in Tricarico, the family eked out a living as herders and breeders,
raising sheep and horses. They rented their grazing land from a distant landlord, who
eventually sold the property. The new owner did not want to continue their lease. The
Paces had an opportunity to buy land just outside Siena on a rent to own program
offered by the government. Their knowledge of animal husbandry, particularly of
horses, allowed them to prosper in Siena by providing steeds for the Palio. They also
raised sheep, giving the local cheese makers access to their milk.


Tony waved at the waiter. “Cameriere—peperocino per favore,”
As soon as the server set the small canister of dried peppers on the table, Giordano
quickly snapped it up, drew out a pepper, crinkled it in his fingers, and sprinkled it
across his pasta. Tony soon followed suit.
As we finished up the last of the meal, Stefano reached down to his side and pulled
a long strip of leather from a loop on his belt. He laid the object on the table between
us. Taken aback at its sudden appearance, Tony and I sat silent for a moment, as both
Stefano and his father looked at us with wide grins.
“Pene di bue,” Giordano explained, gesturing toward the object with his hand.
“Pene di bue,” he said again, gesturing as if we should know its significance.
Tony smirked, and with a delicate touch, he gently pushed it away from him, as if it
were some tainted object. I nudged Tony with my hand and gave him an inquisitive
look.


“What gives?” I asked. Tony told me it was a tanned ox penis “Ew, why is he
showing that to us, at a dining table, no less?”
Upon seeing our repugnance, the two men laughed. They explained that it was a
horse whip used by the jockey during the race. The whips were traditionally made from
the foreskin of an ox penis. Stefano used the this particular whip during his practice
trials. He considered it special, and a good luck piece. He kept it with him, since
nemici sometimes stole them from jockeys. The men inferred that Stefano was racing
in the Palio, and he represented the Torre contrada in the race.


We congratulated Stefano, and offered a toast to his success. I assumed he rode
one of his own horses, and asked about its characteristics. Stefano, who knew
English, explained that riders preferred a mixed breed horse—a fast sprinter, with high
maneuverability. Sudden speed and quick moves are key strategies employed during
the race. The horse also had to have a sedate demeanor, remaining calm, yet
responsive with chaos all around them. Racers also chose horses with low, wide
withers. Riding bareback left no protection for the male anatomy, and high narrow
withers could be problematic. Bareback riding required the jockeys to use their legs to
hold onto the horse. A horse with large bulging flanks forced the rider’s legs outward,
making it difficult to grip. Stefano knew his horse well. He began training it as a foal,
eventually riding it every day. He confided in a low voice that his horse was indeed
both fast and attentive to his cues, which gave him an extra advantage. He planned to
get out front as quickly as possible, and stay there, using his horse and whip to block
others from gaining an advantage on him.

Lots of people in Siena in front of old buildings getting ready to watch the palio!


“Santa Maria blessed me when I got my horse,” he said with a sly wink. Apparently,
horses were allocated by lottery. Did he obtain his horse by chance? Stefano’s wink
said otherwise.
“ How did you come to ride for Torre contrade?” I asked. Most riders were hired by
contrada based on their past successes. Riders did not owe any particular allegiance
to a district. They may switch contrada on any given year.
“Last year I married a woman who lives in the Torre contrada. I had ridden before,
and while I never won, I have come in second numerous times. Given my history, and
the marriage, they delighted in having me represent them this year, particularly with my own horse.”


Before leaving, Stefano invited us to tomorrow night’s contrada dinner, which took
place at Piazzetta Arrigo Pecchio, a ways down Via Salicoto. Dinner began at seven
pm, but the party started much earlier.
Tony and I finished our meal at eleven pm. We left the cafe, which remained filled
with revelers. In the warm Tuscan air, we heard choruses bellowing from various
corners of the city. People stirred about in gatherings of mutual camaraderie
throughout the long evening. Once in our beds, we were lulled to sleep by the distant
melodies emanating from all corners a joyous city.
A sudden loud noise from the other room awakened me. “Tony is that you?” I
asked.


