Probably the most important Equestrian event in Italy the Palio di Siena is a tradition that runs in the blood of every Sienese. A bareback horse race around the main square in Siena the Piazza del Campo, it is run twice a year on the 2nd of july and the 16th August, in honour of the Assumption of Mary.
The Palio runs deep with every Sienese and it is theirs from birth. The city is divided into 17 contrade or city wards that citizens are born into and these ‘gangs’ hold sway over much of the Sienese lives. The Palio di Siena or locally ‘Il Palio’ is a race between 10 of the 17 contrade. The passion with which the locals support their riders is primal and it makes for a truly unique spectacle. Not only is the skill of the riders most impressive in turning hairpin bends without saddles or helmets but the celebrations go on long into the night and over the course of he four day festival the City of Siena is transformed into a ancient cultural/sporting carnival like no other.
The whole festival is awash with ancient tradition and much money changes hands in the run up to the race as punters speculate on the form of the rider or the stables involved, some devout residents of the contrade invoke the benediction of their patron saint for horse and jockey. The contrade are named after various animals and the rivalries are fierce between them. Some contade will celebrate the failure of a rival contrade almost as much as they would a victory of their own. The most successful ward is Oca (the Goose) which has 68 victories (according to their records which begin 1644), followed by Chiocciola (Snail), with 51 and Tartuca (Tortoise) with 46. Since 1900 only two wards have completed the double by winning both the July and August Palio in the same year, Tartuco in 1933 and Giraffa (Giraffe) in 1997.
The earliest known evidence of the Palio date from the 6th century, but the Piazza in the centre of Sienna was the site for many sporting contests, especially Pugna which was a kind of all out riot or many-sided boxing match. Bull fighting also was practiced but when the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in the 16th century the contrade took to running races in the Piazza and eventually across the whole city. AT first they were run on bull back, then on donkey, while the first modern Palio with horses was run in 1656.
Tuscany is horse country and the ‘cavalli’ are as much a feature of the landscape as the cypress trees or the rolling hillsides or olive groves. But the horse riding industry in Italy is an industry in crisis. The government have been propping up the entire racing world of meetings, trainers and breeders over the last few years and with financial realities hitting hard this year funding has been more than halved. That brought on a huge number of strikes and protests in the industry that basically brought all land races to a halt. What is a country with a rich and proud history of breeding and training is now in danger of losing their Equestrian heritage.
Not in Siena though, and if the enthusiasm here is anything to go by there is still a burning passion for the sport of kings in Italy. Just how ‘Unire’ can tap into that passion. Racing has been popular in Roman times and the most famous of all racetracks the Hippodrome in Rome, is a monument to the birthplace of modern horse racing. It would be a shame if such an important Equestrian heritage were to fall by the wayside.
Perhaps the lessons that can be gleaned form the spectacle of the Palio of Siena is that perhaps the horse racing culture in itself is not enough to attract the crowds. Italy is a country that lives its history, it is all around, and racing, in order to survive must be a part of a broader celebration of history and culture. Picture a Roman-style chariot race in the heart of the Italian capital, for example. In any case, the Palio di Siena is one of the most exciting horse races in the world and will always be around. The city streets are thronged with people over the course of the festival and the feasting goes on all night, it really is something to experience at least once in your lifetime.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty