What is the Palio?
This is a much anticipated Italian festival held in Siena on 2nd July and 16th August every year. This takes place in the heart of the city in Piazza del Campo. In Palio di Siena, the sienese ‘contrade’ or areas that the city is divided into to compete in a passionate horse race. Initially there were 59 contrade but now only 17 remain. Only 10 out of these take part in the historical pageant and in the race at each Palio. The other names by which it is known are Corsa del Palio or Parade of the Banner. This medieval festival which is conducted annually in major Italian cities features bareback horse races. The 17 contrades that are present even to this day are uniquely named after animal species. The Eagle, Snail, Shell, Caterpillar, Wave, Panther, Forest, She-Wolf, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Goose, Ram, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine and the Tower. The contrade now function as social clubs but in the Middle Ages they served as rival military companies. Each contrade has its unique emblem and color for a particular city. This will help you identify in which contrae you are currently present by observing the flag and emblem. Just like street signs there are signals at every corner of the lane informing you that you have entered a new comrade.
The historical significance of Palio di Siena
This horse race in Siena has its origins in the distant past indicating that similar festivals took place even in the 6th century. The Palio is more than a mere Italian event for the natives. It forms a large part of their identity and culture since their birth. Each person is assigned a specific contarada and he participates in the contrada’s activities and the organization of the Palio. The Sienese strive hard all year round to make this event an unforgettable one for both the locals and the tourists. Horse racing in Siena dates from 1232. The first time that the Palio was organized was as a civic celebration in 1482. The latest procedure started in 1659 and has been held semi-annually on July 2 and August 16 since 1701 except during wartime. The races comprise three turns around the Piazza del Campo which is the main city square. These last a minute long.
Stages of the event
This Italian festival has become complex in recent years after incorporating diverse traditions and rules. These customs are only in the knowledge of members of the contrada at maximum. There are no official box offices for tickets to the palio. Private travel agencies are responsible for organizing packages. Spectators can buy tickets directly from those who organize such stands. Entrance to the center of the Piazza del Campo is free but it gets pretty crowded. Some of the core principles and rules that govern Palio di Siena are:
- The horse race is held twice a year. First is on July 2 (Palio of Provenzano, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano). The second is on August 16th (Palio of the Assumption, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption).
- Piazza del Campo is the main square in Siena and it is prepared when the ring around the square is covered with tuff clay.
- 10 out of the 17 contrade take part in this horse race. 7 are those which did not participate in the race on the previous day. 3 of the remaining ones are then drawn in lots.
- The Palio actually takes place during a course of 4 days. The race is held on the 4th day. On the 1st day lots are drawn and horses are assigned to each Contrade. This is known as the Tratta. Each Contrade picks out their jockey but there is no choice for horses. The horses are drawn only 4 days before the race.
- Before the start of the official race there are 6 trail runs or heats. One is in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The 5th trial is a run in the evening just before the official race. It is called the “prova generale” or general trial. While the last run taking place in the morning of the main race, is called “provaccia” or bad trial. This is because jockeys put in very little effort to win so their horses are not exhausted before the actual race. The jockeys will always mount their horses without saddles.
- Very interestingly the name of the Palio prize is called “Drappellone” or large drape. This is a large painted canvas each year designed and created by a different artist. The winning contrada displays it in their contrada museum.
- The run in Palio di Siena is intense – filled with distrust and occasional conflicts. It is prevailed that the outcomes are also a result of bribery.
- Each contrada hires a professional jockey to dress in 15th-century costume in its colors. The jockeys ride without saddles or stirrups, whipping their competitors’ horses as they race for the Palio. A cannon fire signals the end of the race.
- Even though the race is considered a secular event, the horses are blessed in the church of its contrada. This is done by the parish priest before the race begins. The drummers and flag throwers further portray their art by the colorful banners of their specific contrade.
Some suggestions for attending the Palio
This is a unique opportunity to experience the passion and culture of true Italians. From the center of the Piazza del Campo you can even witness the race for free. It is preferable to arrive by 4:30pm and even better if earlier than this. You can get a prime location along the side of the race track. The spots near Mossa and the Gaia Fountain are taken early in the morning because of their great view. Drinks are sold at the location but there are no public toilets. Also make sure to carry some refreshments and food items with you. Bring a cap to protect from the heat. Since the area is too crowded it is unsafe to bring small children with you for the fear of losing them. To buy your tickets in the bleachers or on the balconies that face onto the Piazza contact the APT in Siena. Hence you can find out more information or try directly contacting the residents of the homes facing the piazza.