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Archive for July, 2018

Dating back to well before the 16th century, it’s one of the oldest horse races in the world. Steeped in medieval tradition and filled with colour, controversy and drama, The Palio lies at the very heart of the identity of the city of Siena.

(Dear Reader: This post is neither a promotion of the Palio nor a condemnation of it. Rather, it was inspired by a treasured memory and a recent visit to Italy. Video footage included here shows no horse or rider being fatally injured, although some may be seen falling during the actual running of the race. AA)

 

MEETING GAUDENZIA

It wasn’t that Rome or Venice or Verona weren’t breathtaking, but my connection to Siena was personal, rooted deep into my childhood.

In 1961, when I was 12 years old, my grandmother had given me a book by Marguerite Henry entitled, “Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio.”

Some fifty-seven years later, here I was in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, where the climax of Gaudenzia’s story had taken place.

Entering the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Lined with restaurants and lying in the heart of city, it’s a place where tourist and the Sienese congregate over drinks and food.

 

Under the clock tower in the Piazza, noticeable in grey stone, lie the stables where the horses will be kept on the day of the Palio. Within these cool, dry walls, horses await the start of a race that has gained international status.

 

Over a gin-tonic and pizza, I contemplated the giant oval of the Piazza, imagining how it must transform in July and again in August, when The Palio is run. Like a palimpsest veiled only by the sights and sounds of lunch on an ordinary day in June, medieval buildings festooned with flags, cobblestones covered over with sand and an infield packed where hundreds stood, packed tighter than sardines in a tin, drifted like ghosts across my inner eye.

Winding through the narrow streets that extend like spokes on a wheel from the Piazza, there were many signs that the Palio of July was, indeed, on its way: street lights adorned with the colours of the different contradas, or districts of Siena; a winding street in the contrada of Leocorno (The Unicorn) festooned with orange and white Leocorno flags; a deserted cafe that opted for diplomacy by displaying the flags not only of Leocorno, but also della Pantera (The Panther, in red and blue) and della Tartuca (The Tortoise, in blue & yellow); and a bodega (small grocery store) where the entire back wall was a riot of Palio memorabilia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PALIO

Different as the regions of Italy may be, one of many things they share in common is a strong commitment to local customs and traditions. Located in Tuscany, Siena is famous for its centuries-old rivalry with Firenze (Florence), as well as being the home of the world’s oldest horse race, The Palio of Siena. Although historians estimate that the Palio is about 800 years old, the first written records about it don’t appear until the sixteenth century. Sometimes a third Palio, called the Palio of Peace or the Extraordinary Palio, is run between May-September. But when this happens, it is because there is a special event that is being commemorated.

The Palio is, ultimately, about the courage of a horse and rider, and the centuries-old, fierce competitiveness of the seventeen contradas of Siena. There is, of course, intrigue as these rivalries play out in July and August. But the intrigue only adds to the drama of horses and men reliving a beloved tradition. However, to fully understand The Palio and the sensibility of Siena, it helps to know a little of Italy’s history.

Until 1861, when Italy became a unified country under the Sardinian king, Victor Immanuel II, the whole of what we know today as one country was in fact ruled by a number of powerful city states. These city states controlled their own territories and were regularly at war with one another. Italy was a celebration of a richly diversified regionalism up until 1861, when all these regional customs and traditions had to learn to live together. And live together they do, but it is a kind of begrudging unity and it is those regional qualities that keep that going. Even in 2018, the citizens of Firenze/Florence consider themselves the chief rival to Siena, just as it was in ancient times. And our tour guide, who came from neither city, confided, ” You know, I find Siena the most beautiful city in the North. But any Florentine will tell you that the Sienese people are really not that nice, not very friendly. The Florentines are much nicer, much warmer.”

To a large extent, the magnificence of the different cities and regions of Italy today is due to their ancient roots as powerful jurisdictions. This is arguably most evident in Venice, a city that presents itself to you as though it was the only important city in Italy.

