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Siena's Palio, the Fabled Running of the Horses

June 26, 1988|JOY SCHALEBEN LEWIS | Lewis is a free-lance writer living in Milwaukee

SIENA, Italy — It's the middle of the afternoon and hot, on the day of Siena's Palio. In 10 chapels and 10 city districts, 10 priests await the contestants.

On one narrow cobbled street in the Aquila (eagle) district, a banner-waving crowd bursts into cheers as a racehorse led by a groom in brilliant medieval attire approaches the tiny chapel. Heavy doors open in welcome. Dutifully, the horse squeezes through. The crowd shoves feverishly behind.

Inside, a priest beams benevolently. Worshipers hush. "Vai e ritorna vincitore" (go and come back a winner), the priest solemnly instructs the horse, bestowing his blessing with the sign of the cross.

Cameras flash. Somehow the horse turns around and well-wishers flatten against one another as the animal is led quickly to safe quarters to await the flamboyant race, a three-lap, frenzied dash around Siena's beautiful main square, the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo.

Peril and Pageantry

This is the fabled Palio, perhaps the world's wildest horse race, a contest between bareback riders representing the city's rival districts, known collectively as contrade . It takes place each year on July 2 and Aug. 16. One of the most magnificent public spectacles ever conceived, it's an all-stops-out, dangerous event.

Flag twirlers, trumpeters, guards armed with ancient crossbows, drummer boys, horsemen in armor, and horses in leather and brass strut up and down old Siena's winding streets.

Thousands of spectators stream toward the sharply curved, oval dirt track bordering the piazza. Flags wave from balconies of mellow Tuscan buildings. The excitement is bewitching--even the pigeons seem to sense something extraordinary as they swarm from rooftop to rooftop.

It's 5 p.m. A cannon announces the opening of the official Palio parade. Bells toll from the tower. Mounted carabinieri in elegant red, white and black uniforms move gracefully forward in smart-stepping formations.

Each of the city's 17 contrade displays its distinguishing, eye-blinding colors as young Romeos in vivid, two-tone tights and belted, flared tunics throw flags imperiously into the air, catching them with swooping precision. The brigades move at a measured pace, savoring the honor they bestow on their contrade .

The crowd, packed like raisins in a box, presses against the railings. Some faint in the heat. Medics whisk them to the ospedale , a first-aid station sandwiched between marble pillars adjacent to the Gothic Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall.

Peering down at the ospedale from an arched window in the Palazzo Pubblico, a handsome businessman from Rome keeps track of the fallen. " Numero quindici " (No. 15), he announces to his richly dressed companions. Cool and pampered by wine and hors d'oeuvres, he basks in his privileged bird's-eye view of the madcap Palio.

" Viva Italia! Viva il Palio! " he shouts.

Afternoon shadows move slowly across the massed spectators. Still the Tuscan bell tower blazes orange in the sun. Still the splendiferous pageant marches on. It's nearly 7 p.m. on the clock tower overlooking the piazza. Two splendid white oxen enter the ring, signifying the ritual's end.

At last, 10 jockeys in the gaudy colors of their contrade trot onto the track. Balcony spectators lean precariously forward. With rising passion, the crowd below swarms like bees. The horses charge from the starting rope.

A mighty roar explodes as 100,000 people frantically wave their arms and pivot in unison, following the galloping horses clockwise around the track. Reckless bareback riders without stirrups furiously prod the unruly horses. Three times they circle. Three times the crowd turns for the climactic showdown.

The Lupa (wolf) contrada wins! " Lupa , Lupa !" the crowd screams.

Weeping, shouting fans break onto the track. Hugging, kissing, slapping shoulders, they carry the ecstatic Lupa rider around the piazza and into the streets. Months of preparation have gone into this 90-second race. Now it's time for the reward: all-night feasting and celebrating in the Lupa contrada . They have won the right to the coveted prize, the Palio banner with the painted image of the Madonna.

Winning the Palio is complicated. In general, the best rider on the best horse wins. But for a horse race fanned by flames of centuries-old contrade rivalry, that's too simple. Luck and the art of cheating, Machiavelli-style, mix into the Palio's caldron of pomp, history and myth.

The magic spectacle has its roots in the Middle Ages when Siena was an independent republic. In those days the 17 contrade flourished as separate military societies, the soldiers of each jealously defending their own special section of the walled city. Horse races, along with fistfights, stone-throwing battles and fencing were an integral part of Sienese life.

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