Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Palio of Siena

It’s Palio time again in Siena. August 16th signals the second event of the summer (after the one held on July 2nd), when 10 of Siena’s 17 contrade (city wards) compete in a traditional bareback horse race in the famous Piazza del Campo. The August race was added in the 18th century, probably as a way to continue the festivities from the holiday on August 15th dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In fact, this Palio bears the name “Palio dell’Assunta”.

This important annual event has become one of Siena’s most famous tourist attractions – drawing thousands of visitors from all over Italy and the world. Prior to the race there is a magnificent pageant, called the Corteo Storico, where participants are dressed in the regalia of the Middle Ages to celebrate the historic customs and greatness of the Republic of Siena. The procession includes marching bands, flag throwers, musicians, horse riders, and an array of historical reenactments.

In the evening, it is time for the horse race, which lasts only three laps around the piazza, covered in several inches of dirt for the occasion. The intensity of the local rivalries and the relatively dangerous race track often make the 90-second competition quite treacherous for both the horses and the jockeys. The winner is always the horse that crosses the finish line first – with or without its rider – and it is typical to see whips being used not only on the rider’s own horse, but also on those of others, to spook or distract them.

In many ways, the Palio is a real journey back in time – as the people of Siena resort to using techniques and behavior typical of another era. The lack of fair play, by plotting against rivals and rejoicing at their defeat, is all part of this historic game, which is not always looked upon favorably by humane associations or those citizens who feel it represents a violent and outdated ritual that too often results in serious injuries to both the horses and their jockeys.

The Palio is without a doubt a majestic pageant, but it is also controversial for the obvious absence of good sportsmanship and its often dubious practices – rooted in centuries of tradition, rivalries and passion, as alive today as they were hundreds of years ago.

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