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 Photo: Joe Condor

Siena, Italy: Baptism By Palio
By Ann Marie Slevin

I first heard about the Palio more than ten years before I finally made it there.  A friend described her experience to me: the long hours standing squeezed with thousands of other spectators in Siena’s main piazza, waiting to see the maniacal horse race that is the soul of the city.  Like the Kentucky Derby, but smaller; much, much more raw and much more meaningful to everyone there, because the rivalries go back to medieval times.  Jockeys fly off horses.  There are no rules.  Even a riderless horse can win.  It was the wildest thing, she said, that she had ever seen.  The image stuck in my mind.  Someday, I vowed, I would see the Palio.  Not on TV, not in a video; I would be there, in Siena, in that piazza with the crazy Sienese, and see it for myself. 

A decade later, the stars aligned and I found myself in Siena for a few weeks.  On my first night, during a multiple-course Tuscan feast, I was happily seated next to Ron Herzman, a gruff, loveable and brilliant English professor.  Ron recommended the pici-- thick, wonderful Sienese spaghetti.  Between bites of pasta, we discussed the nature of the Palio. 

There is nothing in the States, he told me, to begin to compare with the rivalry between Siena’s seventeen contradas, or neighborhoods, that is fought out every year in the Palio.  Maybe, he said, if somehow the Red Sox and Yankees could play each other every year in the World Series, and they both ended up in the Series every year for seven hundred years—maybe then Americans could understand this rivalry.  They take it that seriously?  I wanted to know.  So he told me a story.

In 1980, a special Palio was run in honor of St. Catherine of Siena, to mark the six-hundredth anniversary of her death.  Catherine, in her lifetime, was a proud member of the Contrada of Oca, the Goose.  While her body is buried in Rome, her head sits (rather creepily) encased in glass in the Church of San Domenico, in the contrada itself.   As this Palio was being run in honor of their patroness, Oca thought they had it wrapped up.  How could they lose?  When they did lose, the priest of San Domenico marched immediately to Catherine’s shrine, called her a whore, and blew out every candle.  If this was how she treated her people, said the priest, she could damn well sleep in the dark. 

Apocryphal?  Perhaps.  But I was hooked.  I wanted to learn more.  My hunger for Palio lore was obliged by Wes Kennison, the husband of my friend Lynn.  On our first full day in Siena, Wes led us through the different contradas, regaling us with stories of rivalries and scandals.  Wes and Lynn had been going to Siena for over 25 years and had so many friends in the contrada of Onda (the Wave) that Wes was now a baptized contradaiolo, or member, himself.  With his blue and white Onda scarf tied around his neck, he took us down into his contrada, which was celebrating its feast day. 

At a tiny church nestled at the top of a cobblestone street, we watched as the new babies of the past year were baptized in the contrada fountain, along with a smattering of older children and adults.  This is not a religious baptism, but a kind of symbolic reception into the contrada.  Each new member, after being baptized, is given the contrada scarf, which every contradaiolo wears on feast days and to Palio events.  Colors and designs are unique to each contrada. 

Tourists can buy polyester knockoffs in any souvenir shop, but the scarves given to true contradaioli are pure silk.  They must never be washed, and they are treasured for one’s entire lifetime.  To our surprise, one of the last to be baptized that day was Lynn.  As we congratulated her afterwards, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous.  What would it be like, I wondered, to have a personal connection to the contradas and the Palio like this?  Even with all I was learning, could I ever be more than a detached bystander?

Slowly  we became Palio junkies.  In the second week we saw the dirt brought into the piazza to make the racetrack.  La terra in piazza; that magical phrase is full of possibility.  A Palio victory means rebirth for everyone in the winning contrada, a chance to begin again.  A bit like New Year’s Day for us, but one that might only happen once or twice in a lifetime.  Wes told us that after the Palio, we would see grown people drinking wine out of baby bottles, and businessmen with pacifiers in their mouths, all to symbolize this rebirth.

The Sienese have a saying that sums up the hope that surrounds the Palio every year, a saying they use whenever things aren’t going well.  “Va bene, presto c’e la terra in piazza,” or, “Never mind; soon the dirt will be in the piazza.”  No matter what happens to you, there is always the knowledge that every July 2 and August 16, you have a shot at redemption.  And every Sienese heart beats faster once the dirt is brought in.

The following Sunday in the piazza,our hearts beat faster too.  This was the tratta, the ceremony during which Palio horses are chosen and assigned to a contrada for the race.  I was watching with my friend Mayra and her boyfriend Brian.  Brian, a huge sports fan, was determined to pick the winner.  We were handed scorecards so we could keep track of the horses’ names, numbers, ages, and past Palio victories.  Assuming we could figure any of that out.  Mostly, though, I just wanted to see them run. 

We had been hearing talk of horses and of racing for a week.  But seeing—and hearing—them at last was unexpectedly exciting.  I was struck by their beauty and elegance as they entered the piazza for the trial runs, white numbers painted on their flanks.  We stood right up against the rail, clutching our scorecards, and they began to run.  Ten horses at a time, hooves pounding the dirt right in front of us.  Their hoof beats echoed in the pit of my stomach, becoming something I not only heard but felt viscerally.  I was beginning to understand the excitement of the Palio. 

The tratta involves a lottery during which the number of a horse is read, followed by the name of the contrada that has drawn the horse.  At each announcement, terrific cheers go up, cheers that can mean two things: the contrada in question has drawn a good horse, and they are celebrating, or they’ve drawn a bad horse and their enemy is celebrating.  The system of allies and enemies is complex, and once the horses are assigned, the intrigue begins. 

Deals are made with jockeys, and bribery is perfectly legal.  Jockeys tend to be rowdy mercenaries, and must never be from Siena.  Many of them are Sardinian, an island being known for the quality of both its horses and its jockeys. 

Wes said that when interviewed, jockeys use “all seventeen words they know.”  If your contrada has drawn a bad horse, all is not lost; you can still bribe a jockey to make sure your enemy doesn’t win.  It’s the next best thing to winning yourself.   As these deals were being made all around me, I saw people weeping in despair, and others wild with joy.

It all told me one thing: I had to pick a contrada. 

I couldn’t watch this race not caring who won.  But how would I pick one?  Brian had his system, but I wasn’t interested in handicapping and strategy.  What I wanted was to find a contrada that I liked, one that I could wholeheartedly support.  Only two days remained before the Palio.  I had to work fast.
Lynn and Wes had managed to get us tickets to the cena della prova generale, the “rally dinner” the night before the race.  Each contrada holds a dinner, which includes speeches by the jockey and the contrada dignitaries, as well as much group singing and waving of scarves.  Only ten of the seventeen contradas can run in any given Palio, and as Onda wasn’t running this July, we would be partying with the contrada of Selva, the Forest.

Rally dinners are held outside, in the streets, to accommodate hundreds of contrada members.  Selva’s are held in the shadow of Siena’s thirteenth-century baptistery, one of the most beautiful buildings in town.  A few tickets are available for non-contrada members, so we sat at a table in the back reserved for the general public. The baptistery, lit up, absolutely glowed. 

At the tourist table, the wine flowed freely.  Mayra and Brian had been seated further down, leaving me next to a large group of Italians not from Siena.  Their accents were immediately familiar to me and we struck up a conversation in Italian.  Sure enough, they were from the region of Emilia, where I had lived a few years before.   This was a bit like vacationing in New York and running into someone from home. 


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