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30 Assassins: Riders of the Palio opens at Palace House


Mention the ‘sport of kings’ in the UK and many horse racing fans will immediately think of major events such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Derby at Epsom or Newmarket’s 1000 and 2000 Guineas races. But in Italy, Il Palio is much more than a sporting event, it is the Middle Ages live – and its ‘faces’ are coming to Palace House in Newmarket in 2019.


Twice a year (2nd July  and 16th August), Siena divides itself into seventeen of its ancient ‘contrade’ (districts), with each challenging the other in a horse race held in the beautiful and iconic Piazza del Campo, the city’s central square.

Originally, there were about fifty-nine contrade, but today only seventeen remain, ten of which take part in the historical pageant and in the race at each Palio.

Unifying under its unique colour and emblem – variously the Eagle, Snail, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Shell, Tower, Ram, Caterpillar, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine, She-Wolf and the Goose – each contrada chooses a jockey to represent it in the race. The horses themselves are drawn by lot.

Thus, the jockeys (who compete without a saddle and in period costume) are arguably the real if somewhat roguish stars of the dramatic show. They are known to feel free to openly bribe one another, before the race comes under starter’s orders. As one writer put it: “Betrayal is common. Guile is prized. There are no rules but one: a rider may not interfere with the reins of another horse.”

From beginning to end, the Palio is often a chaotic and somewhat brutal affair. Jockeys whip their horses, and each other, with crops made from dried bulls’ penises. If a jockey falls, his horse can still win on its own. The old racing adage that second is merely the first of the losers rings true in Siena. Jockeys who finish the Palio as runner-up are frequently held in greater contempt than the one who finishes stone last.

In Palace House’s new exhibition 30 Assassins: Riders of the Palio, photographer Marco Delogu has captured a remarkable series of portraits of jockeys who have participated in the Palio.

Visitors will come face to face with a variety of individuals, of different ages and genders. What unifies them all, is their unflinching gaze. Delogu tightly crops and frames his subjects and narrowly focuses his lens on their eyes at the exclusion of almost all else. Perhaps most striking of all, is the suggestion that these are the faces of people that would have been familiar to the likes of Dante, the Visconti and Medici families.

Also featured in the exhibition will be a selection of Delogu’s most recent works, equestrian studies inspired by the horses painted by Italian Mannerist Cavalier d’Arpino in the 16th and 17th-centuries, along with his last series – The White Studio – life-size images of horses inspired by George Stubb’s Whistlejacket.

Chris Garibaldi, Director of Palace House, The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art says “Each portrait reveals not only the direct connection between the photographer and rider but also, ultimately, with the viewer. In these strong faces, we can discern a certain defiance; as the jockeys challenge us with their gaze. Delogu’s photographs are stark, almost graphic in the high contrast black and white renditions.”

Marco Delogu says “Ever since I was a child growing up in Sardinia, I have loved horses and been inspired by them, so I am absolutely delighted to be exhibiting at Palace House in Newmarket, a town with which I have a long association and a great affection for.”

The 30 Assassins: Riders of the Palio by Marco Delgou will run from 4th May until 3rd November 2019. Are you interested in seeing this fantastic exhibition? Then click here to book your admission tickets to Palace House.