The Medieval Rivalry, Bribes and Bareback Horse Riding of Il Palio di Siena

We travel to Siena, by bus, from our hostel in Florence. The green hills of Tuscany roll outside my window; inside the bus, the entire tour group, wearing bright orange (and mandatory) souvenir shirts, bumps up and down in their seats. “You may think these shirts are hideous now, but you will be thankful for them after the race,” the tour guide proselytizes through her headset. “When all Hell breaks loose and you lose each other in a crowd of 80,000 hysterical Italians, you will be grateful for the shirts. I promise.”

I turn to my travel companion, Polly, and point at the front of my shirt — at the electric-blue words in faux-medieval script which read: I surivived the palio of Siena!

“We look like tourists,” I say.

“We are tourists,” she laughs. And of course, she is right. But I still feel uncool in our ridiculously obvious T-shirts.

• • •

Polly and I met a month earlier, in Nice, France, both headed toward Italy to work at an English language summer camp. We ended up in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, in a small town called Codogno, working the same camp as co-teachers. Over the two-week period, our six-year-old students had expertly mined to extinction any patience we had brought with us to Italy. Stressful days at camp ended over bottles of inexpensive (but delicious!) Italian wine that we indulged in while we prepared food in the kitchen, planned lessons on the bedroom floor, or exchanged anecdotes about our lives in the living room. One afternoon, after a long day spent wrangling restless children and singing English songs referencing modes of transportation, we hopped on our own train, and made a mad dash toward an evening spent in the nearby and famous Milan. We enjoyed hours of a laid-back aperitivo (happy hour); sipping alcoholic drinks and eating mounds of salty prosciutto and cheese as our stressful day went down with the sun and melted into the horizon. Time escaped us and at somewhere around 10 p.m. we found ourselves running to catch the last train back to Codogno (and once aboard, speculating what we would have done had we arrived on the platform mere seconds later).

Perhaps it was the excitement of nearly being stranded overnight in Milan, or a desire to test the bond between us formed by our hectic camp classroom, but the next weekend, as we lay on single beds in our 11-year-old host daughter’s room, we decided to spend a few weeks after camp traveling together through Italy. When we discussed possible itineraries, Polly had only one non-negotiable destination: Siena, a small town (population just under 55,000) tucked away in the Italian wine region of Tuscany. Polly wanted to experience Il Palio di Siena (The Prize of Siena), a notorious bareback horse race famous for its rivalries, bribes and strategy, dangerous track, and long-standing medieval traditions.

• • •

The journey to Siena lasted only an hour, but when I step off the bus, it feels as though we have traveled hundreds of years back through time.

The city, originally settled as far back as 900 B.C. by an Etruscan tribe, the Saina, has a far more legendary history according to the Italians. The diehards believe Siena was founded by Senius — nephew of Rome’s famous namesake, Romulus. The Sienese emblem (a depiction of Romulus and Senius’s father, Remus, as infants, suckling from a she-wolf) can be seen everywhere; on street signs, banners, store windows and flags. During Il Palio, as the locals call it, although only 10 horses compete, flags representing all 17 contrada (areas similar to city wards or districts — each with their own colors, flag, mascot, song, traditions and unrelenting pride) are also seen lining the streets, set high on the stone-set building walls, flapping loud and proud.

Siena’s roads are steep; both paved and made from stone. Its architecture boasts collections of medieval towers and gothic cathedrals, such as the town’s narrow, medieval entrance gate which stands tall and intimidating, or the town square, Piazza del Campo (where Il Palio is run), which dates back to the 14th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city weighs heavy on me with its history — which I seem to absorb through each step, turning my feet to stone, and eventually forcing my gait to slow so that I might appreciate it. There it hit me — I had come to Siena to witness a horse race, an epic horse race, whose own story stretched farther through history than that of my own country (the often selectively omitted years of our Native Americans notwithstanding).

• • •

For centuries, the small town of Siena has provided members of its contrada with outlets for their passionate competiveness. In the 1300s, nearly 500 years before the colonization of America, Siena’s 59 original contrada would gather in Piazza del Campo, and duke it out through boxing matches, jousting, and bullfights. Horse races, known then as palio alla lunga, ran bareback through the city streets. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany put a ban on bullfighting in 1590, the Sienese filled the void by jumping unsaddled on donkeys and buffalos and racing around the square. It was not until July 2, 1656, during the first palio alla tunga (translating to “win the round”), that horse racing finally ran circles inside the piazza, carrying with it only one rule: You may not grab the reigns belonging to another jockey. Over the centuries, this rule has left the door wide open for all types of cunning shenanigans and betrayal.

A virtually lawless race is what had originally stoked my motivation to experience Il Palio. “Well, the contrada can do almost anything to win,” Polly had said. “And they do.”

“They can kidnap and drug other jockeys — or even lash other jockeys with a whip made from dried, stretched bull penis. It’s called a nerbi,” she added, as my interest peaked. “And, the jockeys are also given money from their contrade to buy favors. You can’t trust anyone.”

“Buy favors?” I asked.

“Bribes,” she said. “Right before the race starts, when the horses are getting into their starting positions, the jockeys try to bribe the other jockeys into doing favors for them.”

Over time, devising and executing winning strategies during the mossa has become a healthy competition in its own right. The blood of contrada rivalry runs thick, pulsing through centuries of broken alliances, treachery, and tradition. In Il Palio, the loser is the second horse to cross the finish line, not the last. To the highly competitive Sienese, any rival’s loss is regarded almost as victorious as winning Il Palio itself — prompting last-minute bribes to ensure, not only a personal win, but also an enemy’s loss.

• • •

The gates to Piazza del Campo start to close around 4:30 p.m. in preparation for Corteo Storico, a medieval costumed parade. Heavy-pocketed Il Palio devotees stand waiting in the bleacher and box seats while the wealthiest aficionados watch and holler from gaping windows inside the walls of the tall historical buildings surrounding the square. The remaining 40,000 of us are in the cheap “seats,” on the ground floor, in the middle of the square. My tour group and I, predictably easy to find in our orange shirts, gather somewhere between the front gate and the hairpin turns of the San Martino section of the track. Free entrance bought us a few bricks to stand on within the seashell-shaped square, and no access to a toilet. Voluntary sardines marooned by flimsy crash barriers lining the racetrack, we have been waiting under the sun, rationing sunscreen and water for almost two hours.

The sweat drizzles down my body, and I want to bribe Sol, the Roman sun god, into taking the rest of the day off. I have nothing to offer in exchange, so I sit on the hot bricks at my feet attempting to find asylum in the shadows of my tour group. Our snazzy souvenir shirts boast two electric-blue horse silhouettes, both carrying jockeys, racing from left to right — although many of the jockeys never make it around all three laps. The horses are the true focus of Il Palio, meaning no jockey is required to accompany his horse across the finish line in order to solidify a win. The threat of danger and promise of mishaps is part of what makes Il Palio di Siena so exhilarating.

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