A Very Italian Festival


The Italians combine culture and Machiavellian tactics better than any other people I have ever encountered. Nowhere is this more evident than in the town of Siena. Situated 80km south of Florence in rolling Tuscan countryside this UNESCO listed heritage site of just over 50,000 people is a popular tourist destination.

As well as the well-preserved city centre it is famous for its food, art, museums and its Palio, a horse race like no other which takes place twice a year around the Piazza de Campo, the city’s main square.

I had arrived here via the slower and cheaper trains from the northern part of the country taking in the fabled cities of Florence and Venice along the way until I reached Siena, a place I had never heard of.

The sheer volume of people in the city took me by surprise. I had expected a place of this size to have a relaxed country vibe about it, but instead it felt more like being in the centre of Rome or Venice with people everywhere making it difficult to get around, especially carrying a backpack.

I was wondering why the place was so packed but the guys I was travelling with, John and Barry from the Royal county of Meath set me straight.

“There’s a horse race this evening round the main square in town, its called the Palio. Riders race bareback around the square wearing different colours, each colour represents one of ten city wards. Races take place on the 2nd of July and 16th of August with the winner the first to complete three laps,” Barry informed me looking into his trusty guidebook.

“That’s a stroke of luck coming here for that,” John said, before we all made quick arrangements to witness the frenzied event.

The heritage of the Palio makes it the most unique festival I have ever attended. The stories of its origin are varied with some dating it back to Roman military training in the 13th century. The version I prefer is that the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting at the end of the 16th century and the contrade or town districts started to organise races. Initially it was with buffalo then donkeys but from the early 17th century the first modern Palio took place on horseback.

The race on the 2nd of July is called the Palio de Provenzano after the Madonna of Provenzano and the Palio Dell’Asunta in honour of the feast of the Assumption takes place on 16th of August.

The organisation of three laps around a square 333 metres in circumference is more complicated that it sounds. There are seventeen contrade and only ten horses in the race so the seven who did not compete in the last race are automatically entered while the remaining contrade draw for the three remaining places.

It only gets more complicated from here as each contrade does not know which horse they will have until a draw is made a few days before the race. The jockeys will have been chosen in advance and are often professionals who aren’t averse to taking a bribe.

Several inches of specialised turf is laid around the perimeter of the square with as many spectators as possible packed into the centre which is free to enter. Above the square there are expensive seats and some of the houses also open their doors to spectators for a price.

Before the off nine of the horses line up inside an area before the start line while the tenth horse waits outside. This final horse approaches at pace and if the starter is happy with everything the race proceeds. If not the race is aborted and the whole process starts again. Depending on deals and skulduggery before the race certain jockeys may have arranged to assist or impede others which can also lead to interruption to the start.

When underway everything seems to be legal apart from pulling on the reins of a rival horse. Jockeys are permitted to use their whips not only on their own horses but on rival horses and jockeys also. After an action packed minute the winner is the one whose horse crosses the finish line first. Bizarrely if a horse crosses the line minus its rider it is also deemed to have won.

The winner receives a Palio or banner specifically created and hand painted by a local artist as well as a silver plate. The Palio is a great source of pride to its winning contrade and wild celebrations take place in that district. The winning district keeps its Palio while the silver plate has to be returned after one year.

Even more strange than open bribery and being allowed to physically interfere with a rival jockey is the sight of the victors sucking dummies or baby bottles full of wine. This is because the winners of the Palio are seen as being reborn. Incidentally seeing a rival contrade failing to achieve victory is almost as good as victory in itself.

Being a big sports fan, I have heard of some bizarre attempts at manipulation of results from Lance Armstrongs seven wins at the Tour de France to Plateau United Feeders 79-0 victory over Akurba FC in a lower league of Nigerian football in 2013. The Plateau team were in line for promotion so managed to organise an improvement in their goal difference by putting 79 goals past Akurba, 72 of which were scored in the second half!

But this pails in comparison to the Machiavellian tactics employed in the Palio. Open bribery, arrangements between jockeys, as well as alleged kidnapping and drugging of horses of rival contrade adds up to the most bizarre sporting event I have ever been to.

“What did ye think of that then?” John asked, in an understated tone.

“You wouldn’t see that carry on at the Curragh,” Barry said.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. I can’t believe jockeys are allowed to whip each other while they are racing. Its not just cheating, it looks deadly dangerous,” I chipped in.

Barry slipped into philosopher mode again, “I think that race sums up Italy as a whole. Set in a cultural centre with colour, pageantry, and an amazing sense of occasion yet you can do almost anything to win and are praised for doing so.”