The Palio: How 90 Seconds Changed the Sentiment of SienaSiena, Summer 2012
The Palio is a bi-annual horserace that takes place in the city of Siena on July 2 and August 16. It is Siena’s “thing”. Robed in medieval history and cultural significance, the city transforms from its peaceful, conserved self into a community bound by invisible borders, by long-standing alliances and nemeses, and by the pure patriotism of their own “contrada”, or district. Being an outsider living within the city at this time, you slowly begin to notice the zeal of competition and the true dedication these citizens have towards their contrada, eventually culminating to an extreme on the day of the Palio. That day — those 3 laps and 90 seconds — are what every individual has waited an entire year for. And it’s hard to really describe the heaviness in the air at this point, transcribe how 50,000 people stuffed into the Piazza del Campo fall silent moments before the horses are led out. It’s an experience one must, well, experience. But for the time being, I will try to give a glimpse of the singular moments that I feel exemplify Palio the most:
You begin to see signs gradually. You walk into the Piazza del Campo and it has been altered slightly; either some wooden gates have begun to be erected, a thin layer of dirt has started snaking its way around the shell-shaped arena, or the outdoor tables of the adjoining restaurants have been pushed ever so closer to their establishments. You notice brightly colored flags begin to pop up around individuals’ necks – orange and blue, green and orange, golden yellow. Not so much flags, but “fazzoletti”, handkerchiefs that establish one’s affiliation to the rest of the general populace. And you begin to wonder why you never see two different fazzoletti-bearers walking side by side.
The signs become more apparent. Huge parades of walkers, drummers, and flag bearers crowd the streets, dressed in thick and medieval garb; the women tagging along and singing behind this all-male performance. Trial races are attended by men and women clutching notebooks, concentrating intensely on the performance of each horse before they are assigned to a specific contrada.
Siena, this city that went crazy on Italy’s successful advancement into the EuroCup Finals now barely registers their loss, as it is the night before the Palio.
And the exact moment when L’Onda’s jockey crossed the finish line – how he looked back to gauge the distance held, then turned and swung his legs in the air, jumping up and down upon the horse. His face screamed joy. He pumped his fist and held it up to slice the air as those around him exploded with emotion. And those uninterrupted seconds immediately following the race, where citizens (young and old) of losing contradas let out their pent-up frustration, either by kidding the leg of a plastic chair, banging one’s hands upon a table, or complaining to every acquaintance available how unfair life was for them.
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