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Ain’t No Party Like a Medieval Party

Siena’s famous Palio parade is a centuries-old tradition, not a tourist shtick.

The medieval horse race in Siena, Italy, referred to as the Palio, is famous. The city — a medieval architectural marvel in itself — hosts two of these lively affairs every July and August in the main square, Il Campo, with a fierce dedication to the pomp and presentation of that era.

The 75-second horse race is intense and brief — a mad dash of colliding mounts and tumbling jockeys. Much less celebrated than the equestrian scramble is the parade that precedes it, an elaborate warm-up to the main event that gives the city's competing districts a chance to strut their stuff in formal and deliberate fashion.

There are 17 contrade, or parish wards, in Siena, each with a distinct set of heraldic symbols, flags, and mythical associations. Siena is less localized now than it was during its medieval heyday, when each neighborhood also had its own militia and tax-collection services. (The city's golden age is commonly understood to have begun around 1260. The city fell as a republic in 1555.) To this day, modern Sienese are born in central hospitals but are baptized in their home contrade.

But some of the old pride and animosities remain. Centuries-old neighborhood rivalries still complicate marriages and affect the route by which a person might walk home. And so: There’s more to the Palio proceedings than mere pageantry. The passions underlying them are very real.

These passions are most likely to boil over during the hot summer season of the Palio. The large-scale festivities launch with the passeggiata storica, or historical procession.

While spectators lining the streets wave handkerchiefs bearing the colors of their contrade, marchers announce their loyalties by way of full-blown period costume. Jerkins, leggings, breastplates, and ankle boots dominate.

Designated heralds and officers walk in the first groups, followed by representatives from the University of Siena and the city's craft guilds. Then come the ten teams competing in the horse race. (The other seven contrade, plus three repeat contestants chosen at random, are guaranteed a spot on the starting line at the next Palio.)

All teams proceed in strict comparsa, or formation: drummer, flag-carriers, an armored Duce flanked by his men-at-arms, and a standard-bearer. All these precede the jockey, who arrives atop a parade pony, and, finally, the revered racing horse, accompanied by its groom.

The seven non-competing contrade also march into the city's Piazza del Campo, as do a phalanx of crossbowmen, "knights" hailing from Siena's aristocratic families, and a chariot drawn by four white oxen. Once the procession is complete, the ten competing contrade engage in a more stationary contest of music and choreography.

Victory here is not as sweet as it is in the horse race that follows, the ultimate challenge. The race is a no-holds-barred, three-lap circuit; a horse can win even without a rider. The spirit of Siena can be felt among the crowd of thousands who gather to spectate and make merry.

Photos by Yvonne Oswald.

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