Sunday, August 26, 2007

Siena and the Palio Horse Race

By coincidence, we found ourselves in Siena, Italy on the very day of the Palio race, an annual horse riding event in the Piazza del Campo. At first, we wondered what on earth was happening as one group of people appeared to challenge another with loud music and boisterous behavior. They each held a colorful flag from their particular district draped over their shoulders as they cheered and jeered other groups. There is obviously stiff competition as the 17 districts in and around Siena compete in this bareback horse race.

The buzz and excitement grew as large trucks appeared dropping their loads of sand that would become the track around the Piazza. Then the horses arrived, beautiful creatures groomed and ready for action. Each district is represented by a horse and jockey wearing the colors of their particular area as they careen around the Piazza at breakneck speeds, and one wonders how the riders avoid serious injury. However, everyone present, from the spectators to the riders, appear to enjoy the fun and healthy competition.

This perhaps is a little different from centuries past as depicted in a painting by G. Zocchi (1710-1767). The Piazza looks much the same as residents hang from their balconies as they watch the riders speed past. The riders wear the distinctive colors of their district and elaborate plumed hats. Zocchi has captured the whole event as the riders use their whips not only on their horses’ flanks, but also on their opponents as they complete the circuit. Some riders have fallen while others hang on precariously and look about to fall. Numerous dogs follow the horses, and some men appear to be fighting in the arena. The whole scene is so very different from Siena and the Palio Horse Race of today.