by Roderick Conway Morris

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la repubblica
The riderless horse of the Contrada of Selva passes that of Bruco to win the Siena Palio

Mysteries of the Palio

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA, Italy 2 July 1994


Sonia is looking decidedly pale and groaning quietly. We are wedged on a narrow balcony, Sonia from Chiocciola (Snail) on one side and Paolo from Drago (Dragon) on the other, looking up towards the starting line. Below us there are 30,000 other spectators tightly packed onto the wooden tiers around the course and standing in the centre of Siena's fan-shaped central Campo.

It has taken half an hour to get the ten, jostling, agitated horses properly lined up in the starting area, and they are now straining against the forward starting rope. Snail's horse is nastily boxed in by Drago and Civetta (Owl). Sonia shouts: 'Non! non! non!', before turning round and pressing her head against the wall, murmuring: 'This is the end... I can't stand it any more.' Paolo remains composed until the last horse, running for Leocorno (Unicorn), charges through the narrow gap to the left of the rear starting rope and the front rope is dropped. The horses thunder away and everybody starts screaming incoherently.

The action is so fast that it is virtually impossible to take in what is happening. The jockeys, riding bareback, are flailing about, thrashing each other with their nerbi (heavy whips made from stretched, dried, bullocks' penises), and as they career round the steep bends several are hurled off their horses. Suddenly, at the third circuit of the Campo, with riders continuing to tumble, Drago's horse - an outsider - appears among the front runners. Tall, robust, bearded, and normally a picture of sang-froid, Paolo sinks down behind the parapet, covering his eyes like a small child hiding behind the sofa from a frightening scene on television.

The leading horse is now Tartuca's (Tortoise) - Chiocciola's arch enemy - and Sonia's voice has been transformed into a seamless, heart-rending wail. Paolo is bolt-upright again, staring straight ahead. Drago's horse rushes past Tartuca's - both are riderless by now - and flies across the finishing line. Paolo's knees give way and he keels over like a felled tree on top of me. Sonia, meanwhile has absorbed the fact that Tartuca has come second - spelling total humiliation for Snail's hated rivals - and as tears of frustration turn to sobs of joy, she fervently embraces the dazed, shell-shocked Paolo.

Paolo comes to and, as I struggle to extract myself from underneath him, he leaps up and disappears like a puff of smoke. Seconds later he appears on the race track two floors below, sprinting towards the mob from Drago already laying siege to the judges' gallery, bellowing for the Palio - a long banner of painted cloth - to be passed down to them. When I catch up with Paolo later, I learn that being a small contrada (neighbourhood), Drago are particularly anxious to move their forces into position as quickly as possible: in August 1945 they unexpectedly beat Bruco (Caterpillar), the favourites - who promptly seized the Palio and tore it to shreds before Drago could get to it.

As the victors chant 'Daccelo! Daccelo! (Give it to us!) on one side of the Campo, on the other, inflamed by their jockeys' particularly spirited attempts to inflict permanent damage each another with their whips during the race, Civetta and their enemy Leocorno pour onto the course and a general fist-fight breaks out. The mayor and his deputies forge through milling crowd in the Campo into the front line, and the battling parties miraculously separate like the waves of the Red Sea before Moses, both sides applauding and cheering. Drago, meanwhile, now in possession of the Palio, carry it out of the Campo, escorting their winning horse in a tumultuous, flag-waving procession back to their contrada.

The race has lasted less than 80 seconds. Only two horses out of ten still have jockeys aboard when they reach the finish. No bets of any kind have been placed. The first horse to reach the finish, with or without a rider, is the winner. (Coming second is regarded as a greater defeat than coming tenth). Victory is going to cost the winning contrada between 250 and 500 million lire (£100,000-200,000). It is all exquisitely pointless - but so loaded with significance that Siena's entire social structure is built around it. An increasingly insistent lobby of animal rights activists, however, led by the director, filmmaker and recently-elected Forza Italia senator for Sicily, Franco Zeffirelli, is vigorously campaigning to put a stop to it.

By the time the Palio was first recorded in the early 13th century, the city was already divided into three districts, roughly designated by the three hills on which the walled capital of this city-state grew up. As the city expanded, it became an even more complex patchwork of neighbourhoods, each one convinced of its own distinctiveness and identity. By 1729 there were seventeen contrade known by their ancient heraldic names - Aquila (Eagle), Chiocciola (Snail), Istrice (Porcupine), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Nicchio (Shell), Pantera (Panther), Torre (Tower), and so on - the borders of which were defined by decree, to put an end to continual boundary disputes: borders which have remained unchanged till this day.

