Il Palio – Sienna’s Superbowl

During my short stay in Italy, I visited Sienna twice. More of a large, populated town than a city, it was quite unique from the rest of the country. While in Rome a common thought for me was “Where did they dig up all this fucking marble?” In Sienna the thought was “How did they carve all these stones?” The streets, houses, shops, piazzas, steps, churches: all square stones about a foot in length. It was quite charming to set foot in a city where some unspoken small stereotypes played out. Older Italian women leaning their head out of their window for fresh air and sun, smiling small business owners beckoning tourists into their shops, children playing soccer, teenagers smoking cigarettes, fashionable hip, and seemingly in love. The food was to die for, expectedly, and the locals were hospitable. This was first trip to the city. My second beckons an entirely new story to tell.

Palio di Siena (known locally as Il Palio) is a horse race with medieval origins, making it one of the oldest in the world, and therefore, one of the most famous. The event marks as a culmination of ancient rivalries between the city’s 17 neighborhoods, each of which has an impassioned sense of pride that is gloriously expressed for the 24 hours leading up the climax. Each neighborhood sports colors and patterns unique from the others. In flamboyantly stylish medieval outfits, they parade through the stone streets, all singing and chanting—hundreds of years worth of neighborhood pride commencing each year in a rigorous, minutes-long race that demands nothing short of perfection.

Walking through the streets during the pre-race festivities with two friends, tourists from around the world crowded around and gaped in awe at the bombastic displays of pride. We were among them. Expert flag twirlers boasted their skills, men and women decked out in costume following behind chanting, singing all in impressive unison, men on horseback following in a quiet, poised strut. I’ve never been more camera-happy in my life. Distant rumbles of rival neighborhoods’ parades echoed in the background, seeming to raise the bravado of the parade in front of you.

That night, the distant echoes never died out.

 

Waking up early, my group of three were amongst those who came without the intention of paying for a ticket. Pizza del Campo is Sienna’s central square where the horses race along the outer most points. We were admitted to stand, shoulder to shoulder, in the middle of the race along with everyone else who either missed their chance for seated tickets or came without the purpose of paying. Standing at 5’9′ I missed the entire thing. For three minutes I tried jumping to catch a view, holding my camera up, arm fully stretched, to where I thought the horses might be, bewildered by the gasps of the crowd that seemed to occur every few seconds, but to no avail.

That night the neighborhood that won celebrated the loudest but the rest of the city celebrated nonetheless. The square remained open to the public

This is Sienna’s Superbowl. The difference being it wasn’t a nationally identifying event. It was their city’s identity being gaped at by tourists from around the world, their neighborhood’s identity; a much more intimate event than the grandness, corporate culmination of American championships. An event about the sport and the expression of pride around your player. There’s a purity in something this famous that isn’t penetrated by corporate interest. Money doesn’t play a factor on a grand and obvious scale like it does in American sporting events. What did play a factor was pride and history. I wondered if the people of Sienna were responsible for keeping money out of it, for keeping it pure, for keeping it about the sport and the people and not letting it be tainted by modern advertising capabilities and marketing technology capable of reaching millions.

There’s a purity in this event and there’s a purity in the core of this city.