“ Si, si it’s me.” He replied. “ I knocked over the standing lamp in the living area.
Nothing broke.”
“ Tony you’re up early?” I wondered why he was up at six am.
“I woke up early and could not go back to sleep. I thought I would go for a short
walk, and get some espresso before eating breakfast.”
“Okay, bring me back a double, I’ll catch you later.” Awake and already thinking
about today’s events, I shifted about in bed for fifteen minutes, before deciding to get
up.
After a shower, shave and dressing, I took a look out of our apartment window. The
sun broke over the rooftops, illuminating church towers and domes all across the city.
The view of antiquity stirred an intense emotion in me: an animus of some kind, an
ancient archetypal sense of historic continuity was about to play out, as it had since


the fourteenth century. Early morning revelers busied themselves up and down the
passagi, rolling out trattoria awnings, placing tables and chairs, and setting up souvenir stands. Shouts of “Bongiorno, e un bel giorno, per uno gara.”lilted from the passages.
A new Palio day had begun.


Looking down , I noticed Tony and Maria engaged in conversation. I thought it was
nice that he had been able to connect with her. She might come in handy, should we
need her services, and speaking Italian to her might make things easier. Tony held a
paper tray containing what appeared to be two small paper coffee cups as he stood
closely in front of her. At one point Maria put her left hand on Tony’s shoulder, and
with her right hand she gently caressed his cheek. For a moment nothing was said
between them as they stared directly into each other’s eyes. Maria then kissed him
gently on the cheek, turned and walked around him, heading towards Via Salicotto.
Tony stood alone for a minute, turned to watch her go, then continued on through the
door below. Perhaps Maria’s services went beyond housekeeping? I decided to let
sleeping dogs lie, and not bring the incident up, leaving Tony to reveal his intensions, if
he wished.
Breakfast consisted of biscotti, prosciutto and melon, with espresso. Maria had
stocked the small refrigerator well. Following colazione, we decided to explore the city.
With a map brochure of the city sights, we headed out the door. We definitely wanted
to see the cathedral; Santa Maria Assunta and its Biblioteca Piccolomini.
Special Murano glass lighting made for each of the contrade adorned the building
facades all along the various passageways. Colorful banners also festooned the narrow
lanes. The contrade erected gates between each other, manned by locals who briefly
questioned unfamiliar pedestrians. However, as we wore no fazzoletti identifying us as
nemici, and we spoke primarily in English, we had no difficulty passing though to our
destinations. Locals set up tables and chairs along the streets and small plazas
throughout the city in preparation for the nights festivities. On the eve of the race,
contrade engaged in ritual events as they dined outdoors in their districts.
Passing from the Torre Contrada into the Aquila Contrada, we arrived at the Duomo,
where we stood before a magnificent gothic facade designed by Nicola Pisano. The
entire cathedral was built piecemeal, the Black Death having interrupted construction.


A larger nave was never completed, leaving a portion of the wall exposed to the
elements. Three large doors embraced the front of the cathedral, cradled in
meticulously carved Gothic stone arches. On either side of the doors tall spires
loomed upward. Directly above the center door a large rondel housing a stained glass
window faced the front. Two additional spires abutted either side of the rondel. A large
intricately carved triangular edifice capped the round stained glass window. One could
spend hours exploring all of the stone carvings and architectural detail displayed on
the face of the church.