In the Piazza San Marco, the city of Venice presents herself in all her power and glory. The lion of the city flag hangs proudly next to that of Italy.

 

Proclaiming its power to the world: The Piazza San Marco in Venice.

 

The drama of the first Palio is re-enacted yearly by Siena’s seventeen contradas. Each one has its own flag, its own museum and it own Church. Each Sienese is christened in his/her contrada and it is to the contrada that they return when they die. In Siena on July 2 (Palio di Provenzano) and again on August 17 (Palio dell’Assunta), when the Palios are run, whole families split up, each joining his/her contrada for the day. To refuse to do so would be considered a social aberration, unless you were a babe in arms.

 

 

The colours of the contradas of Siena.

Long before the races of summer, the hunt by each contrada is on for a horse and rider. Whereas jockeys can be contracted by a contrada early in a given year, in the last 60 or so years it is more common after the horse chosen to represent their district is assigned. Each contrada contributes to the pool of horses available, even though not every horse is chosen and there is no certainty that they will be represented by the horse they have put forward. The horses themselves are always mixed breeds, pure breeds being forbidden largely because horses need to be fast and strong enough to withstand the rigors of the Palio. They can come from any walk of life, from working horses to pleasure horses, or from any region of Italy. The most important criteria is their speed. The horses selected are often trained by each contrada’s jockey, but then a twist comes in the form of a lottery.

A few days before the Palio a process takes place to choose horses. On the morning of the third day before the Palio the lottery takes place, but not before each horse is given a thorough check by a veterinary team, followed by a trial run around the Palio course. After this, the ten most suitable horses are chosen and then assigned to each contrada in a draw. The draws for horses being random, it is rare that a horse and its trainer, now turned jockey, end up together.

Only ten contradas participate in each Palio; in the July 2 Palio, the seven contradas who didn’t participate in July of the previous year are included, as well as three additional contradas, who are selected at random in another draw.

Below: The “Drawing of the Horses.”

 

The moment a horse is assigned, the contrada takes it away to their district stables, in a procession of contrada members. It will only return to the Piazza del Campo on the day of the race.

From the time he is contracted, the jockey is given security guards, whose job it is to see that he isn’t tempted by other contradas to throw the race. From the time they are chosen, the best jockeys are habitually assailed by offers in the form of bribes. The only way to assure their loyalty is for the contrada to offer them a handsome sum of money, the payment of which takes place before the Palio. But don’t feel sorry for the contradas: they frequently enpower their jockeys to bribe other jockeys right up to the start of the race. As well, each contrada has up to the morning of the Palio to change its jockey if he is suspected of being compromised in a way that will endanger their winning.

Jockeys can be changed but the horses cannot. If they become ill or unable to race, the horse withdraws as does its contrada and, for all the brutality of the Palio, there have been numerous cases of horses being withdrawn because a contrada feared for its safety.

Three days before the first Palio, as Siena begins to explode with contrada flags and marching bands, the jockeys and horses are given a chance to have a dry run in the form of six horse trials around the course, the last of which occurs on the morning of the actual Palio. Before the trials begin, the entries are drawn and this will decide the order the horses are called to the start on Palio day. The “wild card” — the tenth contrada drawn — does not line up with the rest of the horses. Instead, this pair stand farther back and only when they decide to go is the race officially on.

 

The Tratta is the ceremony in which places are drawn for the Palio. You can see the results on the board in the background. Number ten is the “wild card” — the horse and rider that will determine the start of the race.

On the day of the Palio, horses and riders are blessed in the church of their contrada. Then the horse, wearing its brightly coloured spennacchiera and bridle, is paraded to the Piazza del Campo, where it will be stabled within the cool, stone walls of the del Campo stables to await the race, which takes place at 7:30 pm in July (and at 7 p.m. in August).

