The Palio is the most important event organized in the city of Siena and takes place every year on July 2nd and August 16th. In the Palio the various Sienese Contrade, or the “areas” in which the city is divided, challenge each other in a passionate horse race in Piazza del Campo.
Siena is currently divided into 17 districts: Aquila, Bruco, Snail, Civetta, Drago, Giraffa, Istrice, Leocorno, Lupa, Nicchio, Oca, Onda, Pantera, Selva, Tartuca, Torre, Valdimontone.
Each Contrada is characterized by a unique coat of arms and colors and occupies a specific area of the city. Walking through the streets of Siena you can easily understand which Contrada you are in, observing the flags and coats of arms displayed along the streets.
The Palio race has very remote origins, in fact there are reports of palii with horses in Siena since at least the seventeenth century.
The Palio is much more than a simple event for the Sienese, it has been part of their life since birth. The Contradaioli, as the members of a Contrada are called, participate in the life of their Contrada and in the organization of the Palio all year round. The Sienese live the Palio with great passion and transport and you will certainly realize it if you have the opportunity to attend a race.
The Palio is a rather complex event, which throughout history has been enriched with many rules, customs and practices, many of which are known only to the Contrada.
Here are some of the main and customary rules of the Palio, which will certainly be useful for better understanding the event.
The Palio race, also called “career”, is held every year on July 2nd (Palio di Provenzano, in honor of Our Lady of Provenzano) and August 16th (Palio dell ‘Assunta, in honor of the Assumption of Mary).
On the occasion of the Palio the main square of Siena, Piazza del Campo, is equipped for the race and the ring on which the race will take place is covered with tuff.
10 Contrade out of 17 participate in each career: seven are those that did not run the previous year in that Palio, while three other Contrade are drawn by lot.
The days of the Palio are actually four in the fourth race is run. On the first day of the Palio the “Tratta” takes place, that is, drawing lots and assigning horses to the various Contrade.
Before the official race 6 tests are carried out, one in the morning and one in the late evening. The fifth test, which takes place the evening before the official Palio, is called the “general test”, while the last, which takes place the same morning is called the “provaccia”, due to the limited effort that the jockeys put into it, with the intention not to force their horses. Jockeys always ride bareback horses, that is bareback.
The prize of the Palio is the so-called “Drappellone”, or a canvas drawn each time by a different artist, which the winning Contrada will exhibit in its museum.
The day of the Palio
On the day of the Palio race, the city is in full swing and the whole day is dedicated to the event.
Around 8 in the chapel next to the town hall, the “Mass of the jockey” is celebrated by the Archbishop. Immediately after in Piazza del Campo takes place the last test run, the “provaccia”.
At 10.30 in the Town Hall, in the presence of the Mayor, the “signing of the jockeys” is carried out, which from this moment on can no longer be replaced.
Around 3pm in each Contrada the blessing of one’s horse takes place and the great historical procession begins, consisting of over 600 figures.
The procession arrives in Piazza del Campo around 5 pm (to end on the stage of the authorities around 6.30 pm and 7 pm a burst of mortar announces the exit of the horses from the Entrone. At the exit every jockey is given a nerve ox, with which he can incite his horse or annoy opponents in the race.
The race starts from the “Mossa”, an area of the square delineated by two ropes (ropes). The “Mossiere” has the task of calling the Contrade, according to the order that has been drawn, and checking that the assigned positions are respected. The first nine Contrade go to position themselves between the ropes, as they are called, the tenth instead enters “run-up”, effectively establishing the start of the race.
In the event that the start is not considered valid (for example because the jockeys have not respected their position), a burst of firecracker will give the warning and you will have to start all over again. The “Move” phase can be extremely long and last even until dark. This is understandable if you think that the competition between the Contrade is very strong and seeing an “enemy” Contrada win is by far the worst possible result.
Horses have to travel three laps of the square, also overcoming dangerous points, such as the narrow curve of San Martino, where clashes and falls often occur (this reason is one of the reasons why animal rights activists have declared themselves against the Palio for years).
The first horse to reach the finish line wins, even if “shaken”, that is, without a jockey, and the Drappellone is delivered to the winning Contrada.
After the race, the victorious contradaioli go with the Drappellone to the Church of Provenzano (in the Palio of July) or to the Duomo (in the Palio of August) for the “Te Deum” of thanksgiving.