Upon our entry into the cathedral, a cavernous arched nave, held high by
horizontally striped columns of white and black stone immediately drew our eyes
upward. Medieval and Renaissance paintings, as well as carved statues covered the
side arcades and vaulted ceilings. Above and along the arcades, tall gothic arched
windows infused bright light to the interior. At the far end of the nave, the vaulted
ceiling gave way to a large coffered dome. The entire floor consisted of intricate
intaglio involving geometric designs; a multitude of scenes from pagan antiquity; the
old testament; the life of Christ, and the saints. The artwork was almost overwhelming.
Everywhere I gazed some new delight of religious significance appeared. Marble
statues by Michelangelo; Bernini; Pisano, and Donatello stood solitary in some places,
while wall niches housed others. An ornately carved pulpit by Nicola Pisano stood on
eight columns, each standing atop carved lions. Densely packed reliefs of varying
depths, depicting significant events in Christ’s life, covered the octagonal pulpit rail.
At the end of the left aisle stood the door to the Piccólomini Library. A highly ornate
interior adorned the single room. Intensely colored frescoes covered every square inch
of the walls and vaulted ceiling. The library housed a collection of 15th-century
illuminated manuscripts. Tony and I were overcome by the shear beauty of the main
cathedral and the library, and it took us several hours to appreciate its magnificence.


All of it appeared well preserved, and looked as fresh as the day it was completed
On the way back to our contrada, we decided to stop for a light alfresco lunch at
trattoria. Searching for a good place to eat, we passed a street labelled; Via Dei
Malcontenti. “Perhaps this was an old speaker’s corner?” Toni chuckled. Curious,
we hesitantly passed through the via, expecting someone to jolt from a door and start
bitching at us about something. However, we escaped unscathed and arrived at
Piazza Mercato with our egos intact. Centered in the Piazza, a large sheltered structure supported by an array of pillars, held a weekly market. Adjacent to the market we glimpsed an array of umbrellas advertising Antica Trattoria Papei across the bottom of the canopies. Hungry, we headed directly for the trattoria. We ordered vino and a
light snack, and sat back al fresco to do some people watching. When the waiter gave
us our food, I asked about the Via Dei Malcontenti. He informed us that in ancient
times prisoners were escorted down the passageway to a gallows for their hanging. I
thought Malconenti seemed a bit of an understatement, given the fate of the prisoners.
Perhaps Via Condannato (doomed) would have been more appropriate. Tony and I
briefly discussed what crimes might have resulted in a death penalty back then.
Witchcraft and heresy first came to mind. We agreed that the Inquisition likely provided
a good amount of activity for the hangman.


We assumed that mostly locals wore their contrade fazzoletti or other identifying
attributes. Occasionally, two groups of competing rivals met each other as they
passed before us. This usually resulted in a brief confrontation and shouting match.
Fortunately none of the skirmishes lasted long or ended in violence. However, on
occasion things reverted to fisticuffs. In fact, ritualized pugilistic events (Cazzotti)
between contrade took place in the Campo at other times of the year. These
structured events involved as many as 200 men, ending in hand shakes all around.
Tony and I decided to sit and relax with a couple of aperitifs for the rest of the late
afternoon, as we absorbed the excitement all around us. Small bands of men and
women occasionally stopped and sang their contrade songs to the delight of
customers sitting at the cafe


At one point I blurted, “I saw that you met Maria the other day.” A long pause
ensued as Tony seemed to choose his words carefully.
“Si, si. She is a nice woman, and quite beautiful, as well.”
No matter what age, men continue to admire attractive women. However, instead
of being an opportunity, older men tend to shift to a more aesthetic point of view.
“ I love the old architecture of this city”, Tony continued. He obviously did not want
to pursue the previous topic.

Flags of different neighborhoods in Siena


As evening approached, we headed back to our apartment. Sienese party goers
already packed Via Salicoto. After a quick freshening up, we walked back down the
via, striding between rows of long tables placed on either side of the passage. We
eventually came upon Piazzetta Arrigo Pecchio. At one end of the piazzetta a large
table reserved for dignitaries was separated from the rest. We heard our names called
out. Turning towards the sound, we noticed Giordano and Stefano seated near the
center of the separate table. Giordano stood and pointed to two empty seats at
another table nearby. We joined the crowd and settled down for the nights festivities.
In fact we felt privileged, as individual contrade events were the singular domain of the
contradiaoli, and tourists were perceived as outsiders.


