P l a n e t
P a r t y 

What better way to solicit the protection of the Mother of God than by holding a horse race in Her honour? The inhabitants of the Italian city of Sienna worship in this way each year during a festival known as the Palio, which climaxes in an eponymous horse race around the main square of the city. The contest is a mad gallop that is distinguished by its violence, and its brevity. It lasts, on average, for only 90 seconds – it is quicker than sex – but in this short period it manages to release all the pent up emotions of the people of Sienna. The race, and its surrounding festivities act as a kind of pressure valve for the city, which is divided into seventeen districts, called Contrade, in whose colours each palio is contested, and who maintain a bitter rivalry with one another. The Contrade are no mere municipal divisions, but rather the territories of different tribes, each with its own totems, such as Dragons and She-Wolves, after which they are named and by which they are distinguished. The Palio gives these tribes the annual opportunity to celebrate their own identities, and their differences with each another, and also serves as a continuing record of their allegiances and enmities, that reaches back to the foundation of Sienna.

Unlike most horse races, the Palio is organised not to decide the respective merits of various runners and their jockeys, but rather is a device to allow the Contrade to perpetuate long established feuds. In gambling terms, it is a lottery, for a Contrada cannot choose the horse that will wear its colours, but instead must accept that allotted to it by the luck of the draw. Nor is the Palio about the joys of participation, for only the winner is honoured and all the other runners are treated with scorn and derision. In both atmosphere and purpose it is closer to the chariot races of Imperial Rome than the Derby. It is an example of an ancient solution to the pressures of co-existence – let fortune ride on a horse, let people attach their antagonism for one another to it, and as far as is possible, leave the result in the hands of fate.

The Siennese see the arbitrary nature of the Palio as a challenge. Rather than accepting the luck of the draw, the Contrade will stop at nothing to hinder their rivals, or advance their own fortunes, including poisoning horses and bribing jockeys. Furthermore, the jockeys bribe one-another, even auctioning their favours on the starters' line. There is nothing remotely sporting about the contest, indeed, sportsmanship, if attempted, would be ridiculed. Andrea de Cortes, one of the most successful riders of recent times, explained the philosophy of the festival as follows: “The Palio has two components: the first is fate… which you're powerless against, and the second comes from trickery and skill, which counterbalance fate.”

“The start of the Palio is the ultimate in foreplay – it is far, far longer than the race itself, and is invariably preceded by a number of false starts. Just when it seems that the denouement is at hand there is a final procrastination, which increases the tension of the audience to the point that it can only be released by an explosion of emotion. They are on the edge of delirium, in a state known in Sienna as sciarbordito, which has no precise translation. It is a condition in which passion swamps reason. The horses, meanwhile, have been breathing pure adrenaline since their entry with the Comparsas into the Campo. They too are close to becoming sciarbordito. Their eyes roll, their frames quiver, and froth streaks their flanks. The jockeys, despite the short and dangerous course in front of them, are perhaps the only living creatures in the Campo that can make a show of sang froid. They are not allowed to use their Nerbos on each other until they pass a wrought iron flag fifty yards down the course, so keep poker faces, whilst they argue with and jostle one another, whispering last minute offers, some of which are bluffs."