The Blessing of the Horse:

 

The running of the Palio is the final event of a day of colour, excitement and festivity, all invoking the rites and rituals of hundreds of years before, called “The Historical Walk” (Passeggiata Storica).The participants number about 600 and are drawn from all of the 17 contradas. The war cart (Carroccio), drawn by white oxen, carries the Palio — a hand-painted banner that goes to the victor of that year’s Palio and hearkens back to the original Pallium banner of the 1500’s or earlier, made of sacred, liturgical cloth and after which the race derived its name.

The arrival of the Palio, or victory flag, is the last event before the Palio itself is run.

 

 

As the horses for the Palio appear on the track, a roar goes up from the crowd. The jockeys, now wearing the silks of the contrada for which they are racing, are bareback and carry only a long riding stick, called a nerbi, make of dried cow hide and with which they can drive on their horses or impede another horse, specifically by knocking off its spennacchiara. Since it is the horse and its contrada, not the rider, who is credited with the win, even a riderless horse can race to victory in the Palio. That is — as it used to be — unless the closest jockey manages to knock of its spennacchiara. But this latter rule has been changed, even though its absence remains contrversial. Spennacchiara or no, the first horse across the finish line, riderless or not, wins.

 

GUESS, who won the July 1 2013 Palio for Oca (The Goose), wearing his spennacchiara (between his ears) in Oca colours.

The horses will race around the Piazza de Campo course three times before the finish and the winner is greeted by a three-gun salute. At the start, the horses are called by the name of the contrada and in chronological order, as per the position they have drawn. Nine line up between the two ropes that mark off the starting gate. The 10th horse and rider, the rincorsa, waits behind the ropes: when the other horses are reasonably orderly in front of him, he will kick off the race by encouraging his horse to leap forward.

As you can see, in the video below, readying for the start can take some time! Here is the July 2, 2018 Palio that took place only a few days after I had left Italy and was on my way home. Note the rincorsa, in the yellow and red colours of the Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) contrada, behind the other nine horses. Note, too, the sharp turn horses and riders make and the white on the walls — thick mattressing put up to lessen the chances of a horse or rider falling to its death. The winner for the Drago (Dragon) contrada was the bay Rocco Nice, ridden by jockey Andrea Mari.

(Note: Riders are unseated and horses fall, but there were no casualties or serious injuries sustained.)

 

HOMAGE TO GAUDENZIA

 

The real GAUDENZIA was not only the heroine of a children’s story. She was adored by an entire nation and went on to become an international superstar, thanks to Marguerite Henry’s book.

 

I recalled little of Marguerite Henry’s story of Gaudenzia.

When I arrived home, one of the first things I did was to pull the book down from the shelf where it sat with other beloved books of my childhood and start to read it again. By the time I had read the last page, I remembered that I didn’t really like the book and I could hazard a guess as to why 12 year-old me might not have been enamored of it.

First of all, “Gaudenzia” is a harsh story of a very poor boy and a forgotten cart horse. Secondly, there’s the annoyance of Henry’s attempt to write people speaking Italian in English, as was the tradition of the time, and dialogue comes off in a way that reminds you of the imperfect speech of a toddler. I felt that Giorgio Terni would have been deeply offended reading this in the context of 2018, but in the 1950’s and long before, this was typically the way dialects and “foreign speakers” were represented. (It was lightly documented, but true, that Will Harbut was deeply hurt by the publication of the phrase he became most noted for: “Da’ mostest horse.” Harbut felt that his words should have been published in standard or, as he put it, “correct” English, i.e. “the mostest horse,” as a sign of respect.)

Last, but not least, “Gaudenzia” has its dark moments and chief among them is the fact that Giorgio’s father bought and fattened horses to be sold for their meat. In fact, it was the loss of the blind mare, Bianca to slaughter — a mare who Giorgio loved desperately — and the coincidence that Gaudenzia came into the world on the same day, that engendered the boy’s interest in the filly foal. Giorgio believed that Gaudenzia was the blind Bianca, coming back to him. As a girl who loved horses, it is quite possible that it was inside the pages of Henry’s narrative that I first learned about horse slaughter and, as a youngster, the very idea of eating a horse would have been inconceivable.