Servers scurried about placing food items on various tables throughout the
contrada. It was not long after we sat down before a young girl set a simple appetizer
of bruschetta before us. Tony introduced us to those sitting nearby, and we eagerly
engaged in conversation with them. Of course the topic on everyone’s mind was who
was going to win the race, and what were the chances that the Torre Contrada would
be the winner. The talents and number of wins of jockeys were pitted against the best
horses, as well as the influences of individual contrade. Of course, despite the
differences in opinion, in the end, everyone agreed that the Torre contrade would have
a better than even chance of winning this year. While they have won many races in the
past, they had a history of long dry spells and had even garnered the nickname—The
“Contrada Nonna,” with a lack of wins from 1961-2005. More recently they had not
won since 2015. Nevertheless, they seemed to feel that this was their year. They had
an excellent jockey, and they considered it good luck that he married a Torre resident.
Additionally, the Torre rider was on his own well trained horse, and Torre had
contributed more than sufficient money to give them a certain edge. It was an edge
that was always vague in character, and was never quite fully explained to me. Like
many money related influences in Italy, it was primarily expressed by hand and facial
gesture. Given the history of the Palio, I wondered just how much of the “influence”
was conspiratorial lore, rather than reality. In any case it was an integral aspect to the
event. Another contribution of their positivity was that their nemici, Contrade Orca, had
won by a nose ahead of them the previous year, and they were hungry for revenge.
Along with Stefano and Giordano, several other dignitaries sat at the main table.
Next to Giordano was the president of the Banca Monte Dei Paschi di Siena, one of
Italy’s oldest banking institutions. Evidently, he lived within the contrada and was a
significant figure in the administrative structure of the Palio. Along with providing
funds for contrade, the bank also donated for the maintenance of Corteo Storico
costumes and flags. On the other side of Stefano was the Contrade Torre Capitano.
The head organizer and initiator of “influence”. It was his responsibility to make sure
the contrade had the best advantages available.


The Capitano stood and tapped into the microphone, gaining the immediate
attention of all participants. After a short speech, trumpets began to play, and people
stood at their tables to sing the contrada anthem:


“Siena illuminata di vita
risplende,
Risplende il Campo
Dai mille colori,
La fede e gia accesa
Nel corri e vinci, Torre,
Torre!
Fatti Strada attraverso
Torre,
Tutta Siena, le strade, I
Palazzi
Vola verso la folla Che
corre,
La Bella Vittoria
festeggera.
La Gloria va a te….”

Listen to the Contrada Anthem


Following the anthem, speeches ruled the evening. Along with various dignitaries,
other contradiaoli added to the oratory. People touted the positive attributes of the
contrada and its inhabitants, while humorously demeaning those of other contrade.
Episodes of joyous song intermittently interrupted speeches, as participants engaged
in a night of community spirit.


Late into the evening I began to feel the effects of perhaps seven or eight glasses
of vino. The light from lamps bedecking the streets and piazzas became rather diffuse,
as if they had suddenly gone nova. Tony also looked none too alert. I gave him a
nudge, and suggested we go back and get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow was the
day of the race, starting with the Corteo Storico in the early afternoon. We approached
Stefano and his father, and bid them good luck in tomorrow’s race, and slowly ambled
back to our residence.

Still a bit groggy after the previous night, I did not want to walk down to get an
espresso from the caffe. Dressed in my undershorts, I grabbed a robe from the
bathroom, and immediately filled the Bialetti espresso pot, and put it atop a burner on
the stove. While reaching for a cup, I heard a light tap at the door. Upon opening, I
found a copy of an American edition of The Guardian on the stoop. “Beautiful Maria” I
thought, “She doesn’t miss a trick.” I grabbed the paper and began paging through it
as I sipped my morning espresso. USA news was much more palatable now that an
ailing America had finally taken a good dose of political Ipecac, and retched up the
germ that was the Trump administration.
“Buongiorno, Come stai questa mattina?”