In Siena your first loyalty is to your contrada. Every contrada is run like a mini republic - with a democratically elected Prior and Council, a treasury, an administrative building and social centre, a contrada church (into which the horse is led to be blessed before each Palio), a stable, kitchens to provide food for communal dinners held on the eve of the Palio and other special occasions (when, in the larger contrade, 3,000 or more contradaioli sit down at long tables set out along the streets to eat together), and a museum recording the contrada's centuries-long history and displaying the Palios won in past victories.

The contrada's 'peacetime' constitution is suspended during the days of the Palio, and a Captain and two mangini (equerries) elected to lead the war effort. Captains - who are frequently 'men of the people' - have dictatorial powers, and can act and pledge large sums of money from the war chest, without revealing the details to the Prior, Council and contradaioli.

Because of the limitations of the course, only ten of the seventeen contrade race in each Palio - the seven that have not run in the last Palio, plus three chosen by lot. The ten Captains of the contrade competing select ten horses after watching the mounts on offer in a series of prove (trials), held in the Campo in the week before the race. Five days before the Palio, the mayor publicly draws lots to assign a horse to each contrada. As each draw is announced an enthusiastic mob of young men take possession of their horse and, singing, lead it away to the contrada stable, where it will be kept throughout the Palio. 'From that moment,' said Franco Bertazzo, guardian of the city's ancient fountains and underground viaducts, 'the horse is part of the family. He's pampered and everything possible's done to make him feel comfortable and at home.' Every day the horses are brought down to the Campo to run in further prove to get the horses and the jockeys used to the course.

On the eve of the race a feast is held in the main street or piazza of the contrada. The Captain, Prior and Council sit on a raised table facing out like a medieval court at a banquet. The long tables closest to them are occupied by young girls and boys who keep up an almost continuous barrage of songs praising the contrada and its horse, and insulting, in graphic terms, the contrada's 'enemy'. 'The songs the girls sing these days...' as the charming woman opposite me at Chiocciola's dinner remarked, blushing slightly, after one particularly fruity ditty sung to the tune of 'Jingle Bells'.

The food on this occasion was not only extremely good, but even the pasta was steaming hot - an astonishing achievement, considering that 1,800 people were being served at the same time, made possible by an eager army of teenage volunteers who literally ran backwards and forwards from the contrada kitchens (the washing up was not finished until noon the following day).

During the evening the Captain and his deputies take their leave to attend a series of secret meetings with their opposite numbers in other contrade. This is to put the final touches to the partiti, financial deals and counterdeals designed to secure a satisfactory result. The multiplicity and complexity of these arrangements seeking help not only in winning (by, for example, securing an agreement from another contrada to instruct its jockey not to molest your jockey and horse during the race), but also in trying to prevent a rival contrada from winning (by purchasing the maximum possible interference with enemy horse and rider), are a living monument to the mathematical skills that made Siena one of medieval Europe's most important banking centres. The only contrada that finally pays out anything is the winning one - and the bill can reach 300 million lire (£125,000) or more. The partiti are indeed so intricate that often, one suspects, the neutralize each other, leaving as much to chance in the final outcome as if they did not exist at all.

Jockeys are regarded purely as temporarily hired mercenaries. Most are Sardinians (though there are now one or two locally-born ones). A contrada assigned a good horse will make great efforts to secure a top jockey, but will settle for a younger and inexperienced one if the horse is not given much chance of winning (sometimes assisting a friendly contrada assigned a good horse to buy a better jockey). Jockeys are chaperoned and elaborate precautions taken to prevent them from communicating with one another.

A good jockey will be given a generous budget to make additional deals, so that he might, for instance, have several million lire to buy more space from neighbouring jockeys at the starting rope, even seconds before the off. He may also be promised so much for every blow of his whip he successfully lands on a rival contrada's jockey (Chiocciola's museum has a jockey's steel helmet with an alarming dent received in this manner). An average jockey can expect to earn 70-80 million lire (about £30,000) if he wins, and a top jockey three times that. A jockey suspected of having been suborned to pull a horse will almost certainly be rewarded by being beaten up by enraged contradaioli (unless he is fleet of foot in getting out of the Campo at the end of the race).

