National Geographic : 1926 Aug
SIENA'S PALIO, AN ITALIAN INHERITANCE FROM THE MIDDLE AGES BY MARIE LOUISE HANDLEY F ROM earliest morning there was a thrill in the air, as if of some porten tous event about to occur. And well there might be, for Siena the classic, Siena the medieval, was about to celebrate its great annual civic festival, the Palio, a striking pageant inherited from the Middle Ages, still held in the costume of the period, and featured by the running of a strange, almost barbaric, horse race on the historic Campo. There is no other place in the world where one may lay hand so palpably on the Middle Ages as in Siena. The archi tecture, the customs, the very people, have a touch of bygone days. It gives the impression of a segment of the fif teenth century passed down to modern times, with its good and evil, and, above all, with its intense local attachments, practically unchanged. For upward of four hundred years the little Tuscan city has been organized as it is now, in contrade, or wards, each a dis tinct and separate entity, though part of the common life. Each still clings to its own individual traditions, its own loves and hates, and is ready to rally to the same flag and colors that it has cherished for centuries. This gives to Siena a characteristic atmosphere, which more than anything, save its art, has contributed to center upon it the continued interest of the traveler. THE PALIO A RELIC OF ANCIENT RIVALRY As to the Palio, it is a remarkable manifestation of that keen, burning rivalry between contrade which has existed since their inception and which time and the passing of events have been unable to allay. In seeking the origin of this strange horse race we must hail back to the zest for sport, the spirit of gallant contest, and the love for pomp and display so prevalent in the Middle Ages. The most remote records of Siena tell of jousting and tournaments. The com ing of illustrious visitors was ever the occasion for festivals of this nature, and we read that as far back as 1225 a "noble and fair tilt" took place outside of Porta Camollia. Later, bullfights were adopted, only to be suppressed in 1590 by Ferdinand I, and races on buffalo-back seem for a time to have taken their place. There is evidence aplenty, however, that even in early times horse-racing was a favorite pastime of the Sienese. We are told, in fact, that in 1492 a horse owned by the famous, or infamous, Cesare Borgia, won an important event, probably the predecessor of the Palio, al though the chronicles mention that it was run through the streets instead of on the public square, as now. The first Palio took place on the Campo in 1605 and has been regularly scheduled since 1651. In its present form, with all the contrade represented, and the distance established at three times around the big square, the race has been held since 1656. STRANGE RACE PROBABLY HAD RELIGIOUS ORIGIN It has been established almost beyond doubt that the Palio was introduced to celebrate a religious anniversary, the feast of Santa Maria Assunta, whose image is depicted on the banner bestowed upon the winner. At one time Siena's 17 contrade all participated in the Palio, each entering one horse, but, owing to the frequency of serious accidents, experienced through the overcrowding of the narrow track, the number of contestants is now limited to ten. Seven of the contrade are privileged and run by "right," as they express it, while the three others are drawn by lot. The horsemen ride bareback, in the Palio, armed with a punishing whip, the nerbo, made of twisted, hardened ox sinew and measuring about three feet. This whip plays an important role. In the olden days a long, flexible one was used, and the competitors were allowed to wield it so as to entangle their opponents and throw them; but this practice is now forbidden.