“Oh, g’morning Tony. I’m feeling just a bit off this morning. Too much wine and
good cheer last night. However, after a good breakfast, strong coffee and a shower, I
should be ready to go.”
“I’m okay,” Tony admitted. “I slept solidly through the night. What time does the
parade start?”
“ Uh…I goofed up. I thought it was much earlier, but according to the brochure it
doesn’t start until 4 pm this afternoon, after which the race begins at 7:30 pm. So, I
guess we have another day of sightseeing in store for us. Siena has several interesting
places to visit. How about we first visit the National Gallery, and if we have more time
after that, we can go see St. Catherine’s Sanctuary?”


“Sounds good, Tony replied. “Oh great there’s still some prosciutto in the fridge.”
We spent the morning browsing the National Gallery, a museum filled with 13-18th
Century Sienese artworks. The most impressive were the large 12th and 13th century
alter pieces ensconced in gold leaf. The artwork was primarily two dimensional with
figures of Christ, the Madonna, and various saints. Evidently they had an ample supply
of gold at the time, as it covered every inch of gothic framing in the museum. I
wondered where it all came from, given that the Americas were yet to be discovered.
Perhaps, Africa or Asia Minor?


We soon became sated with gothic art, and left the gallery. Instead of going to St.
Catherine’s, we decided to walk the streets and experience the city’s preparations for
the Palio. We strolled along Via di Citta, which, a block or two out, circled around the
Campo, and gave us a good sampling of the life of Siena. Approaching one o’clock in
the afternoon, Tony came to an abrupt stop.
He asked, “Are you hungry?” To which I gave him a serious head nod.
“Wait here, I’ll grab something special for us, and we can eat at the small piazza
down the street.”
Before I could tell him my order, he broke away and strode into a nearby shop. The
sign above the place read, Proscutteria e Convivo, which translated into something
like; Ham shop and Caterer. While waiting, I amused myself by gawking at the various
medieval costumes people wore as they passed by. Obviously, they were participants
in the day’s pageant. The quality of the ancient couture struck me. Sienese historians
interpreted medieval couture as quite extravagant. Participants wore tunics and coats
of silk and velvet. Furs, including ermine adorned many costumes. Many men wore
tights beneath tunics, a fashion that has resurfaced with women in today’s world.
“Okay, lets go.”


Tony quickly turned and headed down the street carrying a brown bag at his side.
We entered Piazza Indipendenza, surrounded by a number of shops, a trattoria, and a
large ochre stained building with an arched loggia. Luckily, we found a vacant bench
nearby, and immediately occupied it. Tony pulled from the bag a couple bottles of
Peroni Nastro, which he opened with a quick pop of the cap against the edge of the
seat. Next he withdrew a couple of what appeared to be hamburgers. However, upon
closer look, the bun was not filled with ground meat. I could not identify the
substance, and the texture was novel to me. It looked something like six week old
dried fat.
“Mangia, mangia!” Tony demanded. “Once you taste it, I will tell you what it is.”
I’m game for new experiences, particularly when it comes to food, but I did not
expect such a surprise in Italy. I have had fried crickets in Myanmar, and roasted
Guinea Pig in Peru, but for the most part, Italy’s cuisine was pretty familiar to me. I
gazed at the sandwich for a few seconds, built up a bit of courage and took a bite.

After a number of chews, I found the texture soft, yet chewable. It had the texture of
abalone. It seemed that the texture was the thing with this food, as the flavor was
dominated by the sandwich’s condiments, Tony gazed at me as I ate, expecting some
reaction from me. Finally, I asked what I ate.
“ Lampredotto, cow’s stomach.” He replied.
I lurched for a second, as the image of a foul smelling belly filled with semi-digested
cud flashed through my head. Once I got passed its unique position in the carcass of a
cow, I found it not bad at all.
We finished our lunch, and continued to explore the back streets of Siena. As we
crossed from one contrada to another, festival adornments changed color. Young men
in each contrada practiced flag throwing, an old art form stemming from their function
as signals in medieval battles. During the Corteo Storico these “alfieri” are
accompanied by trumpets that herald their arrival, and drummers provide a steady
beat to which they coordinate their moves. They compete against each other during
the parade.


