Palio di Siena (colorful horse race in downtown Siena)
|Images from previous Palio di Siena|
Today, the palio is actually the core of the whole festival and it is strictly related to the town subdivision in contrade (areas), each with its own organization, representatives and honor as well as administrative leaders. Starting the last Sunday in April, the festival day is dedicated to the patron saint of Siena and kick off starts the anno contradaiolo (contrada year) with it the preparation for the palio. Alliances between contrade are heartfelt as much as the rivalries and they are usually linked to common rituals and economic interests. Two palio are run in Siena each year, one on July 2, in honor of the Madonna Santissima di Provenzano (Saint Mary of Provenzano) and one on August 16, in honor of Maria Vergine Assunta in Cielo (Virgin Mary risen to Heaven). On both occasions, religious rites are performed, respectively at the Madonna di Provenzano church and the city's cathedral.
The palio (prize) is blessed and kept inside the the church until is time to show it off in the specially decorated cart (carroccio). In the days preceding the competition, each contrada chooses its captain who will be in charge for the whole parade. He will be responsible for the preparation of the horses and jockeys, the overall organization and finances and keeping the order among the exuberant contradaioli, (participants of the contrada).
There are 17 contrade but only 10 horses can race around the circling square. This makes for great anxiety until the city's mayor hangs the coat of arms of the contrade chosen by drawing from the balcony of the city hall. Each chosen contrada is announced by a blast of trumpets and the screams from the mob. The captains of the chosen contrade are summoned by the mayor to propose the mossiere , or the person in charge of officially starting the game who, however, will be appointed by the mayor.
The second main event in preparing the palio is the "tratta dei cavalli", or the awarding of the horses to the contrade. First, the "cavallari" (horse handlers) introduce their horses to the mayor and the captains. Once the ten horses that will run are chosen by drawing, each one of them is assigned to a contrada. Thus starts the intense training of each jockey-horse team pairs. Sometimes switches are made at the last minute. The jockeys, who ride without saddle, are key character of the whole event and sometimes may accept secret "offers" by a competing contrada to "play it soft" though, if such intrigue is ever discovered, the man faces the ire of the excitable contradaioli who feel betrayed. At the end of the training period and before the race, each contrada throws a banquet during which the captain exhorts the contradaioli to behave and the jockeys swear fidelity to the contrada.
During the days of the palio, all the city palaces are decorated festively with the contrade's colors. In the early afternoon the contradaioli change into the medieval costumes and attend the ceremony of the blessing, in church, the horses and the jockeys, present the priest, the prior and the captain. As soon as the rite is completed, the historic parade starts. In Campo square, where the race will be run, all the representative of Siena's municipalities parade along with the capitano del popolo (people's captain) and all the "figures" of each contrada, followed by the jockey mounting the parade horse and the race horse are hand-led by a page. The core of the historic parade is the carroccio who carries the palio. After the parade, the mossiere gathers the jockeys and give them the last instructions and advise before allowing them to mount the horses and enter the Campo square for the "mossa" di partenza, or the "movement to start the race".
Just minutes before the start, the judges draw the starting positions and the mossiere drops the canapo (cloth) that signals the beginning of the race. If the start is considered valid, the mossiere raises a white flag, otherwise it is repeated. The competition is very heartfelt and engaging. From the second round of the square on, the jockeys are allowed to whip each other. The whipping can be vicious and is used to slow down the opponents.