When I decided to host guest bloggers I didn't imagine I'd have such a wealth of offers. This one comes from a young Englishman who came to Italy and like so many others fell fast in love with this fabulous country. He now lives in one of Italy's most famous and most beautiful regions: La Toscana...Tuscany. Let's all give a warm welcome to Matt and read on to see what he has to say about Il Palio, Siena's most popular tradition. Grazie Matt!
The Palio of Siena: A Mix of History, Traditions and…Guts
|Il Palio di Siena|
Yes guts, because it takes guts to run full speed on a bareback horse while wearing silk pants, going three times around a D-shaped square with sharp turns while nine other jockeys will not hesitate to whip you in the face to get ahead of you. There is no second place in Palio: One winner, nine losers.
Horses are the real protagonists of the Palio. There are 17 districts, or Contrade, in Siena, but only 10 run each edition of the Palio. Often jockeys fall during the race, but as long as the horse keeps the cockade on his forehead, it is eligible to win the race, which is not a rare occurrence. Horses are blessed in church right after being assigned to a Contrada; they are haled as heroes when victorious, and are present to the main dinner with all the people of the respective Contrada on the night before the Palio. It is unfortunate that sometimes they get injured. A special "hospice" for horses was instituted about 20 years ago to give the chance to wounded horses to keep a normal life even when limp.
Actually, the Contrada in second place is the one wearing the shame of having almost gotten it. Almost, is not enough. The horse and the jokey will go home, but the entire Contrada will be Purgata, which means receiving a purge. All this, and much more, is the Palio of Siena.
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But back to speaking of guts: There is a lot of gut feeling when you attend the Palio. Even foreigners do sense the vibrant nervousness in the air during the minutes that precede the race. All the gaiety, the choral chants, the colors displayed during flag weaving, the high sound of trumpets and transporting rhythm of drums cease. Even the normal chatting that has pervaded the Piazza del Campo since the morning of the day of the Palio fades away. The mortaretto, a salve gunpowder load, explodes, lifting a wave of scared pigeons from one side of the piazza to the other. As if a signal known by more than six thousand people had been suddenly cast in the sky, everyone starts lowering their voice to the point that the chirping of swallows flying above can be clearly heard. This is the moment when the ten horses and their jockeys exit the Cortile Del Podestà inside Palazzo Pubblico and enter the square, slowly heading towards the Canape; the thick tense rope that signals the start line. It may be one minute or hours before the rope falls to the ground for a good start. It may take many attempts to a clean start, but after that all will soon be over. In less than a minute made of screaming, camera flashes, frantic head turning, and heavy galloping that you can feel in your chest, the mortaretto explodes its final salve and the victorious arm of the jockey rises up.
The Palio as we know it today started taking place in the Renaissance. Before that, it was an oxen race. Through centuries the people of Siena have preserved all the sentiment tied with this folkloric event. You might think that people coming from a town just outside Siena share the same feeling, but it isn't so. The Sienese have done an excellent job at keeping the Palio to themselves only. A newborn Sienese may get the Catholic blessing, but you may rest assured he or she will be blessed in the church of some Contrada, usually that of the mother or father, and a Fazzoletto, a foulard, with the colors and symbol of the district, will accompany all his life. Unless he wants to repudiate it for another district, something really frowned upon in Siena. Every Sienese wears the Fazzoletto everywhere during Palio days, and the winners will wave it hard while rushing through the square towards the horse. Be ready to let them pass!
The disorder that follows Palio is soon cleared out. The winners collect their prize, a unique drape painted by a local or international artist. They will go to the Cathedral with their horse, singing their songs and ready to display their happiness during the following days. To everyone else is left the taste of a wonderful party abruptly ended by the very reason they were celebrating. It doesn't matter: next year it will be all anew again.
Matt Kachinski lives and works in Tuscany for Thrifty Tuscany. He will be glad to help you find the finest villa rental in Siena at Private Villa Rental by Owner http://thriftytuscany.com/villa-san-donato/472.htm and give you tips on how to rent a villa in Tuscany at the best price. http://thriftytuscany.com/
Matt Kachinski is originally from England, but after spending a semester in Florence he settled in Tuscany.
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