The Palio di Siena is one of the most awaited events of the summer in Tuscany and is ancient in origin. It’s Italy's most famous horse race, taking place twice a year in piazza del Campo, Siena’s main, medieval, shell-shaped square. The stars of the Palio who have competed in the event for centuries with passion are districts called “contrade” into which the city is divided.
This historic tradition dates to 1633 and every year Siena goes back in time to relive this event. Here’s the main information you should know to understand as much as possible about the Palio di Siena.
What is a “Contrada”?
There are 17 “Contrade”: Caterpillar, Dragon, Eagle, Forest, Giraffe, Goose, Owl, Panther, Porcupine, Ram, She-Wolf, Seashell, Snail, Tortoise, Tower, Unicorn, Wave.
Each Contrada has its own emblem and colours. While walking around Siena city centre, it’s easy to know which Contrada you’re in because all around there are flags and emblems hanging like street signs.
The Contrada gives a real sense of belonging to the inhabitants, who work all year round for the district taking part in the activities of the Contrada.
There’s even a museum showing memorabilia and victories in each Contrada as well as a church where horses are blessed on the day of the race! Another fascinating fact is that you're only able to be a Contrada member if you're born into it: most Contrade also have a fountain to “baptize” a new-born member!
When does the Palio take place?
2 July - Palio della Madonna di Provenzano (Palio of Mother Mary of Provenzano)
16 August - Palio della Assunta (Palio of the Assumption)
The Palio is a big tradition that lasts four days, from the warm-ups on the morning of June 29 until the races on July 2 for the Palio della Madonna di Provenzano and again on August 13-16 for the Palio of the Assumption.
The first day is for the "tratta", or the drawing of the lots and assignment of the horses to each of the Contrade. So each Contrada has its own jockey but not the horse. There are 6 trial runs before the official race, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but the jockeys try to avoid tiring the horses too much.
The July race starts at 7.30pm, the August race at 7pm. Both races are preceded by a procession in costume and followed by open-air dinners in the neighbourhood or “Contrade”.
But that's not all: on the day of the Palio race there is also a Mass at 8am called "Messa del fantino" (Mass for the horse jockeys) in the chapel next to the Palazzo Comunale. At 10.30am it’s time for the “segnatura dei fantini” within the Palazzo Comunale, which means that the names of the jockeys are confirmed. At around 3pm it’s the moment of the blessing ceremony of each Contrada’s horse and then the parade in historical costume takes place in the city centre till around 5 pm in Piazza del Campo.
Who can take part in the race? How does it work?
It’s not very simple to explain how the Palio works because it is quite a complex event and also because there are many rules that maybe only the Contrade know!
Not all the 17 Contrade can participate in the race. Only 10 out of the 17 take part in each race (10 on July 2 and 10 on August 16): 7 are those that did not participate in the previous race, while lots draw the other three. This means that a Contrada may be running both, one or no races at all.
What’s the prize?
The Palio prize is the so-called "Drappellone" meaning large drape or “Cencio”, a large painted silk canvas designed and created each year by a different artist. The winning Contrada displays in its museum the Palio as part of the celebrations. The oldest still existing Palio dates back to 1719 and belongs to the Aquila neighbourhood.
More about the race itself
The race consists of three rounds of Piazza del Campo, which means that the race itself lasts for about one minute and a few seconds. Two long pieces of thick rope delimit the “Mossa”, the area where the race starts. The “Mossiere” is the person in charge of making sure that horses and jockeys are ready and in the assigned positions. The wait for the start of the race can be extremely long because this phase is more complicated than it seems (it’s not easy to manage 10 horses in a small place). As the race starts, the first horse that crosses the finish line after three laps wins. The horse can also finish without the jockey and still win the race because it still wears the colours of its Contrada (it sometimes happens).
This race is quite dangerous, especially in certain places on the square: sometimes accidents happen and this is why Italian animal right movements are against the Palio, constantly monitoring and criticizing the conditions of the animals during the race, calling for improvements.
Where to watch the Palio
If you want to get close to this ancient tradition, visiting Siena during the Palio is a good idea, always keeping in mind some tips.
Access to piazza del Campo is free for everybody, but it’s better not to go with children because it gets very crowded and there are no toilets. Make sure to bring sunscreen, a hat and something to drink. Remember that the Piazza del Campo tends to fill up by early evening, so don’t arrive after 4pm if you want to attend the Palio for free.
If you want a more comfortable space, you can watch the Palio from the wooden tribunes and from the houses around the square, but you have to pay a lot of money. Ask the shops and the people in the city centre for tickets.
For more info (in Italian) check out this website: http://www.ilpalio.org/