It was after 2 pm, and the streets became increasingly crowded, as people began
heading for the Campo. We decided to go back to our residence, lest we get stuck in
the crowd. Nevertheless, we had to squeeze our way through the hordes to get back
to Via Salicotto. Once at the apartment, we opened a bottle of Chianti, laid out a plate
of affetatti misti, and pulled up a couple of stools to our windows.
The Campo was dense with people. Thousands of onlookers, stood shoulder to
shoulder, in the center of the Campo, jostling to get a good view. Contradiaoli hung
out windows waving their contrada banners, while a blanket of citizens covered the
bleachers. The electric atmosphere forced me to step back and take a deep breath to
keep from falling into some Palio-induced manic state. I had never experienced such
an emotionally intense event as the Palio. Rival college football games did not even
come close to the energy displayed in that arena.

Plaza in Siena where the palio happens, empty except for a few tourists
Plaza in Siena where the Palio is run


Suddenly, a hush came over the crowd, and trumpets blared a loud fanfare. From
our right came a contingent of carbinieri on horseback, all decked out in feathered
Napoleonic style hats and button fronted uniforms. They were granted applause as
they took one lap around the track in a slow trot, and then completed a second lap at
full speed. Shortly after they exited the Campo, the sound of snare drums began to
echo in the piazza. A number of standard bearers preceded the battery of drummers.
Following the drummers, were trumpeters, who once again began to blare out a
traditional march — The Squilli la Fe’, Marcia Del Palio announcing the beginning of the parade.
For the next hour or so, a multitude of medieval costumed participants made their
way around the Campo. Alfieri from each contrada stopped before a small stage of
judges to demonstrate their skills. Contingents of armored swordsmen, archers,
lancers and cavalry paraded before the crowd. Robed clerics swayed in procession,
along with pages attending their masters. Chaparon topped men, and women of
nobility in long velvet dresses, merchants, artisans and guilds proudly showed off their
finery. I later learned that the clothing was all hand made and stored in a magazzini del
sale’, until the next Palio. Throughout the year, seamstresses repaired and refitted the
clothing. Near the end, the competing horses were exhibited to the public, each with a
sash representing the contrada for which the horse was racing.


Finally, the Carroccio, a large wooden wagon pulled by four white oxen appeared.
It is another holdover from times of war, when the wagon held the signs of cities
contributing to the war effort. It was a rallying point, and was guarded by the bravest
of soldiers. For the Palio, its primary function is to hold the Drappellone, a silk drape
that is the trophy for the winner of the race. Each year the Carroccio holds a newly
designed banner. Following the wagon, a line of alfieri, representing all of the contrade, lined up along the front of the Torre de Mangia. At the blare of nearby trumpets, they began to wave and toss their flags for a short period of time.
Once the parade ended, a hush came over the crowd. After a short spell a loud
boom sounded, announcing the beginning of the race. Jockeys on their horses
emerged from a side passage. As they come out onto the Campo, they were handed
their Pene di Bue. A huge roar emanated from the crowd. The horsemen slowly
trotted towards the mossa, or starting line. A lottery determined a horses position on
the mossa. However, one’s position also depended on that elusive “influence”. The
tenth horse (Rincorsa) held back behind the others, determined the efficacy of
influence. As the riders jostled among themselves, the rincorsa decided the optimal
time to begin the race. He initiated the start by suddenly racing forward towards the
other horses.


Tony and I applauded and cheered as Stefano came out onto the course. His bay
horse looked magnificent. The riders mingled about until an announcer called their
name to the starting position. He called Torre fourth. Stefano rode in to the line of
horses at the mossa, and began turning and bumping into others as he vied for his
position. It took about 10 to 15 minutes of maneuvering among all of the horses
before the rincorsa made his move. Determining the optimal advantage, the rope was
dropped and the rincosa leaped forward.


