Palio di Siena Travel GuideIntroduction
Other than its historical buildings, part of Siena’s cultural identity would be the Palio, an annual four-day horse racing event which causes life in Siena to pause every July 2 and August 16 as residents celebrate and enjoy the race itself as well as the various events and amusements that accompany it. The first race, the Palio di Provenzano is held on July 2 in honor of the Madonna of Povenzano and her church in Siena. Meanwhile, the second race August 16 each year is the Palio dell’Assunta that is held in honor of the Assumption of Mary.
One can trace the roots of the races to the Medieval ages, when the town’s main piazza was the site for a lot of major local events, including public sporting events. At the time, the included events consisted mostly of martial sports such as the pugna (basically a large brawl), jousting, and bull fights. The horse races weren’t really introduced until about the 14th century when it was known as the “palli alla lunga” and the race was run across the entire city instead of just within the piazza.
Initially, only one race a year was held on July 2, and it wasn’t until much later in 1701, was a second race in August added, and only intermittently. Also, the second palio of the year was originally organized and funded by the winning city ward (or “contrada”) from July, and only if they could afford it. This is the reason why the existence of the second race would go on and off over many years. Eventually, the city took over the duties of organizing and funding the second race, and it became an annual event ever since.
In preparation for the Palio, the city imports truckloads of turf and dirt and lays it all down on the perimeter of the pavement of the main piazza in order to create the race track for the horses. Take note that the piazza is in the shape of a shell, which makes for some very tricky turns. This is why soft protective crash barriers against walls of nearby buildings are also put in place as it is not uncommon for riders to collide into awkward corners. Designated areas for officials and audiences are also put into place.
In the meantime, while the race grounds are being set up, the fun starts well before either race, when citizens of the seventeen contrade challenge each other. This challenge comes in the form of bands walking through “enemy” neighborhoods in the middle of the night and making the Palio an unholy racket. Eventually, ten neighborhoods earn the right to produce a horse and rider for the day of the race. Not all seventeen contrade can take part in the Palio, but the seven contrade who didn’t make it to the races, are automatically included in the next. Meanwhile, the remaining three slots are awarded by lottery which happens during the last week of May and the first week of July.
Horses that will be entered into Palio are picked well in advance of the occasion, and are often the pride of the stables of their respective owners. These horses go through several trial races and veterinary examinations, and three days before the race, the contrade’s Capitani (or main representative) then proceeds to select ten horses of equal quality among the many that may be offered to him. Another lottery then determines which of the ten selected horses will represent the contrada at the races. The chosen horse then goes through another six trial races on the evening of the horse selection and again on morning of the day right before before the Palio. The passionate residents of each contrada (the contradaioli) then pray to their patron saint to bless their chosen horse and jockey and help them win the races.
Once the horses and their riders have been selected, the Palio is then kicked off with a mass at the Duomo for the jockeys who are dressed in the traditional manners and wearing their contrade’s colors. Next, there is a benediction ceremony for the horses, and it is then followed by a grand parade known as the Corteo Storico that involves around 600 people in full historical costumes.
The Corteo Storico
The Corteo Storico precedes the races itself, and this pageant is nothing short of spectacular. It involves , among many others, the Alfieri, or flag wavers. The Alfieri are dressed in traditional costumes and carry flags that bear the colors and coats of arms of the participating contrade. They then perform dances and acrobatic stunts to the sound of drumbeats, using the waving and tossing of flags to enhance their already-energetic performance. The whirling colors of the flags, the Alfieri’s costumes, and the rhythm of the drums makes for an exciting show that gets the crowd into a festive mood.
There is also a squad of carabinieri on horseback who are dressed in traditional costume, complete with swords and military decorations. The squad then rides their horses down the track, taking one lap at a walk while in formation. After that lap, the next part is a demonstration of a mounted charge and has them riding at full gallop, before exiting down one of the nearby streets and out of the piazza – a quick taste of the main event to further excite the audience.
By 7:30 p.m. for the July race, and 7 p.m. for the August race, an explosive charge is detonated causing a loud sound to echo all across the piazza. This is the signal to the thousands present that the races are about to begin.
At the start of the race, nine jockeys ride their horses bareback into the piazza and to the starting line which is an area in the middle of two ropes. The first nine riders enter the piazza in an order that is determined by lottery. The tenth rider, known as the rincorsa, waits outside as the others make their entrance. Once the rincorsa finally joins the others between the two ropes, the race starter (called “mossiere”) then activates a switch which causes the rope in front of the riders to drop to the ground, and thus releasing rider and horse onto the track.
The race itself runs for three laps and normally lasts for only about 90 seconds or so. However, those 90 seconds are completely action-packed as the piazza’s turns and corners can be difficult to maneuver. As a result, it is fairly common for jockeys to get thrown off their horses as everyone gallops to the finish line. A dismounted rider doesn’t mean the end for the contrada it represents, though, as a riderless horse can still win the race in a condition known as cavallo scosso.
On top of the hazards of the race track itself, the jockeys are also allowed to make use of whips, not just to spur their own horses forward, but to also disturb their competitors’ horses or even take a swat at the other jockeys themselves. Almost everything is allowed at the race track, including pulling or shoving fellow jockeys, or attempting to hamper other horses right at the starting line (to anyone who has ever played the video game Mario Kart… you’d probably have a good idea of how this all looks).
The loser in the race is considered to be the contrada whose horse came second, not last.
Once a winning horse has been determined and announced, the Capitani of the winning contrada receives an award in the form of a banner of hand-painted silk that is created by a different artist for every race (this banner is known as a “palio”) on behalf of his entire contrada.
The celebrations and festivities don’t end at the finish line, however, as the members of each contrada are VERY, VERY passionate about the races that they may continue to celebrate and enjoy their victory up until the next Palio. It is known for contrade who are historical rivals to celebrate the fact that their bitter enemies didn’t win, either.
Tips and Advice
- The Palio is a major event for the citizens of Siena and is also quite a spectacle that draws in both local and international crowds. Because of this, you might want to arrive very early in the morning of the races if you want to get a good view as the piazza will fill up VERY fast.
- Seats can range from plain bleachers to box seats which you can reserve for a fee, but be aware that these tend to get sold out long before the races even begin.
- You might also want to book your accommodations well in advance if you plan to stay in Siena throughout the duration of the Palio, as there will be many other visitors who will be around for the races.
- Tourists are allowed to join a contrada. Pick one that you like and wear its colors proudly! March with your faction as you heckle and taunt your opponents, and cheer on your contrada’s horse and jockey! Be aware, however, that the Sienese are as passionate about the Palio as some people are passionate about soccer or football, so be careful not to hurt anyone’s sports pride!