Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Il Palio: A Special Report by Georg

Il Palio
One of the few souvenirs we bought was this poster of Il Palio. It's huge! We still haven't gotten it framed.

While we were still at Monte Olivetto, resting up before departure, Brian and several other fellow travellers had gone back into for sustenance and to see if the race or more accurately the pre-race festivities were on TV. Which they were. After returning to Montalto I was wandering about the castle and, entering the scritoio, found a large group gathered to watch the Palio. I believe tutte le Genetti were there, as well as Simon, Brian, John, Maria, Brian's friend Lisa and her bambino (apologies -- I can't remember his name but he was very cute) who had driven down from their home in nearby San Gimignano for a short visit, Joan Iris, and Ann. Probably I'm forgetting someone. Apolgies again. And Diana stopped in several times to fill us in on some Palio background and inside dirt. Like Sarah said, the race is held in the Piazza del Campo in the center of Siena. Not only do they clear away all the sidewalk tables from the cafes and lay down a dirt track but apparently they save as much of the dirt as they can and reuse it the next year. When I arrived, they were just beginning to line the horses up. No starting gates as in US horse racing. What with the huge crowd being right up against the track and no gate it was no wonder the horses were nervous. There were several failed attempts to straighten the line. When any attempt failed they would lead the horses off the line, have them circle behind the line and bring them back in again. According to Diana, a fair amount of gamesmanship is also involved here. Jockeys that don't like their starting position will attempt to disrupt the line. If this happens often enough the marshals will draw a new starting order. But the disruption must be subtle. If caught, the jockey is penalized. I don't remember how. Perhaps thrown out of the race. I also heard that several years ago, they were unable to set the line and the marshals refused to set a new start order and eventually, after hours of trying, they suspended the race for the day and held it the next day instead. Another bit of strategy going on -- there is one horse who remains behind the line. Once the line is set, the marshals give this rider a signal and he can go at any time. When that horse hits the starting line, that's the beginning of the race. I hope I'm getting this right. I love watching sporting events broadcast in a foreign language but one can miss some technical info that way. Anyway, the trailing jockey tries to hold off as long as possible, trying to catch the line after its set but when the horses aren't all completely and perfectly ready to go. Again, this is ideally a subtle thing as being too overt can lead to penalties. And, yes, we heard that the Palio was notoriously crooked. But once the race started it was fast and furious. Several of the turns on the course are severely sharp and tight. Three horses lost footing in two seperate crashes. All ended the race riderless. Fortunately there were no serious injuries. The jockeys go flying right off in any kind of spill or tumble, as they're riding bareback. As reported, the contrada of the snails, Ciocciola I believe, won this time. There are two Palios each year. One in June(?) and this one in August. To mark special events, they will hold an extraordinary Palio. A third was held to commemorate the moon landing in 1969, for example. Diana said there would probably be a 3rd next year for the millenium. When we all got to visit Diana and Giovanni's apartment at Montalto, we saw two poles from winning Palios. Giovanni's family has ties to the Nicio (scallop shell) contrada and they had on display the poles that the Palio banner, which is awarded to the winning parish, was hung from. These were from races in the early 20th century.

As the race ended the entire Campo filled with cheering celebrating fans. Yes there was crying and hugging and people were kissing the jockey and the horse. After showing us several replays of the race, the TV coverage switched to the cathedral which was filled (and having been inside the next day I can tell you that it takes quite a few people to fill that cathedral) with happy cheering fans, many waving Ciocciola flags. And, yes, we did hear that last year during the celebratory te deum someone jumped up on the main altar, leading the archbishop to write a letter to the paper asking for a bit more decorum. The nice thing about it was how non-destructive it was. That many happy American sports fans in one place and someone would have set fire to something

Some other bits of Palio lore: I heard that, typically, parish churches in Siena do not have steps but are at street level. This is because before the race the horse is brought into the church to be blessed. Altho Sarah and I and Brian and Francesca and Ann did about an hour's walk around Siena, wandering thru several contrade (you can tell one from the other because they have street lamps decorated with the parish symbol, be it the goose or the porcupine or the nicio or whichever), I forgot to look and see if the churches were on street level. Also, I heard that it's considered a good omen for the race if, when they bring the horse into the church, it takes a crap on the floor.

The supporters of the winning contrade can be seen in the days following the race sucking on pacifiers and/or carrying baby bottles (often filled with chianti). This is to signify that they are the youngest champion. The day after the race the winning contrade marches thru the entire town, thru every other contrade, wearing these elaborate Renaissance costumes (some were even wearing partial armor), with a contingent of drummers, and carrying the Palio banner (a different one is commissioned from an artist each year) to make sure that everyone knows they won. Francesca passed them in one part of town around 2pm while she was coming up from the train station. They arrived at the Campo around 6 and we saw them on the other side of town (I think in their home parish) still going strong around 8.

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Official website of Il Palio (click on the button that says "Il Palio". There is an English version of the page)



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