In early July, Siena holds their twice-annual Palio tournament! (Il Palio tournament is explained in greater detail in an earlier post).
I should start off by saying that the Sienese people are simply “Pazzi per Palio!” Crazy for Il Palio! The excitement and anticipation of the event is buzzing through the streets of Siena — it is impossible to miss. There has been a monumental influx of tourists for the event (which makes getting to my 9 am class through the crowded streets more difficult…) and the entire city is adorned with the vibrant colors of each Contrada’s flags! Sienese people have been wearing the flags of their Contrada every day this week (these little flags are given to them at birth and are worn until death at every Palio during their lifetime) and there are constant parades. Literally, constant! It is almost impossible to move through the streets without hearing the chants of Contrada songs echoing from nearby, getting caught up in a marching parade with drummers, trumpeters, little kids to young adults to elderly men dressed in full costume (they look somewhat like medieval jesters) parading through the narrow streets of Siena. Cannons go off frequently, bells ring throughout the day, fights break out between Contrada members, horses are marched through the streets with massive groups of men behind them, singing at the top of their lungs in Italian. The city has become somewhat of a huge circus! You really cannot go 5 minutes without running into some form of Palio celebration-let alone get sleep at night with the round-the-clock partying going on in the city. (Did I mention that the surrounding of the Piazza del Campo is completely covered in mud? It is unreal how they transform the piazza into a racetrack!)
I was extremely lucky to get to witness the lottery of the horses in the Palio race! After class, I stood in the packed Piazza (sun beating down) for about an hour before the festivities began. First, from different directions, enormous groups of men and women stormed the Piazza shouting their Contrada song, (like armies might storm a small village chanting their national anthem so there is no mistaking who they are.) This happened three or four times from different directions- So exciting! Trumpeting began, and the mayor and other dignitaries from Siena came on to a huge stage in the front of the Piazza (lets remember that the Piazza is absolutely huge-.22 miles around) Horses were paraded through the crowds, and from where I was standing, I was directly in front of the horses as they walked by so I got a great view! Sienese men around me were holding little booklets with the names of all the horses being paraded through and keeping track of which was which. The men take the horse lottery very seriously, as I will explain shortly.
Finally the lottery of the horses began. I could use the cliché’ “a hush fell over the crowd” or I could describe that the thousands of people in the Piazza at that moment, literally, began whispering. It was as close to silent as you can get with thousands of people! It was mind-blowing!
As the mayor picked the lottery numbers and called them out into the microphone, there was either an explosion of applause, silence, or sounds of distress in patches throughout the crowd. The Sienese people keep such good track of the horses being picked from, they know if the horse their Contrada receives is a good horse or a “not so good horse.” I had heard that the Sienese people get very enthusiastic about the horses allotted to them, but I was not prepared for the kinds of reactions I saw around me. When the horse was drawn for the “Onda” Contrada on my right, men began screaming, cursing, stamping the ground, spitting-it was unbelievable! They looked crazy, young and old just thrashing about in their area of the crowd before walking furiously towards the front to collect their apparently “not so good” horse. The men had scowls on their faces and pushed through the crowds with no regard for those in their way! In contrast, when the “Nicchio” Contrada was allotted their horse, the teenage girls who had been standing behind me burst into tears of joy and squealed, hugging and kissing each other as if they had just seen a celebrity! They were literally sobbing! Elderly men and woman marched to the front of the Piazza with their hands on their faces, weeping! It was such an unbelievable sight! The girls sprinted up to the front to help collect their horse- I later learned “Nicchio” had received one of the best horses in the Palio this year, and would be favored to win.
When each of the 10 running Contradas received their horses and escorted them off the campo and back to their respective Contradas, the ceremony was over, and the rest of the people in the Piazza began to disperse. Smaller tussles broke out in pockets of the crowd where members of rival Contradas butted heads, but all began to calm down after the ceremony.
As an American living in Durham, North Carolina, I have witnessed my fair share of sports fanaticism (Duke vs. UNC- one of the biggest rivalries in College basketball history) But I have never in my life seen the animation and emotion from young and old poured into a game as I have so far witnessed of the Palio. (My labeling the Palio a “game” might even cause some Sienese to take offense- however, I mean none!) My Italian roommate Gianluigi explained to me that a Sienese person’s Contrada is forever-“he may cheat on his wife, he may cheat on his friends, he may steal or lie, but he will never cheat on his Contrada.” Il Palio is certainly no game to the people of Siena, and while as a semi-tourist I may never fully understand the importance, even sacredness of the Palio, I can certainly see, and feel the ferocious loyalty and pride that it creates in the hearts of the Sienese people.
And all this before the actual event! Next blog will describe the actual Palio, if I make it to the other side of the event to tell the tale!