New film depicts spectacle and tribalism of Palio

Scenes from the Palio in Siena, where each race only lasts around 90 seconds. Picture: Contributed
Scenes from the Palio in Siena, where each race only lasts around 90 seconds. Picture: Contributed
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AS A NEW film shows, the Palio is both a tourist spectacle and a hotbed of tribal loyalty and fixed results. Alistair Harkness reports from Siena

For a few days every July and August, the small Tuscan city of Siena, Italy becomes positively medieval. Locals charge through the narrow streets singing and chanting, their shoulders draped with scarves denoting which of the city’s 17 districts, or contrada, they were born into. The more committed among them – usually acrobatic young men – participate in various ceremonial duties that require them to dress in period garb and, on occasion, hurl flags through the air. Horses, meanwhile, are led into churches, where they’re blessed by priests who crack jokes while spectators gawp at the sight in all its surreal glory.

Then there are the fights. The word on the street is that punch-ups are a regular occurrence here as het-up locals from one contrada seek violent redress against those of another – perhaps for some hazily defined grievance dating back centuries, but more likely for something that happened at the previous Palio, Siena’s biannual horse race and the source of all this ritualistic splendor.

“It’s very primal,” says Cosima Spender, director of Palio, a new documentary that delves into the bewildering machinations behind this ancient Sienese sporting spectacle. “It’s like a remnant of the old world. Until cars were invented we were all part of this world.”

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the race itself features ten jockeys riding bareback for three laps around the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square. Thousands of spectators – mostly tourists (locals watch on television at home) – cram into the centre, craning their necks and holding cameras and phones aloft in an effort to catch a glimpse of the chaos. The reason is simple: while the race lasts just over 90 seconds, it’s packed with the sort of drama and action one might expect to find in a Hollywood blockbuster (not for nothing did the makers of the Bond film Quantum of Solace use the Palio as a backdrop for one of Daniel Craig’s more high-octane fight-and-chase sequences).

“It’s like humans trying to dominate nature,” continues Spender of the Palio. “I see it very much as that.”

Spender, the granddaughter of the poet Stephen Spender and the painter Arshile Gorky, is holding court in a bustling café-bar a few streets up from the Piazza del Campo. It’s the night before the August Palio and while we’re supposed to be in the square watching trials for the next day’s race, an uncharacteristically heavy downpour has forced its cancellation and will ultimately lead to the Palio being postponed for a further 24 hours.

“In my teens I thought this was the deadest town because I didn’t belong to a contrada,” says Spender, who grew up in the countryside nearby, but went to school here until she was 14. “The whole social life is to be found in these district bars, but it can be very insular. The first thing people ask you is your name and then they ask what district you’re from. If you say you don’t have a district, then it’s like, ‘OK, you’re not one of us.’”

Though Spender, who’s now based in London, wanted to make the film to understand the tribal passions the Palio inspires in those born within the city, she became more fascinated by the complex relationship that exists between the Sienese and the jockeys representing the various districts. With no loyalty to the districts – jockeys don’t have to be from Siena – their motivations can be at odds with their benefactors who invest hundreds of thousands of euros, sometimes millions, into securing Palio victories. Though this money is used to pay the jockeys, a proportion of it is also used to fund bribes for their fellow riders. As such the relationship between locals and jockeys often veers from adulation to hatred and it’s not unusual for jockeys to be attacked the moment the race is over if things don’t go according to the contrada’s plan.

Surprisingly, the city council, which maintains strict control over external access to the Palio, was OK with Spender exposing all this on film. “They were very paranoid that I would be coming at it from an animal rights point of view so they liked the fact that I was coming at it from a human angle,” she says.

One reason the authorities might have been more relaxed is that said corruption has never been very secret. Ask anyone in Siena and they’ll tell you the Palio is not a race, but a game: the characteristics of honest sportsmanship just don’t apply.

“There’s no such thing as an honest Palio,” confirms local expert Sergio Profetti the next day. Nestled in the back of his photocopy shop, Profetti is the Palio’s self-appointed archivist, a bulbous nosed man who’ll happily spend weeks pouring over footage of the Palio to figure out who has made what deals and with whom. The more scheming there is, the more he loves it. “The whole point of the Palio is to violate the rules and be smart about it,” he says.

“There is a respect for cunning that transcends honesty in this culture,” adds Spender.

Indeed, in a country where Silvio Berlusconi was repeatedly elected, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Palio is often considered a microcosm of Italian society.

And yet what emerges from Spender’s film is that there may also exist a purer version of what one could charitably describe as the gamesmanship of the Palio. Over the course of shooting the 2013 Palios for the film, Spender zeroed in on two jockeys in particular: the then-46-year-old Luigi ‘Gigi’ Bruschelli, a master strategist who has dominated the Palio since the mid 1990s, and his former protégé, 30-year-old Giovanni Atzeni, who makes up for his lack of Machiavellian cunning by using his skill on a horse to go for the glory of the win.

Making the film, Spender found herself rooting for the latter as he shrugged off the scheming and pursued a rare double victory. Two years on and she’s unequivocal in her support of Giovanni as he lines up for the August Palio. She wants him to win, not just because it will be better for the film, but because he’s chosen to ride for the contrada with the best horse, not the most cash to splash.

And win he does. After two false starts, on a horse trained – ironically – by Gigi Bruscelli (who’s also riding), Giovani gets himself into a prime position and leads from the start, leaving the rest of the field in the dirt.

The moment the Palio is over a brawl breaks out between rival contrada disputing the indisputable outcome, but Spender is already en route to the Duomo di Siena, the magnificent medieval cathedral where Giovani will soon arrive on the shoulders of his supporters, the conquering hero once again.

She couldn’t have scripted this any better. “That was so perfect,” she cries. “And he’s won on Gigi’s horse!”

Though she concedes soon after that Giovani probably made a deal with the jockey riding the run-in horse (which starts the race), in the context of the Palio this, it seems, is as close to a pure victory as it’s possible to get.

“He’s not good at strategy,” she confirms. “He doesn’t have the brain to do all the machinations. He’s just a great rider.”

• Palio is in UK cinemas from 25 September. For more information visit www.palio.com