The Little Death of Siena / Philippe Charlier

The Palio of Siena is a war that never ends. How long have these different brotherhoods – the contrade – challenged? Chapels, neighborhoods, families, clans? Social groups providing militias to collect taxes and order, assisting the needy (sick, poor, old) and maintaining roads? It’s more than that, it’s different parts of the same organism – Siena – who are hunting each other.

There are 17 alive contrade in Siena, and not all run, for lack of space: the track is narrow, dangerous, with a big difference in altitude, and dangerous turns at almost 90 degrees (how many horses were finished after a bad fall at the turn of St. Martin walls yet upholstered fabrics and mattresses?)… Only ten contrade participate in the race, and the seven excluded participate immediately in the following Palio: then draw the three missing among the other ten. And so every year (the rules were enacted in 1729 by Violante of Bavaria, who then ran the city).

However, there are two Palio each year (July 2 and August 16): nevertheless, each Palio is independent. Losing in July does not mean taking revenge a month later, but a year later. These events are completely independent, as if a symbolic boundary isolated them, a ritual schizophrenia.

Contrade do not possess any horse: before each Palio, a commission chooses, among a score of half-bloods, the ten that can run; it is a draw that awards them to each competitor. The contrade do not have jockeys either: before the Palio, all the blows are allowed to buy their race, sell their soul, grease the paw, etc.; it is the harsh law of the market which attributes them to each competitor.

Not just a race, the Palio is, above all, the memory of the different stages of the construction of a territory, a city: no one remembers the origin of the names or symbols of the contrade (or rather: there are so many explanations that it seems difficult to know which one is true… if only one is authentic?). Like living fossils, the contrade maintains the memory of these different stones of the Sienese building. Proof of this is the prior parade to the Palio: first appear the ten contrade that will run, then the seven who will not run, then the six dead contrade (that is to say, that no longer exist, and have lost their right to race in 1675 following serious abuses, perhaps even criminal: Viper, Cock, Oak, Sword, Bear, Lion). Then comes the Carroccio (this cart pulled by four white oxen with huge horns, walking the Palio stricto sensu, that is to say a fabric (pallium, in Latin) hanging from a halberd that will be offered to the victorious contrade. Created each year by a local artist, it is painted with a Madonna and symbols of the contrade submitted to the contest. After the start of the race, a squad of Carabinieri, in ceremonial costume, makes a saber charge in the fist: the Republic Italian won (or recalls his energetic presence in front of the display of the symbols of the free city of Siena).

The Palio obeys the codes of a secret society, far beyond the use of local dialect: it has its own codes, its own language, and its rituals. A complexity well described by Fruttero and Lucentini in Siena Square, shadow side (Paris, Seuil, 1985): “It’s a foreign language, everything has a different name, special: the big bell of the tower is called “Sunto“, the trumpets of the commune are called “bugles“, the procession of all the contrades is called “promenade“, and the groups which parade the “companies“; the pages carrying the flags are called “mannequins“, the racehorse is called the “beard” and his groom the “barbaresque“; the parade horse that goes up by the jockey is called the “sopralasso“; and every jockey has his nickname.”

There are, within the contrade, friendships and enmities: they both hate the Wolf and the Porcupine, the Eagle and the Panther, the Snail and the Tortoise, the Caterpillar and the Giraffe, the Unicorn and the Owl, the Aries and the Shell, the Tower and the Goose, the Tower (again) and the Wave. Why? We do not know any more about it, but their proximity to each one could leave one thinking about initial territorial conflicts (unless they are old betrayals, offenses, vexations, disputes?). In all cases, these feelings (contrary, generally) contrade, testifies to the forgetting of the legends and the durability of the rites. Every child in Siena, at birth, is given the scarf which corresponds to a contrade, that will be kept lifelong, and will be displayed around the neck in the weeks preceding the race, and especially on the day itself.

