Siena’s Palio is Italy’s festival

Siena’s Palio is Italy’s most spectacular festival. Held twice yearly, it involves a breathtaking bareback horse race around the Campo, together with many preparatory days of drama, processions, drumming, flag waving, and colorful pageantry. The spectacle and celebration are living and vivid expressions of rivalries and traditions that stretch back over 700 years.
A palio of some description has taken place in Siena virtually every year since the 13th century. In the early days, it was run around the city streets—only since 1656 has it followed its famous three-lap circuit of the Campo. The prize has always been the same: the embroidered banner, or pallium, from which the race takes its name. So, too, is the dedication to the Virgin, the reason why races are run on, or close to, feast days devoted to the Madonna. The July 2 race takes place on the Feast of the Visitation, the August 16 contest on the day after the Feast of the Assumption. Very occasionally, a race is staged to mark another event, the most notable examples being the palios held to commemorate the end of World War II (1945), the sixth centennial of St. Catherine’s birth (1947), and the first lunar landing (1969).
Race contestants represent Siena’s contrade, the districts into which the city has been divided since the 13th century. Today there are 17 such districts, fewer than in centuries past when there were as many as 42. Each contrada has its own church, social club, heraldic device, museum, flag, and symbolic animal (from which a contrada usually derives its name). Allegiance to your district is absolute: Church baptisms of new contrada babies, for example, are followed by baptisms in the infants’ contrada fountain. Each district also holds its own annual procession and supports a band of tamborini (drummers) and alfiere (flag throwers), many of whom can be seen practicing on the streets during the year.
Only ten contrade can take part in the Palio. These are drawn by lot, riders from the unlucky seven losers being allowed to accompany the carroccio, or chariot, that bears the pallium in
the prerace procession. Each contrada has its own particular rival, and as much thought goes into ensuring a rival’s defeat as securing one’s own victory. Alliances are forged, and bribes offered (and accepted). Horses maybe doped, and it has been known for men and animals to be kidnapped. Riders and animals are therefore watched day and night, communication with the outside world being possible only through riders’ bodyguards.
The day of the race involves endless ceremonials, all of which make wonderful viewing whether or not you are able to squeeze into the Campo for the race itself. Horses gather for the 90-second dash at around 7 p.m. All but one of the riders are then coralled together. The race begins when the lone rider charges his rivals. From this point, almost
anything goes. The only rule is that jockeys cannot interfere with another rider’s reins.The race is hectic, fast, violent, and dangerous, both for riders and horses. Sand and mattresses are laid out to help prevent serious injury.
Victory is sweet. Thousands of people sit down to an outdoor banquet in the streets of the winning contrada, sonnets are written, vast bets and other huge sums of money are called in. Defeat is invariably acrimonious, recriminations occasionally spilling over into Violence, while rumors and memories of dark doings fester for years among the beaten contrade and their members