Palio in Siena: The Race

Previously: The "Corteo Storico"

After the two-hour historical pageant, the eagerly awaited moment has finally come. The last entrance left open on the Campo, at the "Bocca dell'Onda", is closed. The square is now packed with tens of thousands of people, pressed in the center of the Piazza, squeezed on the tribunes, massed on the balconies, peering out of the windows, some even perched on the roofs.

The "mortaretto" is fired, as a signal to clear the track. Startled by the blast, dozens of pigeons take their flight, followed by the eyes of many Sienese: the direction they take at this moment is believed to be an omen, indicating the location of the winning contrada; others look at the direction given by the weather vane placed on the top of the Torre del Mangia.

In the square, the tension, brought to a peak by the long wait in the stifling heat, is palpable. The Palio banner has now been placed onto the judges' stand. Everything is ready. The Piazza holds its breath.


Finally the jockeys, mounted bareback on their horses, emerge from the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico and slowly make their way towards the starting line, greeted by the cries of the crowd. Their relative positions at the "canapo", determined by chance and in the greatest secrecy by the means of a complicated device, is still unknown to everyone. Suddenly, the unabating clamour of the crowd ceases, all noise disappears, and an incredible silence settles on the Campo as, one by one, the horses are called in to take place at the starting-rope.


Lining up the nine horses (the tenth horse does not line up with the others at the starting rope; it is said "di rincorsa", meaning it will start first, from behind, and will begin the race at full gallop) in the prescribed order proves an extremely difficult and nerve-racking operation, not only because of the nervousness of the horses, but also because some of the jockeys deliberately manoeuvre and jostle neighbouring horses in an attempt both to obtain what they consider an optimum position for themselves and to block the rival/enemy contrada.


On three occasions, trying to anticipate the start in order to get the jump on the others, the jockeys have obliged the "mossiere" to drop the starting rope prematurely so as to avoid any injury to the horses, thereby causing a false start and bringing the whole agonizing process of the "mossa" to start all over again.

This has now been going on for one hour and twenty minutes, and night is falling fast on the Campo. The horses are getting increasingly nervous, and the crowd in the square is growing more impatient by the minute. The race is about to be suspended and put back to the following day, when the "canapo" is dropped for the fourth time. Probably anticipating another false start, Onda and Pantera are not ready and are left behind as the other horses shoot forward. Nevertheless, the start is considered valid, and the race is finally on!


Civetta takes the lead, followed by two close challengers, Lupa and Aquila. The first turn at San Martino is to be fatal to Giraffa, the third one to Aquila. It takes Civetta's jockey Andrea Mari and horse Istriceddu no more than 1 minute and 15 seconds to complete the three statutory rounds ahead of all the others, and thus make the Civettini's thirty-year-old dream come true!


The winner has not yet passed the finish line that delirious contradaioli already flood the track. The "mortaretto" is fired again, this time confirming the end of the race. Horse and jockey are mobbed by an exultant crowd, and flags unfurl all over the square. From the judges' stand the Palio is then handed over to the victors, who carry it off in triumph, rejoined by allied or "friendly" contrade.


Leaving the Campo, the parading contrada heads for the Duomo, where a Te Deum will be sung as thanksgiving for the victory. From there, amidst the cries of joys, the waving of flags and the rolls of drums, the winners will get back to their quarters for a night-long celebration. The bells of the contrada's church will be heard far into the night, until the early hours of the morning.


Continued: Celebrating Victory