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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Palio di Siena

One of my highest wishes, since I started spending more and more time behind the camera, has always been to be a photographer at the Palio, Siena’s and one of Italy’s most beautiful tradition. For those who don’t know what it is shame on you, Google it a bit and you will find tons of valuable information. For those who haven’t been there, I strongly recommend you to go. If you manage to understand what’s behind it and how deeply is in the heart of the “Sienesi” (the citizens of Siena), you will just love it to death. If you have been there already, you know what I’m talking about, and if you didn’t like it, too bad, I’m sure you missed the plot.
Anyway, thanks to my collaboration with the Spanish monthly magazine SuperFoto, this year I managed to get my photo pass and what a day I experienced! From my humble point of view, getting the job done at the Palio requires a lot of experience, and I mean experience of the Palio itself. Having been there as a visitor helps, but is not enough, really not. Having a couple of days to dedicate to the before-during-after event helps a lot, and I didn’t have those at all. Having a guy from Siena guiding you, and he must be one who is truly from there and belongs to a “Contrada”, is a sure bet, and I have friends there but there was no time for me to get them involved finding one fit enough and willing to spend the whole day with a crazy photographer. Anyway, you always pay a price for being a rookie, and I’m no exception.
Before the start of the parade I met with an old friend from Florence who now lives in Siena for a quick lunch and then it was all running. Run to get your photo pass done, to go to the press office, to shoot the atmosphere of the city, and get a grasp of what the heck is going on that crazy day. Is a flood of people roaming from one place to another, following the parade that swarms up in the streets, slowly filling the Piazza del Campo, the square where everything takes place. Locals and a lot of tourists; not so hard to distinguish ones from the others. The poor, the mid class and the rich; the latter easy to spot at the most exclusive balconies of the ancient buildings facing the square.
At 16:00 is time to get into your assigned area, and mine was both a very good and bad one, as I will soon learn. Few meters from “La Mossa”, the starting point, I had the parade slowly moving in front of me at close distance, with the sun sneaking between two buildings and few chances for some backlit images when the clouds would allow me to. This was the good part; not many odds to shot images with a long depth, as you can see from these photos, but close enough to allow me to work with the longest lens I had, the 24-70 f2.8. So far so good, I even grabbed some decent details and boy, that lens rocks! 
Thus, once the Carabinieri started galloping for their opening charge, I realized that I was in trouble for the race. On my left hand, about 10/12 meters I had a blind turn hence I could only see the horses when they were already on my face, and on top of that, they would run SO CLOSE to the fence that it was EXTREMELY dangerous to lean, as it proved later. No mean to complain, it was my first time at the Palio with a photo pass and I got that spot, again great for 3 hours and quite odd for 5 minutes, respectively the duration of the parade and the race.

Anyway, at 7 pm the horses showed up from “Il Comune”, the building of the county and started the alignment for the start. This is one of the most exciting moments of the day because there are many things going on between those two ropes. There’s always somebody among the jockeys creating trouble, moving from one place to another, bugging his most direct enemies, trying to mess everything up. This is part of the game, is allowed, and the director of the race only has the chance to try to calm the spirits down or finally send everybody out to start the alignment from scratch. Finally the ropes go down, the horses stretch into a wild gallop on the compact dirt and everything goes ballistic! Now, your photog is well behind the fence, trying to guess when the horses show up behind the blind turn and shooting in continuous like a mad man. Three turns and is done, there’s a winner (Tartuca, on the Palio dell’Assunta August 16th 2010) and no seconds or thirds, everybody else looses.

The crowd swarm into the track when the horses are still running and from now on is hell on earth. On my side one of the crew is on the floor trembling in convulsions. She leaned too much off the fence and a horse (or a jockey’s knee) hit her in the face. Doctors everywhere, is quite a dramatic moment, the girl looks like is in real pain. I become a reporter, grab few images and finally, knocked down I leave my position and head top some friend’s house to pick up my family.
The Palio is now over, at least the one going on in the square, people slowly leave, happy, sad, sweating, crying, yelling and mostly tired. There’s a big party at the Contrada of la Tartuca, the winner. It will go on all night long, a major celebration. People said it was easy to predict, they had the best horse and the best rider, but they had to run  the race, and in the track of “La Piazza del Campo” everything can happen, is a very hard game. Looking at my LCD I can see no decent images of the race, just the start, then for me it was all chaos. Again, you need a lot of experience to do a good job at the Palio, I have jumped the rookie step, now I’m only thinking of the next one, either July or August 2011.
Special thanks to Isabella Neri of the Press Office of Il Comune di Siena

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