The Assumption Day Horse Race in Sienna
A renaissance painting shows the grand parade of districts that opened the horse race; below, the crowds fill the plaza
Each of the 17 contrade (districts) was formed organically as the different neighborhoods of the city were grouped around common churches, patron saints, trades and their histories. The contrade were given their names, symbols and flags to commemorate heroic acts of the people or memorable events.
One is the Contrada del Bruco (caterpillar district) whose inhabitants are specialized in silk, but they were given the title of nobility because of their heroism in defending Sienna from the Bohemians.
With such histories it is easy to understand why the people so passionately seek the victory for their contrada. This pride is carried into the races by the riders and bystanders alike as each man proudly dons his contrada's colors and ruthlessly calls for the defeat of the enemy contrade. This race also represents how the love of the medieval people for Our Lady found expression in colorful events. Let me look how it sprung up organically in this Italian city.
The Carabinieri in grand uniform precede the race
During the 13th century, the people desired to include the race in their celebration of the Blessed Virgin by moving the finish line to the Duomo Nuovo (New Cathedral), a cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, and by offering candles and incense to the Virgin. In the 17th century, the race between the nobles was replaced by a race between the 17 contrade. The people of Sienna felt the need to express their devotion to Our Lady through these exciting bare back horse races through the city.
Preparations for the great race start a week before with the testing of the horses in the trial races. Thirty specially bred horses are brought before the mayor and the Capitani (Captains) of each contrada to decide which 10 horses will enter the race and to assign the horses to 10 contrade chosen by lot. The anticipation of the race draws many people to their local churches where they fervently pray for the victory of their contrada.
Each contrada has drummers and flag turners bearing its distinctive colors
Cheering is wild in the stands, each district with its own section and colors
Race day begins with a special Mass, the Messa del Fantino (Mass of the Jockey), in the Cappella di Piazza (square chapel) offered by the Archbishop. After the Mass, the jockeys perform their final trial run around the track and return to their local churches to have their horses blessed by the local priest. After the short ceremony, the priest touchess a sacred relic in the horse's head and pronounces a formula - the same for every horse: “Va', e torna vincitore” “Go, and return victorious.”
The priest's words express the vivacious spirit of the people:
Va', e torna vincitore - “Go, and return victorious”
The coveted prize - the Drappelione - a large banner displaying the Virgin Mary, different each year
To bring the procession to a spectacular conclusion, two Alfieri (flag-turners) from each district perform to the beat of the drums and the judges, and dignitaries take their place in the stands where they will oversee the race. Such a display reveals the true prize for the victorious contrada: the blessing of the Queen of Heaven who reigns over the grand contest on the victory banner.
The local painters who make the banner must make a unique one each year that includes an image of Our Lady, Sienna's insignia, and colors and symbols representing the 10 contrade who participate in the race.
The onlookers wave the unique flag of each one’s particular contrada; the riders wear brilliant uniforms with the flag colors; everywhere is the life, color and distinction that marked the medieval ages. The resulting scene is magnificent with the Piazza filled with a dazzling entourage displaying each district's unique colors and customs. The beauty of the scene reflects the harmonic diversity that can exist in one city. Although the city is united in a common spirit, each one of its regions has its unique manner of expressing itself.
An strong element of danger: riders use their whips; a riderless horses continues
the race and wins the race; bareback riders often fall
This grand festival is a good example of how a Catholic organic society can produce beautiful manifestations of local culture stimulated by a devotion to Our Lady. The people of Sienna of the Middle Ages desired to outwardly express their joy at the Assumption of Our Lady through the revelry of a gallant horse race.
The joy of the people from this city emanated to the country – and eventually to the world – as the fame of this celebration spread. Now, hundreds of spectators come to see this beautiful tradition and to experience the local pride and culture of a once magnificent city.
The banner of Our Lady paraded on
an oxcart for all to admire
Posted August 19, 2019