Despite the simplicity of the shape of the racecourse, it is deceptively dangerous.
The course has a high and a low point, as well as two dangerous sharp curves; one at
San Martino, the other at Casato. Coming into the curve at Martino the raceway
begins to decline. At Casato the course begins to incline. While accidents occur at
both turns, the San Martino curve tends to garner the most, and the more serious.
Stefano, quick out of the starting gate, began the first of three laps. Slightly ahead
of him to the left galloped his nemico, Orca. Directly behind him followed the
Chiocciola horse. As they came into the first turn at Martino all three horses began to
slow, allowing the others behind them to catch up. As a result, the riders went into the
turn as a group, resulting in a couple of horses ramming into the outer wall and
stumbling, as they tried to avoid the Cappella di Piazza, which juts out, narrowing the
track, and limiting how many horses can pass through. One rider lost his grip and fell
off his horse, leaving his steed to go it alone. This did not mean he would lose the
race. This odd idiosyncrasy of the Palio allowed a riderless horse to continue to run,
and if it finished first, the owning contrada would win.


Coming out of the turn, Stefano and Orca competed neck and neck for the lead, as
they headed along a straight stretch of track leading to the sharp corner at Casato.
Chiocciola lost ground in the turn, and was now lagging farther behind with the rest of
the riders. Rounding Casata, both horses butted up against each other in an attempt
to gain an advantage in the turn. Orca closed in on his right, so Stefano actively used
his right hand to whip against the Orca jockey, flogging the jockey’s hands and reins,
as he pushed Orca up against the inside corner of the fencing. The Orca jockey had to
pull up a bit to be able to round the corner. Now out front, Stefano headed down the
fastest leg of the race; the broad curve that allows the jockeys to run their steeds at full
gallop. The speed of his horse and his training, were now paying off, putting him even
further ahead of Orca.

Parade with men in traditional colorful costume and a banner
Parade before the palio race


As Stefano pulled into St. Martino for a second time, he had no competition to stifle
his turn. However, Orca closed the gap, and remained a close second. By the time
Torre managed the Casato bend, Orca closely tailed him, and began to catch up as
they rounded the wide turn for a second time. Stefano managed to keep the lead until
he got to Martino, where he took the turn too wide and bumped into the outer wall,
slowing his pace. This provided Orca the opportunity to take the lead.
With Orca now in the lead, Stefano pulled out all the stops. He beat the rear of his
horse with his whip, and caught up with Orca just as they entered the Casata turn. The
horses’ flanks now pressed hard against one another. The nemici approached Casato
neck and neck, beating the heck out of each other as they rounded the last turn
towards the finish. With the end of the race in sight, the noise from the frenzied crowd
rose to a deafening level. Just ahead of them lay the finish line. Stefano once again
relied on his horse’s speed, and began whipping frantically. Slowly, Torre began to
edge out Orca, and by the time they got to the finish, Stefano led by a neck.
Several loud booms went off announcing the climax of the race.


The crowd of Torre contradiaoli rushed to their hero. The fans overwhelmed
Stefano. They all wanted to touch him, hug him, kiss him and even grab a piece of his
clothing. Eventually, Torre guardians came forth and surrounded him, allowing him to
dismount. Gangs of people took smart phone photos of Stefano and his horse, as he
made his way though the masses. Torre contradiaoli removed the Drappellone from a
nearby balcony, and hung a Torre fazzoletto upon the staff of the banner. They then
paraded it about the Campo to be touched and kissed by members of the contrada.
The celebration in the Torre contrada went on all night, and into the following day.
A dry spell broke, and Torre, once again was victorious. Additionally, they edged out
their rival, Orca, which made the victory even more significant for them. Tony and I
celebrated with them into the early hours of the morning, and Torre contrada would
continue to celebrate for months to come.


The next afternoon, we both napped through most of the plane ride home. The
incessant sounds of numerous bell towers pealed out Torre’s Contrada’s victory
throughout the night, and kept us awake. The stewardess woke us with her
announcement of lunch. We conversed about the past day’s experience, and Stefano’s
victory. We agreed that the trip was well worth it, and we had garnered memories of a
lifetime. At one point my curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask, “Were you
able to say goodbye to Maria?”
“Maria? Maria who?” Tony responded.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *