One winner at the Palio
By Stefano Rellandini
Count only who gets up the “Nerbo!” Nerbo is the traditional riding whip used by jockeys at the Palio of Siena during the three laps around the square that will crown the lady of Siena until the next Palio. The Palio of Siena is an absolutely atypical race from everything that one can imagine. Horses must do three laps of the main square and the animal who arrives first with or without a jockey wins. There is no second nor third place, no podium.
I spent two days in the parish. To best understand the meaning behind Palio you have to live in the parish for all three days of the event. The two days before the race are used by jockeys to ride bareback doing trials. Horses are assigned through a raffle drawn in Piazza del Campo then each parish must recruit the best jockey around.
In the evening each parish’s alleys are filled with tables set up for dinner. All the people who belong to a parish take part. The only subject of conversation that you can hear between the tables refers to what will happen on race day. Each horse is cared for in the stable of his own parish by a groom who stays with the animal night and day without leaving, even for a minute. It’s forbidden to walk near the stable, where the horse is not to disturb.
The day of the Palio is characterized by two moments that are quite impossible to describe. The first concerns the blessing of the horse. The animal is brought into the church to be blessed by the priest. All the people who belong to the parish attend in silence inside the church – only the shout of the priest interrupts this dreamlike moment. At the end the man says: “Go and come back a winner!” The second concerns the start of the Palio. In that moment the screams of the people mix together until the end of the three laps around an infamous square in Italy.
The palio starts and the three days of practice, dinners, chats, strategy and everything disappears in the less than 90 second race. Only one can celebrate with the horse and the parish.