La terra in Piazza

La terra in Piazza Ingrandisci

An Interpretation of the Palio in Siena

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  • Autore: Alan Dundes – Alessandro Falassi
  • Anno: 1999
  • Formato: 16 x 24 cm.
  • Pagine: 268 p., ill.
  • ISBN: 88-7145-067-1

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TWICE A SUMMER, for approximately 90 seconds, ten horses race clockwise three times around the Piazza del Campo, the main square of the city of Siena, which has been transformed into a race track for the occasion. The horses are ridden bareback by jockeys wearing costumes displaying the colors of ten of Siena's seventeen contrade or wards. The horse which finishes first wins for its contrada a large rectangular banner decorated with the image of the Virgin Mary. Both the decorated banner and the race itself are called the palio.

A careful observer will soon realize that this horserace differs markedly from ordinary horseraces he may have seen in the past. Special features include these facts:

1. The race is run in honor of the Virgin Mary.

2. Although thousands of dollars change hands, there is no betting.

3. The winner of the race receives a silk banner as prize but he must spend a small fortune to pay for the victory.

4. The losers receive money but they are sad at the disgrace of having lost.

5. The horse which comes in second is the horse which loses.

6. The traditional enemy of the winner is considered to have also lost the race even if he did not actually race as one of the ten participants.

7. Before the race, each horse is taken inside a church to be solemnly blessed.

8. During the days immediately before the race, the jockeys are guarded night and day and they are not permitted to speak to anyone except to and through their bodyguards.

9. During the race, the jockeys beat each other and their horses with whips made from calf phalluses.

10. After the race, the winner sucks pacifiers while the losers take a purge.

The casual visitor to Siena in the days of the palio may miss some of the above details and may see nothing more than a "horserace in costume," and a brief one at that. He may even wonder if all the obvious effort expended – such as bringing earth in from the country to make a track or building an extensive ring of viewing stands, called palchi – is really worthwhile for an event that lasts for only a minute and a half. What the tourist may not realize is that the palio does not last for a minute and a half, but rather for all the year, or rather for all the lives of those Sienese who participate. In order to understand even a fraction of all the incredibly complex cultural factors involved in the running of a palio, one would need not seconds or minutes but hours, days, weeks, months, and even years. In fact, it is doubtful whether any one individual could ever articulate all the details underlying the palio, no matter how long and assiduously he studied it. For the palio is endlessly rich in symbol, metaphor, and patterns of interaction.

It is very likely that part of the palio's extraordinary appeal through the centuries has been the impossibility of reducing it to a system of rules. With its shifting combinations of fate and human manipulation, the palio has provided both a behavioral model and a critical emotional outlet for the Sienese people. It is impossible to think of Siena without the palio, just as it is impossible to consider the palio outside the context of Siena. For the festival is truly an expression of the soul of the city.

Most of the previous studies of the palio have been primarily historical in emphasis and have been concerned with the possible relationships between the palio and earlier forms of public games and festivals. There have also been scores of superficial reports of the palio made by occasional travelers. Some of these tourists have been distinguished men of letters, e.g., Henry James, Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley. (Aldous Huxley, in fact, met Laura, his second wife, through the palio – she had planned to make a film of it and she originally visited Huxley with the hope that he might be persuaded to write the script for the film.) But it must be said that the majority of these travelers' accounts contain egregious errors, and certainly most do not appear to have understood either the substance or the spirit of the palio. Typical examples of gross misreadings of the palio include:

Poor beast! it made one indignant to see him, doing his best, spurred and whipped by his rider, and bewildered by blows on the head and neck from unseen enemies; but it is well known that Italians have no feelings for animals, and are the quintessence of all that is unsportsmanlike. ANON. "The Siena Races" (1899)

The real canker at the heart of the apple which corrupted the whole was the anarchy of the race itself . . . it was more than Renaissance barbarism, for in the Renaissance there were rules which were obeyed unless it was advantageous to break them, not the complete absence of both rules and respect for life which must make every Palio a potential shambles. TIMOTHY BEAUMONT, "Barbarians of Siena" (1970).

But for all the amateurish accounts of the palio, there have been a few travelers who were perceptive enough to grasp the significance of this unique expression of the human spirit:

I thought of the Palio of Siena as of a crucible in which swirled all the innumerable elements of Italian national life. There I seemed to see the Christianity and the Paganism, the art, the history, the social virtues and the social failings – the very essence of the Italian character – blended harmoniously in one remarkable fusion. E.R.P. VINCENT, The Italy of the Italians (1927)

The present investigation is aimed at describing the contemporary palio and its various mechanisms as well as how the palio functions in providing the dominant expression for life in twentieth-century Siena. After first reviewing what is known of the historical origins of the palio, we shall discuss the nature of the contrada, a unique socio-political unit without which the palio could not exist in its present form. Then we shall turn to the elaborate preparations for the palio, including the selection and assignment of horses to the contrade and the secret treaty-like negotiations concluded between contrade. The day of the palio with the blessing of the horse in the contrada church and the magnificent four-hour parade in costume will also be described in some detail. One entire chapter is devoted to the race itself. The place of the palio in the everyday life of the Sienese and a comprehensive consideration of a single palio folksong conclude the descriptive ethnographic portions of our work. A final chapter attempts to interpret the palio in terms of structural principles and patterns of symbolism.

We do not claim that it is possible to reduce a festival with costume, drama, excitement, ritual, and singing, etc. to written words on a printed page; but we do hope that we will be able to communicate to the non-Sienese what the palio is and also to suggest some of the underlying reasons why the Sienese people continue to participate in it with so much genuine passion and enthusiasm.

  • Autore Alan Dundes – Alessandro Falassi
  • Anno 1999
  • Formato 16 x 24 cm.
  • Pagine 268 p., ill.
  • ISBN 88-7145-067-1