A few words on the track itself: the floor of this 300 square meters is covered with bricks arranged in fishbone. Five days before the start of the Palio, we “put the land on the Campo”: the municipal teams deposit, 20 centimeters thick and 7.50 meters wide, at the level of the race track, a mixture of tuff (powdery volcanic rock) and sand. After the race, this land is almost sacred: mixed with urine, blood, sweat, dung, it is recovered by the spectators and serves as a magic talisman, lucky charm. It is even lent therapeutic virtues… Six tests are held for the jockeys, from the evening of the attribution of the horses, and until the morning of the great race, then the ground is smoothed, until being completely flat, almost devoid of everything.

And the Church? The two dates (July 2 and August 16 are direct references to the Virgin: Visitation and Assumption). The horses are blessed in each chapel before the race; a mount defecates in the nave (it is said that it “lacks respect”) for this to be immediately perceived as a good omen… As for the winner, he is literally carried by the crowd of his supporters until Duomo where, after crossing the prestige door open to two leaves, without leaving his mount that leads to the altar, the jockey is solemnly handed over the Palio by the bishop during a Maria Mater Gratiae. As if religion – divinity? – came to soften all the fury that had brought to victory.

All the horses do not leave at the same time during the Palio: the one of the ten horses which is the furthest has the right to take a step back, so as to be already launched at the moment when the others start (otherwise he would be stuck between the ninth horse and the wall). Each time, we try to do justice, to appear as fair as possible, to play the game of sincerity and honesty. But no one is fooled. Everyone is running, but the winner already knows.

The departure is given at 19:30 in July, 19:00 in August. The sun is low and does not bother competitors. The transition period is conducive to rituals. When the horses are aligned (except one, so), a detonation sounds, and the rope that held the mounts retracts brutally.

The Palio concentrates the whole human soul: its magnificent sides (the overtaking, the risk, the speed, the exploit) and its miserable ways (betrayal, conspiracy, corruption, blood, sweat, death). We rely on God, at random, but everything is often decided well before, in a secluded villa in the Sienese countryside, where the commissions are paid, and falls, sabotage, neutralities, pacts, favors and silences are bought. In fact, there are too many draws for chance to be truly authentic: cheating is permanent, and chance is only a decoration, an alibi. The Palio is like a play, but few know the text in advance. No woman in the actors. A strictly male world (at least in the visible world). The references are innumerable in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (flags, banners, clothes, banners, scarves, symbols), as if the city remade, during each Palio, a journey back in time to this mythical – mystical – period of the city.

The duration of the race? 120 seconds, no more. Just the time for the jockeys to make three laps in riding their horses bareback. An incredible wait – one year! – for only one hundred and twenty seconds of racing in a delirium of scream and fury (50,000 spectators, on average). Hubris in the Greek sense of the term: the surpassing of oneself in an assumed madness, the voluntary and brutal excess. Hubris, because all the forces of the population are suddenly unleashed in the same place and at the same time, because this ritual is both fusional and oppositional, because the city has let rise for months an extreme tension – felt by all, with a common purpose, an identical hope, and a monstrous rivalry. There is something federating between each inhabitant of the city, a race which unites viscerally, but also which opposes dramatically. The calm is maintained in Siena until the approaching time suspended that is the race, this Greek tragedy that is not played in a theater but on a dirt track. The gods? No, men are the ones who lead the game, for once, even if the final dubbing (and the original blessing) take place in places of worship. The goal of the Palio is clearly to unite disappointed runners in adversity, and to reward the victorious… until the next round.

Peace reigns in the streets, on the markets, in the houses because the spirits are turned only towards these horses with the colors of the contrade. The anthropology of the Palio is that of the civil order imposed by mastered hubris  – almost a misinterpretation – that is to say a crisis – violent, sometimes deadly, bloody – imposed on two fixed dates. Archaic, the city retains its medieval segmentation – divide and conquer – with its ancestral hatreds and legendary friendships, nothing changes because the model is remarkably effective. All internal tension is regularly expelled during these days of July and August – moments of storms, hot weather – leaving little room for crime the rest of the year. As if the pressure rose gradually month after month, to yield only in the summer.

Fruttero and Lucentini, again: an orgasm exploding at the end of an erection that would have lasted 365 days…


Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Comments (



Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: