National Geographic : 1951 Aug
The Palio of Siena By MAJOR GENERAL EDGAR ERSKINE HUME Formerly Chief of Allied Military Government in Italy (Fifth Army) * IENA, loveliest of Tuscany's hill towns and ancient seat of culture, is today as nearly perfect a medieval city as has come down to us through the centuries. Even though the Italian campaign of World War II swirled about it, Siena's art treasures escaped damage. Inspiring at any time, it is most so on those two summer days when there is unfolded a colorful pageantry that has sur vived since the Middle Ages. I have seen Siena's celebrated horse race, the Corsa del Palio (Race for the Palio), sev eral times and have been more impressed each time. Pageantry Outshines Actual Race Although the Sienese become frantic over the race, it is the brilliant spectacle that at tracts visitors. As a Kentuckian who knows a little of race horses and horse races, I cannot make great claims for Siena's Palio as a sport ing event. But as a colorful display of age old costumes and customs it is enthralling. When Palio day rolls around, countryfolk from the whole Province come in to join the burghers in a burst of cheerful festivity. Back from their villas in the mountains or by the lakes or sea, flock the nobility, and their grand, old, dusky palaces come to life. It is all in the best Tuscan manner. During a Palio I have been a guest in a Sienese palace and can bear witness to its charm. These formidable piles, some nearly 700 years old, were built not for beauty but as stout centers of military resistance. All over the city the banner of Siena is dis played-black and white, embroidered with the Siena wolf. This symbol depicts the suck ling of Romulus and Remus, for Siena, though it had been the site of early Etruscan settle ments, was founded by the Romans as Saena Julia. In ancient times other Italian cities also had their palii. Dante mentions one run in Verona. Particularly famous was the palio of Ferrara in honor of St. George. The Siena Palio is little changed from the days when it was seen by the Medici and their contemporaries. Twice a year it is held-on July 2, the feast of the Visitation, and also of the Madonna of Provenzano, the armless pa troness of the Palio; and again in August, during the feast of the Assumption. The scene is Siena's huge public square, the Piazza del Campo, or Campo. This beau tiful natural amphitheater is set among the three hills on which Siena is built. It would be hard to find a place less suit able for a race. Shell-shaped and built on a slope, it is paved with small irregular stones. Although the stones are covered with a thin layer of earth on the day of the race, it still is a most difficult course (page 233). Dominating this site stands the Public Palace, lovely example of Sienese style, a happy adaptation of Gothic and Italian spirit (p. 238). So well proportioned is the Campo that when I was told 11 streets lead into it, I would not believe it until I counted them. Palio races are mild survivals of the blood contests in which the city wards formerly struggled for victory. Of old there were tour neys, jousts, and sham battles. Later these were abandoned in favor of bullfights and buffalo races in which blood often was shed. So many were the accidents that about 1650 bulls and buffaloes were prohibited, and only the race upon horseback was permitted. But I have seen blows exchanged and heard such high words that it took no great exercise of my imagination to picture the "good old days" when homicide and mayhem were common during the Palio. Contests among sections of the city began in the 13th century. Their spirit has survived in the Palio, the first of which in its present form is believed to have been run on October 20, 1632, in the presence of Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany (a Medici). In 1721 a decree limited entries in the race to ten horses, because of the restricted space. Birds and Beasts Symbols of Contrade The occasion has always been under com munal authority. In immediate charge is the Ufficio di Biccherna, a magistracy which origi nated in the Middle Ages and is charged with the organization of festivals. Siena is divided into Terzi, or Thirds, and these in turn into contrade, or wards, of which there are now 17. The Palio is a contest among representatives of these contrade. Each has its own laws and officials, its own treasury, its own church. Each contrada bears the name of the figure depicted on its banner-Dragon, Eagle, For est, Giraffe, Goose, Hedgehog, Owl, Panther, Ram, Shell, Snail, Tortoise, Tower, Unicorn, Wave, Worm, and Wolf. * Allied Military Government under General Hume in World War II arrested the typhus epidemic in Naples in 1943-44. At present General Hume is Medi cal Director General of the United Nations Forces in Korea, where he is in charge of protecting our fighting forces against typhus and other epidemic diseases.