Relations within the contrada are self-consciously egalitarian - people of all classes from aristocrat to labourer addressing one another in the familiar 'tu' form. The communistic mentality of the contradaioli is reflected in the city's long domination by Italian Communist Party (and its successor, the PDS). And, despite a swing to the right even in Siena in the March national elections - nobody I spoke to seems to think this will make much difference in the contrade (bearing in mind, for example, that in 1919 when serious street fighting broke out all over Italy between the Fascists and Communists, the Sienese agreed to postpone the rioting there so as not to disrupt the Palio).

Induction into the contrada begins almost from birth, includes a formal baptism in the contrada fountain, and most children will learn the name of their contrada before their own surnames. The elaborate paraphernalia of flags, symbols, songs, chants, contrada history and lore, seen and heard day in day out, inculcates an intense sense of belonging, regardless of status and age. Hundreds of hours are spent practising drumming and flag-throwing for the procession that precedes the race, a key factor in keeping young people occupied and out of mischief.

But the real genius of the system is the notion of the enemy contrada, which powerfully reinforces the all-pervasive group identity whilst richly satisfying deep, if base, needs of the human psyche. Many of these enmities go back hundreds of years: Chiocciola's time-honoured foe is Tartuca, Aquila's Pantera, and Torre's both Oca and Onda - though Torre likes to add insult to injury by affecting not to notice that Onda, a small contrada on the opposite side of the Campo, is their enemy at all, preferring to direct their principal hostile energies towards Oca, a larger and more populous contrada.

Teaching your offspring to 'know their enemy' is a sacred parental duty: one technique observed being the spoon-feeding of a child with 'one for mummy, one for daddy... and one for X (the enemy contrada)', at which point the infant finds an empty spoon in its mouth. A handful of contrade have no official enemy - which gives them a special, Swiss-style status of quasi-neutrality - but even they will inevitably have allies and contrade with which they have 'no relations', signalling some recent or past falling-out.

Siena's urban tribalism should be a recipe for mayhem, but instead of creating, as in, for example, Los Angeles, a permanent state of gang warfare, it acts as a powerful civic cement, the magic ingredient being unquestionably the Palio itself, a twice-yearly controlled explosion that dramatically and cathartically releases the contrade's pent-up tribal passions. The city's crime rate is low, hard drugs (a major problem in Italy, where over 70 per cent of HIV positive cases have been infected by intravenous abuse) are rare, and a young girl can walk across the city late at night without fear of being molested.

Even violence between young males, though discouraged, is institutionalized and ritualized. The teenagers of enemy contrade do sometimes come to blows - especially at the time of the Palio when passions are running highest - but serious injuries are rare. In the early hours of the day of last August's Palio, there was a serious brawl in the Campo between the boys from Onda and Torre that lasted well over an hour. The police eventually drove their cars into the middle, and though the opposing factions continued to climb over the cars, and indeed the policemen, to get at each other, not a finger was laid on a single policeman, or member of the large crowd from other contrade watching the battle from, as it were, the touchline - though black eyes, and arms and legs in plaster were in evidence the next day among those wearing the warring contrade's scarves.

'The point is that the Palio is a celebration of order and civilization, not lawlessness,' said Pier Luigi Piccini, Siena's left-wing mayor, when I spoke to him later that morning in his vaulted, frescoed office in the medieval town hall on the Campo. 'I'm not saying that there is no violent element in it, but the violence is channelled, regimented. Modern societies have everywhere lost the means to contain and regulate these forces, but here there are still norms of behaviour that everyone respects.'

'There are those that say our society is barbaric and that we mistreat the horses. But to look at the Palio exclusively from the point of view of animals is to fail to understand what it means. The Palio's a metaphor of life - victory, defeat, life, death - and it has to be approached in a more profound fashion. The July 1991 Palio had to be postponed for a day because there was a problem with the starting mechanism, and one contrada was very unhappy about it. There were 30,000 people in the Campo by then, but all the contrade took their horses quietly back to their neighbourhoods. The only trouble we had was with some tourists and visitors, who were angry that they were going to miss the spectacle. But the Sienese simply don't see the Palio as a spectacle. Compare that incident with what happened at the Heysel stadium, where even though people had been killed, tens of thousands of others went right ahead and watched the spectacle just the same. That is the difference between Sienese culture and culture elsewhere.'

During the last two decades a score of horses have had to be put down as a result of accidents during the race or the prove beforehand. Last July was a catastrophe: one horse was destroyed after injury in a prova, and in the race itself, after a particularly protracted series of false-starts, three horses suffered broken legs - two of which had to be put down immediately, though the third was saved by surgery.

