Il Palio Di Siena – S; Street Theater

Jockeys: Dario Colage (Il Bufera), Massimo Donatini (Stoppa), Massimo Coghe (Massimino), Boris Pinna (Pinturicchio), Salvatore Ladu (Cianchino), Giuseppe Pes (Il Pesse), Giorgio Giornelli (Battaglia), Mario Canu (Clemente), Luigi Bruschelli (Trecciolino), Maurizio Farnetani (Bucefalo).

Jockeys: Dario Colage (Il Bufera), Massimo Donatini (Stoppa), Massimo Coghe (Massimino), Boris Pinna (Pinturicchio), Salvatore Ladu (Cianchino), Giuseppe Pes (Il Pesse), Giorgio Giornelli (Battaglia), Mario Canu (Clemente), Luigi Bruschelli (Trecciolino), Maurizio Farnetani (Bucefalo).

Horses: Re Artu, Alisarda, La Fanfara, Raiana, Votta Votta, Quarnero, Vitraliu del Fontino, Tuareg, Lobis Andrea (aka Penna Bianca), Trottolino.

A frisky gelding is led reluctantly into the cozy chapel, where the packed congregation takes a nervous step back to avoid any stray kicks. While the horse casually deposits a load of fresh manure before the altar, the priest proffers a crucifix to be kissed by the animal, before concluding with, “Go, and come back a winner.”

No, this is not a surreal vision cooked up by the great blasphemer Luis Bunuel. It’s part of the buildup to the Palio di Siena, a three-lap bareback horse race that dates seven centuries and takes place twice yearly on July 2 and Aug. 16 in the medieval walled city’s Piazza del Campo.

Mel Gibson is developing a film about it, Brigitte Bardot wants it banned and this decidedly aesthete Variety reporter caught a bad case of the fever surrounding the event. The race itself lasts only an intense 75 seconds, but the four days leading up to the Palio are a crescendo of excitement, swelling crowds and behind-closed-door intrigue.

While the Palio is a huge tourist draw, it is first and foremost a local obsession. The habitually reticent Sienese are fanatically serious about the tradition, offering fairly scant information to outsiders. The visitor eager to fully appreciate the event must read the many booklets available, or easier still, go see the locally produced docu that screens year-round in several languages in a theater off the Campo.

Participating in the race are 10 of the 17 contrade, or districts, that divide Siena. Each has its own symbol — usually an animal — its own administration, church, museum and even patron saint. All but a few contrade have traditional enemies, and rivalry between them is fierce.

Contradaioli rooting for their horse or for the failure of their enemy’s can make Scottish soccer hooligans seem like cloistered nuns. In the run-up to the Aug. 16 Palio, a ruckus between supporters of Tower and antagonists from its bitter rival, the Goose, ended with close to 30 people requiring ER treatment.

Six trial races precede the actual event. That’s when the various contrada captains engage in quasi-legalized corruption, tendering bribes to other contrade to ease their courses or obstruct that of the opposition.

The anything-goes attitude extends to the jockeys, who also make deals with the competition. But a rider suspected of selling out to an enemy often takes a beating from enraged contradaioli. Attacking rival jockeys and their horses with a riding crop is within the rules, and a riderless horse also is eligible to win. To avoid any undue tampering, each horse has a round-the-clock escort from its selection through to the race four days later.

Raucous and undignified

Following the final trial, I do a quick sweep of the open-air, pep-rally dinners held in each contrada, at which up to 1,500 contradaioli bellow their respective anthems and sit down to lukewarm pasta and rivers of vino. The mood varies from raucous and undignified at the Civetta, or Owl, an extreme outsider; to solemn and speechy at the Tower; and calm and confident at the Giraffe. At the Giraffe, the painted-silk banner won at last month’s Palio is proudly displayed behind ace jockey and seven-time winner Beppe Pes, known as “Il Pesse, ” who rode July’s victory race and will mount for the Giraffe again tomorrow.

The Giraffe has high hopes for a double win, or capotto (overcoat), as such a feat is called in Palio terminology. Should that happen, it would be only the second time this century. The same contrada took home both Palio banners exactly 100 years back, in 1897.

Up early for the 7:45 am Mass said by the archbishop of Siena for the 10 jockeys and contrada captains. Then to a press huddle with mayor Pierluigi Piccini, who’s clearly weary of animal-rights complaints. “Let’s not even talk about Brigitte Bardot,” he warns. “Or since we’re not naming her, let’s not talk about that former actress.”

Back to church, this time for the blessing of the horse. Defecating in church is considered good luck for the horse, and when a stablehand blows a grateful kiss to the steaming pile on the floor, I think I smell a winner.

With more than 40,000 spectators attempting to squeeze into the Campo, one of Italy’s most magnificent piazzas suddenly looks almost dinky. Enduring all kinds of unwanted body contact, I make my way to the press balcony just in time to suffer partial hearing loss from the mortar explosion that announces the track is to be cleared.

Pomp and pageantry

A smattering of celebrities is the norm for most Palii. Among them this time is Sarah Ferguson, who settles into her window seat to watch a 2-hour historic procession that probably includes as much pomp and pageantry as she saw during her entire stint with the House of Windsor.

Highlight is each contrada’s alfieri, kind of medieval cheerleaders who manage to appear poised while twirling and tossing their hefty banners, despite being frocked up in velvet, tights and Prince Valiant wigs in kazillion-degree humidity. However, heat exhaustion and crowd anxiety take their toll on the spectators below, with a steady stream of casualties being hauled off on stretchers.

The start of the race is made especially tense by the spirited antics of Trottolino, a hell-raising novice running for the Tartuca, or Tortoise, a sworn rival of the Snail. The horse delays the race by 50 minutes, causing several false starts by butting, kicking and refusing to stay in line.

The wait makes the already antsy horses even more feisty, and the race, when it finally begins, gets an extra charge as a result. A few horses lose their jockeys and tumble dramatically, but the Tower rides well, maintaining the lead until the final lap. When the Giraffe sneaks up through the pack and overtakes, Ladu panics, clipping his shoulder on a tight corner and flying to defeat. The Giraffe scores a history-making win, crowning Il Pesse as Prince of the Piazza.

While injured horses and riders are rushed off for treatment, the winning horse, jockey and most of the 40,000 spectators head for the cathedral to give thanks to the Madonna, to whom this Palio is dedicated. Following that, the euphoric throng heads for Giraffe h.q., where sweat-drenched revelers weep, embrace and booze through the night, many of them incongruously wearing woollen coats to mark the double victory.

Spectacle, suspense, action, conniving, casualties, history, folklore, religion, superstition; the Palio this year even had romance. Prior to racing, Il Pesse swore he would go through with his intended marriage only in the case of a capotto win. Having achieved that feat, he promptly announced a private wedding ceremony for Aug. 18.

—David Rooney

Il Palio Di Siena - S; Street Theater

Production: SIENA, ITALY A Comune di Siena production featuring the contrade Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Selva (Forest), Istrice (Porcupine), Torre (Tower), Giraffa (Giraffe), Leocorno (Unicorn), Valdimontone (Ram), Chiocciola (Snail) and Tartuca (Tortoise). Opened early 14th century; reviewed Aug. 13-16, 1997. Race running time: 75 SEC.

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