I was fortunate enough to be in Siena for il Palio, a medieval tradition that is still alive today and around which much of Senese life revolves. On July 2nd, ten of the seventeen contrade (something like districts) of Siena face each other in a 3-lap horse race around Piazza del Campo at the town’s center.
This year the winning contrada was girafa.
It was fascinating to see how quickly Siena transformed in the weeks leading up to il palio. The dark streets were lit up by the lamps and banners of the different contrade, the “contradaioli” (important members of the contrade) walked around town with their contrada’s banners tied around their necks, and piazza del campo was turned into an arena transporting one back to medieval times.
Another interesting thing was hearing about different people’s perceptions of the palio. From a touristic point of view, the palio is simply a horse race, a sporting event, something like the super bowl. You go to it, it’s over, that’s it, until next year. But for the people of Siena, il Palio is so much more. It doesn’t end when the horse crosses the finish line, when the crowds rush to surround the “fantino.” No, il palio is what brings life and meaning to Siena. My language instructor, Andrea, always talked about the palio with so much emotion, saying how the advance of technology has tainted it in a way. Andrea is very much an open and welcoming person, but he expressed a bit of disappointment at the way the palio had become such a tourist attraction. He was so eager to help people understand the true significance of the event. A very beautiful description he gave to me of the way life in Siena works was that during the palio, the people from the various contrade are divided, each contrada trying to best the others, but that throughout the rest of the year, the people of Siena look out for one another, regardless of the contrada.
Without this full-immersion experience, I never would have gotten these insights into the true meaning of il palio.