Within hours the anti lobby was in full cry. A national newspaper started a petition to have the race stopped. An attempt was made to prevent the August Palio from being run by securing a court order taking the horses into protective custody on the grounds that they were being maltreated - this initiative being accompanied by a 'celebrity petition', signed by Zeffirelli, Ornella Muti, Elio Fiorucci, the chat show host Maurizio Costanzo and other assorted luminaries.

To universal relief in Siena, the appeal was rejected by the local chief magistrate Giuseppe Mancini, who maintained that to stop the Palio purely on the grounds of July's accident would be like 'banning all air traffic as the result of a plane crash'. Despite the fact that last year's August Palio went off without incident, the campaign against is becoming ever more vocal, and Sienese ever more embattled and beleaguered.

'The Sienese are the craziest people on earth,' said Zeffirelli, when I met him at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, where he was directing Aida. 'They talk about the Palio from 1 January to 31 December. I personally don't want to ban the Palio, but they use the wrong horses. They want to have a faster and faster race - and they use horses that aren't suitable for that kind of course. They should use stronger horses, military-style horses, not these thoroughbreds designed for running at Ascot or Longchamps. But if they don't change the horses, they should get rid of it. I'm going to continue until I get my way, because it's a scandal - an insult to civilization.'

The fact that Zeffirelli comes from Florence, Siena's traditional enemy, which in the 16th century finally conquered the city and snuffed out the Sienese Republic, makes Zeffirelli's campaign especially irksome to the Sienese. 'I can't go to Siena,' said the 71-year-old director, 'because the police have told me I'd be seriously at risk there. In Siena, I'm like Rushdie for the Muslims...'

'It's impossible to wholly eliminate accidents on any race course,' Pier Luigi Piccini replies, 'just as it's impossible to eliminate accidents in everyday life. Nonetheless, we've been working for more than seven years to minimize the risks. We have an agreement with a specialized clinic, where horses are taken immediately even if they suffer the most minor injuries. Having bought very expensive equipment in England, we can now intervene directly on the course to have a horse supported, anaesthetized and put in plaster.

'Even before now we've saved many horses that in commercial racing would have been destroyed. What is more, we have a retirement home, paid for by the city, for horses that have run in the Palio, where they can live out the rest of their days, running free in the fields, instead of being put down as so often happens when a horse's racing days are over.'

Piccini also vigorously denied the animal campaigners' claims that the type of horses used are, in themselves, unsuitable. The horses are lent by their owners free of charge to the city, and if the risks were so great, said Piccini, it would be a strange owner indeed who would be prepared to do so. As there is no prize money, the normal pressures of commercial racing are absent. 'As for the argument about breeds - in reality, over the years half-breeds have had more accidents than thoroughbreds. The fact is that it's not a question of breed, but of motor capacity, adaptability to the course and the general condition of the horse.'

This year the city council has built a special course at the nearby village of Monticiano, reproducing the surface, curves and gradients of the Campo, to test individual suitability and habituate them to the real thing.

The growing demonization of the Sienese in certain sections of the Italian press and among their bien-pensant critics, ignores the fact that, unlike many Italians, the Sienese find the idea of eating horse meat distasteful and so contribute nothing to the annual slaughter of thousands of animals for Italian tables. In fact, the Sienese display an affection for horses that can take on engagingly ingenuous forms.

Last August, Oca, one of the contrade running in the Palio, invited the retired English thoroughbred Rimini up from the country as their guest of honour for their eve-of-race dinner. 'He did very well for us,' said Dr Senio Sensi, Oca's Governatore (as the Prior is called in this contrada). 'In fact, once when he was allotted to another contrada, his heart just didn't seem in it - which we took as a real compliment and sign of loyalty.' When I went to the contrada's stable to see the 23-year-old former champion, he looked remarkably sleek, well-groomed and chipper. The children of Istrice, where he is also a celebrity, had just brought him an enormous basket of apples and carrots (though the groom confided that Rimini's secret vice was Polo mints).

In response to the complaints of animal rights campaigners, Giuseppe Mancini has agreed to investigate whether there are judicial grounds for prosecuting the ten contrada Captains and two municipal vets involved in the selection of the horses for last July's unhappy race, for causing unnecessary suffering to the horses.

'There was a previous inquiry of this kind in 1991, but at the end of the preliminary investigation the case was closed,' said Fabio Pisillo, who is leading the team of local lawyers defending the vets and Captains (one of the lawyers, Alberto Viti from Oca, is representing the Captain of Torre, in normal circumstances Oca's arch rival). 'And we all hope, of course, that this inquiry will reach the same conclusion.'

First published: The Times Magazine

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024