The Palio di Siena
The Palio horse race is the most important event in Siena, taking place each year on July 2, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano, and August 16, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption. The Palio has its origins in the distant past, with historical records indicating horse races in Siena already taking place in the 6th century.
The Palio is much more than a simple event for the Sienese, it actually is a large part of their lives since the time of their birth. Each person belongs to a contrada, or neighborhood, and participates in the life of the contrada and the organization of the Palio throughout the year. The Sienese live the Palio with great passion and those who have the chance to attend one of the races will certainly contest to this.
The Palio is a complex event that has gained additional rules through the centuries, as well as traditions and customs, many which only members of the contrada are aware of.
The Palio is an event in which the various Sienese “contrade” challenge in other in a passionate horse race in the heart of the city, the Piazza del Campo. Originally, there were about 59 “Contrade,” but now only 17 remain, ten of which take part in the historical event. Each contrada represents an area of the city with its own unique emblem and colors.
The Palio actually takes place over four days, the race taking place on the fourth day. The first day is for the “Tratta,” or the assignment of the horses to each of the contrade. Each of the contrade picks their jockey but not the horse; they are drawn and only known at this time.
Before the official race there are six trial runs or “heats,” one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The fifth trial, the one run the evening prior to the official Palio, is called the “prova generale” or general trial, while the last which takes place the morning of the main race, is called “provaccia” or bad trial given the little effort the jockeys put into it in order to avoid tiring the horses too much.
The Palio prize is called “Drappellone” or large drape, a large painted canvas each year designed and created by a different artist and which the winning contrada displays in their museum.
The climax of preparation for the Palio occurs at the special dinner held the night before the race in each participating contrada. Hundreds of contradaioli and their guests come together for a good luck dinner with much singing, chanting and bravado.
On the day of the Palio race, Siena is in full of energy and the entire day is dedicated to the event.
Around 8:00am, in the chapel next to the Palazzo Comunale, the Bishop celebrates the “Messa del fantino” or mass for the horse jockeys. Shortly after the mass the last trial takes place in Piazza del Campo. At 10.30am within the Palazzo Comunale and in the presence of the mayor, the “segnatura dei fantini” takes place. The name of the jockeys are confirmed and cannot be substituted from that point on. At around 3:00pm, each Contrada performs a blessing ceremony of its horse and afterwards joins in the large parade in historical costume, with over 600 participants, that winds through the city. The parade arrives in the Piazza del Campo around 5:00pm, and ends by around 7:00pm. Shortly thereafter the explosion of a firecracker signals the entrance of the horses into the piazza. As the jockeys come out, each one receives a whip made out of ox sinew which they can use to prod their horse or to irritate the other opponents in the race.
The race starts off in the “Mossa,” an area set up on the piazza bordered by two long pieces of thick rope. The “Mossiere” then calls the contrade in the order in which they were drawn and checks that the assigned positions are respected. The first nine contrade take their assigned positions in the area between the two ropes, while the last one enters at a running gallop thus signaling the start of the race.
If the start is not considered valid (this is the case if the jockeys are not in their assigned spots), a shot goes out to signal the jockeys to get back into place. This starting phase within the “Mossa” is more complicated than it seems, as the space is small and the horses are right next to each other. Rivalries run deep within the contrade and competition is high. The worst result is to see the “enemy” contrada win the race. The wait for the start of the race can thus be extremely long and last into twilight.
If all goes well the start of the race can start at any time. The horses must run three laps around the Campo, overcoming dangerous points such as the very narrow curve of San Martino where collisions between the wall and between horses have led to many falls in the past.
The first horse that crosses the finish line, even if he arrives without his jockey, wins the race. The winning contrada receives the Drappellone, as the victorious contrada members head towards the Duomo for the “Te Deum” or prayer of thanks.
The Palio represents a unique opportunity to live the warmth and passion of the city of Siena. If you have the opportunity of attending, do not pass up on this chance to experience such a passionate and special celebration.