Because space in the Piazza del Campo is so limited, only ten contrade traditionally participate in each Palio. Seven of them will not have participated in the last Palio and the other three are ceremoniously chosen by drawing lots. This happens on the last Sunday in May for the July Palio, and is repeated on the first or second Sunday in July for the August Palio. Both of these events command a lot of attention in the city.
As soon as the participants are known, preparations begin, starting with the selection of the horses and their riders; even at this early stage the atmosphere, the feverish hatching of strategies, plots and counter-plots can be compelling, with contrade who haven’t won in some years particularly keen to give it their best shot. Test races are held in the surrounding Chianti countryside in order to review promising jockeys.
A few days before each race – on June 29 and August 13 – the anxious ritual of the tratta, the assigning of horses, takes place. Acceptable horses are presented, reviewed and tested. The ten best are selected, then matched by lots to each of the competing contrade, who then begin a series of trial heats so that jockey and horse can get acquainted. This is also the time for bets to be placed, and, most important of all, for shady deals, pacts and conspiracies to be proffered and sealed among the contending factions. Six warm¬up races in all are run on the Piazza del Campo during the days leading up to the Palio – at 9am and 7.45pm – including a final, mock heat on the same morning as the real thing.
Phe medieval pageantry steps up a gear the day before the actual race, as the Participating contrade officially register at the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall, each Procession’s arrival being accompanied by ceremonious trumpets and drums, along with the introduction to the crowd of the horses and jockeys. This is all followed by a late-afternoon race that is almost as exciting as the main race itself, though admittedly in this trial run the jockeys don’t push their steeds to quite the same limits.
Between 2.30pm and 3.30pm on the big day, the horses are led into the churches of their respective contrade to be blessed by the priest before the race – the priest says, “Little horse, go, be swift and return a winner”, or something to that effect. It’s considered a good omen if the beast takes a dump on the church floor during the ceremony.
The corteo storico, the historic parade around the Piazza del Campo, begins at about 5pm, with flag throwers – sbandierati – from each contrada, accompanied by the chimes of the bell tower, creating an undeniably dignified context for the race to come. The square is a riot of colour and activity and, at around 7pm, the “War Chariot”, drawn by two pairs of white oxen, enters the Campo displaying the palio for all to admire.
The race itself begins at 7.45pm on July 2 and 7pm on August 16, and the mossa, or start, can be a nerve-wracking affair in itself, with as many as twenty false starts before a drum-roll announces a valid one. Once the restraining rope is finally dropped, it takes only seventy to ninety seconds for the horses and riders to thunder around the Campo for the requisite three laps. During
the chaotic, hellbent careening around the earth-covered, makeshift course, the only rule is that there are no real rules. Practically any sort of violence toward rival riders and animals is permitted, even encouraged, and anything short of directly interfering with another jockey’s reins or flinging a rider to the ground is seen as fair game. Each jockey carries a special whip, called a nerbo – by tradition, fashioned from the skin of a bull’s penis and thus thought to give a particularly deep sting, not to mention conferring super-potency on its wielder. The course is so treacherous, with its sharp turns and sloping, slippery surfaces that often fewer than half of the participants finish, although it’s in fact only the horse that matters – the horse that crosses the line first (even without its rider), will be declared the winner.
Europe 18 – Il Palio