Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Palio di Siena

The Palio di Siena
One of the most famous one of a kind horse races takes place in the famous square "Piazza del Campo" in Siena. Held twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th, the entire square in Siena is covered in sand, and the route is well marked.

Only ten of the seventeen "contrade" (similar to town districts) run each time. Their participation is decided by a draw, which takes place four days prior to each Palio - this phase is called the “Tratta”. The "contrade" is the way Siena has divided its town up into competing factions. Each have their own flag, colours and church - where most of them take their horses for a blessing! The contrada which wins (two per year) celebrates for the whole year.

Before the race itself, there are six trials. For three days prior to each Palio, there are two trials, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The last one of these six trials is called "Prova Generale". The last trial, called the "Provaccia" (which could be translated as "hard trial"), is run the morning of the Palio.

About three or four hours before the race, an historical parade takes place. Everybody who goes to watch the Palio must be inside the square, which is totally fenced, because all gates are closed and the only one remaining open is that used by the characters of the parade to come in, walk around the whole square and leave. The Parade is composed of characters who represent the way of life during the Siennese Republic, Siena’s most glorious period before it fell to the domination of the Florentine Grand Duchy.

The parade includes horses, knights, heralds, musicians and flag flyers. It ends with a presentation of flag flyers representating each of the 17 contradas of Siena. Each one demonstrating with their own colours and flags, finishing with the"Sbandierata della Vittoria" (the Victory Flag Show). There is a legend that says that the one who throws the flag highest is the winner.

At the end of the parade, a burst of canon fire announces the jockey's exit from the "Entrone". Each jockey is given a whip made of ox tendon with which he may incite the horse and block his opponents during the race. They race without a saddle, as was done in medieval times. The jockeys don't belong to the contradas, but are handsomely paid to run it.

They draw close to the starting point, where two hemp ropes have been stretched across to allow the jockeys to line up between them. The entrance order is decided by chance. There is a special bottle-type mechanism, with a neck-piece grafted into an oval container, once the bottle is turned over, the balls randomly line up along the neck-piece, deciding on the order of the start. This procedure is carried out three times so that the starter is able to have two reserve starts if the first one is not possible.

Nine contradas are called to line up between the ropes according to the order of the draw, while the tenth takes a run-up (when he decides on the right moment) hence deciding when the race starts. At that point, the starter lowers the front rope. If the start is invalid, a noise is made to stop the horses which then have to return to the starting point.

The horses have to circle the track three times, about 1,000 metres and the first one to finish is the winner, approved by the three judges. Even a horse, without its jockey, can carry its contrada to victory, because the horse is the winner, not the jockey!
The prize is the Palio, a painting, which the contrada keeps in its museum together with all its historical prizes. The best comes after the race - the winner's party! Each contrada has its own space where they meet for parties and dinners, close to their church.

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