If you don’t want to spend hundreds of euros on a good seat, the best place to watch the Palio di Siena is by the start. For my first time — decades ago — I arrived early in the apron-shaped Piazza del Campo and sweated out the long afternoon as a tide of tension rose. By early evening, when the horses and jockeys finally entered from the courtyard of the towering Palazzo Pubblico, 50,000 spectators ached for release.
I clambered on to a temporary fence for a better view. A Sienese woman who was maybe 19 hauled herself up and, for balance, grabbed me from behind. As the jockeys embarked on the long, casuistical process of lining up at the start rope, she began to moan, then weep. Eventually her nerves could stand it no more and, hugging me ever tighter, she screamed, ‘Cazzo! Cazzo! Entra! Entra!’ Loosely translated: ‘Get your cock in!’
Siena’s Palio (other smaller versions happen all over Tuscany) is not like other horse races. Its hors d’oeuvre is a two-hour pageant marked by splendid displays of flag-throwing. The jockeys, dressed in liveried PJs, ride without saddles. They trade bribes as they line up and, if they’ve accepted a bung, deliberately obstruct other horses or fall off their mounts. They batter one another with whips fashioned from distended calves’ penises, and thrash one another’s horses on the nose. Many centuries after races were first run in the city between its various districts, or contradas, it might easily have dwindled into folklore, like Florence’s faux-violent medieval football tourney. Yet it still matters to the people of Siena more than anything.
The race is run twice a summer, on specific religious festivals, between a rota of ten of the city’s 17 contradas. It’s utterly lawless and yet deeply bound up in religion. The Madonna, whose blessing all seek in victory, figures prominently on the banner, or palio, paraded round the city before the race on an oxen-drawn carriage. There are fierce enmities steeped in ancient insults and misty border disputes. Contrada chants — sort of Gregorian-cum-hooligan — make fantastical boasts: ‘Our cock,’ goes one such, ‘is the biggest in the world!’ Punch-ups between rival contradas are not only regular, but expected. Hundreds of thousands of euros, raised from contrada members, are spent to secure success by whatever means necessary. The victors symbolise their rebirth by sucking on pacifiers or, in Bacchanalian revels that continue through the night, by glugging paint-stripping plonk from baby bottles.
How little the manic fervour of the Palio has abated is evident in a 1932 romantic drama by the Fascist-era film director Alessandro Blasetti. The only thing Palio lacks is colour. You get that in La Ragazza del Palio, a 1957 Franco-Italian romance starring, of all people, Diana Dors as a Texan who ends up riding to victory in the race. In more recent decades the British, who love Tuscany so, have attempted to unlock its mysteries. A BBC documentary called Four Days in Summer scratched at the surface. John Mortimer paid a flying visit in his novel Summer’s Lease, and Esther Freud followed in Love Falls, her roman à clef about her father Lucian. The Palio supplied the noisy backdrop to the opening chase of 007’s Quantum of Solace. The book that goes deepest is La Terra in Piazza (1975), by the American anthropologist Alan Dundes and Italian folklorist Alessandro Falassi. A fascinating tour of the Palio’s rituals and semiotics, its only drawback is a certain dryness. No one is shouting ‘Cazzo! Cazzo! Entra! Entra!’ in the reader’s ear.
And still filmmakers queue at the city gates. The commune doesn’t mind whom it blocks. Mel Gibson was turned down. But not Cosima Spender, director of a new feature-length documentary, who conveniently grew up on Siena’s doorstep. She is the granddaughter of Stephen Spender and Arshile Gorky, whose long shadow her parents Matthew Spender and Maro Gorky escaped to Chianti in the late Sixties to sculpt, paint, grow veg and raise daughters. That local upbringing proved indispensable in earning the trust of a begrudging city council.
‘They liked the fact that I speak with a thick Sienese accent,’ Spender says. ‘The Palio was very familiar because my dad brought me there as a kid on his shoulders. I went to school in Siena from 11 to 14. People’s first question was, “What’s your name?” And the second question every time was, “Di che contrada sei?” Which contrada are you from?’
She first thought of the Palio as a subject for a graduation project at the National Film and Television School. But it needed a more substantial production than she could finance. The idea simmered until she met James Gay-Rees, the producer of Senna (and now Amy), through whom came the budget to pay for cinema-quality cameras and sound to supplement the city’s race footage; also to fund labyrinthine negotiations with the city’s lawyers. Almost every request was initially blocked. ‘They always said, “No, no, no.” It all looks so easy, but it was quite exhausting.’
Spender’s shrewd tactic was to go round the blind side and do something no one has attempted since Blasetti’s film: to tell the story through the jockeys. ‘They’re in the eye of the storm,’ she says. ‘That’s where the drama is. They are outsiders and insiders.’ They’re outsiders because historically they are of Sardinian extraction, stocky, hardy and indigent; insiders because they are empowered, by the contrada captains who hire them, to cut last-minute deals as they line up at the starting rope. This moment, when the rules of the trading floor take over, has never been seen on such an intrusive zoom before, even by the higher-ups of Siena.
The king of the rope is Gigi Bruschelli, leathery winner of countless Palios and assumed by all Siena, says someone, to have ‘created a network of absolute power’. Spender alighted on him as one of her subjects, though he wouldn’t open up about cutting deals. ‘When I retire,’ he says with a furtive smile. The film also follows his young protégé Giovanni Atzeni who, being half German, is naively eager to do the unthinkable and win straight. She filmed other jockeys too and waited to see whose story would prosper. Without revealing the dénouement, she was luckier than anyone documenting the race has ever been before.
The city council was content to let her film the jockeys because of the contempt in which they are held. They are described in the film as ‘mercenaries’, ‘assassins’ and ‘prostitutes’ because they do dirty work for money (up to €200,000 for the top jockeys). What the jockey undoubtedly is for the four days of the Palio — from the lottery that assigns a horse to each contrada, through the half-dozen trial races to the moment they line up — is a prisoner. They are mistrusted. And yet a contrada invests all its hopes in a jockey’s abilities: to ride, to offer and receive bribes, to thwart their enemies. Above all they must not finish second. For this ultimate dishonour they can expect hospitalisation. A video of a kicking meted out to a jockey went viral after this August’s Palio. In Spender’s film a jockey coming in second unseats himself at a gallop to make a getaway.
‘They all say it goes back to le pugne, this medieval punching game,’ says Spender. When I say to the Sienese, “Surely you could stop this beating up?” they look at me as if I’m mental. “Of course not! That’s part of the fun.” The jockeys feel it’s part and parcel of the game to be beaten up.’ They never press charges.
Palio is a viscerally thrilling portrait of a medieval rite at once nonsensical and puerile, and yet profoundly alive and meaningful. It might easily not have been so. Siena’s council, which owns the copyright on everything that happens in the Campo during the Palio, tried to insist upon final cut. What were they afraid of? ‘The violence they didn’t care about. They’re very paranoid about the animal righters. They don’t make any headway, but the Sienese don’t want to encourage them.’
Spender kept final cut, with the result that the bleeding flank of Atzeni’s mount makes it into the edit. She deployed crafty insider knowledge to barter for its inclusion. ‘They asked me to take it out. I said, “I’m sorry, it’s like asking me to take out the stigmata of St Francis! This is a sacrifice: Giovanni loves the horse best of all and he’s prepared to do that to him.” I went straight in with a Catholic image. So they couldn’t say anything to that.’
Palio is in cinemas from 25 September.