GAUDENZIA, as she is shown with Giorgio, in the book by Marguerite Henry.

It was when I read the final page of the book that explained Gaudenzia’s brilliant reign over the Palio and her retirement, that it hit me: Gaudenzia was real.

And off I went to research her further, to discover that she had, in fact, won four Palios. In her second victory, Gaudenzia had won without her rider, even as her beloved Giorgio — who had trained her but was aboard another horse — raced along beside her, trying desperately to remove her spennacchiara. (In the 1950’s the old rule was in place and it would have effectively disqualified Gaudenzia from her riderless victory had another jockey managed to knock off her spennacchiara.) Giorgio was devastated at trying to stop his mare from gaining a second consecutive victory because he knew that he was one of the few people she trusted.

 

GAUDENZIA racing to victory in the July Palio in 1954, with Giorgio Terni on her back.

Henry travelled to Tuscany three times in order to understand the phenomena of the Palio and was there, with Giorgio, when he and Gaudenzia won the first Palio. She confessed that she had to scrap her first idea for a story because the real story of the grey, part-Arab mare and the peasant boy, Giorgio Terni, was so much more dramatic. As she put it in her preface “… Their battle to outwit destiny is a drama of human and animal courage.”

 

GAUDENZIA and Giorgio: “…a drama of human and animal courage.” (Marguerite Henry, Preface, “Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio.”)

Gaudenzia, who was born in 1942 and won her first 3 Palios at the age of 12, was barred from running for a year because she was certain to win. Returning in the August Palio in 1956, at the age of 14, she won again. It would be the last time she raced. She retired having won 3 consecutive Palios in 1954, in which there was an additional September Palio. No horse had ever done this before Gaudenzia. When she annexed a 4th win in 1956, she became the stuff of legend. The cart horse had morphed into a Queen.

Gaudenzia and Giorgio win their first Palio for the contrada Onda (The Wave) on July 2, 1954. Note that Gaudenzia is the 10th horse and so, is the one who signals the start of the race. (FYI: There is no sound on the video, but there are some wonderful close-ups of Gaudenzia that make up for it.)

And here is Gaudenzia’s last Palio, on August 16, 1956. This time she ran in the colours of Istrice (The Crested Porcupine) and was ridden by Francesco Cuttoni. Giorgio Terni was her trainer.

Gaudenzia was retired with all the glory of a queen, which she had become, and lived out the rest of her days in a medieval castle near Siena. Giorgio visited her regularly until her death, in 1972 or 1974, at the age of 30/32.

GAUDENZIA being led to the stable of her contrada after the drawing of the horses. Date unknown.

 

GAUDENZIA in the colours of Istrice (The Crested Porcupine) after her final victory in the August Palio of 1956.

 

GAUDENZIA’S beautiful face appears on this German version of Marguerite Henry’s book.

 

GAUDENZIA in the lead — where she always was — in what appears to be her first win in July of 1954.

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

The trailer from the documentary PALIO, available on Netflix. In it, those involved speak in their own voices, leaving the viewer to construct his/her own understanding and conclusions about this complex and controversial race. Some might also be interested to know that the featured jockey, Giovanni Atzeni, is the third cousin of jockey Andrea Atzeni, of thoroughbred racing fame. (NOTE: This is in no way a promotion of the documentary, to which I have no affiliation, but I did watch it and enjoyed it very much.)

 

“…The emotions of a life, the feeling of a life” : Siena Prepares For The Palio

 

Bibliography

Henry, Marguerite. Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio. Rand McNally and Company, New York. 1960

Edizioni KINA Italia/L.E.G.O. The Palio: The Heart and Soul of Siena. ND

Sports Illustrated. Issue of August 30, 1954.

GAUDENZIA: Archivio del Palio di Siena @ https://www.ilpalio.siena.it/5/Cavalli/413?cod=C413

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