Something rare and wonderful happened in Siena the other day: the Contrada della Lupa (the neighborhood of the she-wolf) won the Palio. Only, what’s better than winning the Palio? Winning the Palio twice in one summer! That is called cappotto, or winter coat. And it is highly unusual. But bring together a fabulous horse called Preziosa Penelope (Precious Penelope) and an expert jockey called Jonathan (yes, he is Italian, from Pistoia), and you have the ingredients for breath-taking beauty and heart-pounding excitement.
Siena’s famed horse race, the Palio, is run on July 2nd and August 16th every year. What is a Palio, exactly? It is the beautiful banner portraying the Madonna that the contrade compete for. But the race is much much more than just a race: it is a way of life! The Sienese live for the Palio!
Oh, and did I mention that the jockeys ride bareback (no saddle, no stirrups!)? And they whip each other and their horses as they race around Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo three times at breakneck speed. But what preceeds the actual horserace is a pageant of incomparable beauty.
The race is run at 7 p.m. and takes all of a minute and a half to run. But it’s what comes before and after that makes it the anthropologically fascinating event that it is.
Siena has 17 neighborhoods, called contrade, and all of them partake in the procession before the Palio. But only 10 contrade actually compete in a race; they are chosen by lot. The 7 contrade who don’t run on July 2 will run on August 16, and 3 contrade will be chosen – again by lot – from those that have already run in the first Palio of the summer.
Flag-throwers (those in the photo above are from the Lupa, with its characteristic black and white flag trimmed in orange), drummers, horses, oxen and of course, the Palio that will be given the victor, parade around the track that has been created with dirt brought in from the countryside around Siena. Hordes of tourists, but also many locals, pack the center of the Piazza del Campo, as well as hang from every balcony and terrace surrounding the Campo!
When the Lupa won in July, it was their first victory in 27 years, the last time being in 1989.
The Palio was dedicated this year to Divina Misericordia – Pope Francis’s Jubilee – and the banner was particularly elegant and moving. Can you spot it in the explosion of joy in the photo on the right? The contradaioli, or people from the contrada, sport the fazzoletto, or scarf, tied around their necks. Many also carry large flags that they proudly wave.
The contrada also has a church which figures prominently in the celebrations. On the day of the Palio, the horse comes to the church to be blessed. Before and after the race, members of the neighborhood gravitate to the contrada’s headquarters which is a kind of social club where the church and also the contrada museum are located.
After the victory, the people of the winning contrada parade around town with the Palio banner, going between their own part of town and the central Piazza del Campo.
The Palio banner is proudly displayed at the victory dinner. Where there are also fireworks!
The contrada even has its own Chianti, with its own contrada label. Now that is class!
The Contrada della Lupa even hung a giant photo of the moment of victory from July 2 over the main street leading to the Contrada. Jonathan with Penelope and the banners of the contrada.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when the Lupa was drawn as one of the 3 contrade that had already run that would be able to participate again in the second Palio of the summer, the Palio dell’Assunta, held on August 16, the day after the major Italian holiday of Ferragosto, the religious holiday of the Assumption of Mary.
Tension started to build. But when even the horse Preziosa Penelope, also drawn by lots, was once again to run for the Lupa contrada, the atmosphere was somewhere between euphoria and extreme anxiety. Could Jonathan do it again? And with the same horse as a month earlier? What coincidence! And what delicious anticipation!
The procession to the Cathedral on August 15, in the presence of the Cardinal, brought children in Renaissance costume, bearing the long wax candles to be blessed, and the new Palio which would be safeguarded in the Cathedral until the race was over on August 16th (photo to the right).
Faithful followers, the people of the contrada flocked to the church where Penelope would be led to be blessed (photo to the right).
And the rest is history: Jonathan, riding Precious Penelope, made an encore! Here he is being congratulated by the contrada’s priest.
When the second Palio was brought to the Contrada church, all the reporters and journalists were snapping away. Jonathan was hoisted onto the shoulders of strapping contradaioli and he greeted not one, but two Palio banners as they were brought to the contrada church.
What followed was a magnificent procession to the Piazza del Campo, passing the Monte dei Paschi Bank headquarters, illuminated for a feast.
Congratulations, Lupa! Complimenti, Jonathan! And grazie, Preziosa Penelope! You gave us goosebumps! A summer of chills! And now we need to wear our winter coats in summer! Cappotto!!!!