Steeped in Tradition, the Siena Palio is Celebrated Just as Passionately Today:
Siena is well known for its Palio or Il Palio as the locals refer to this famous horse race that is held on July 2 and August 16 each year. If there is anything that gets the Sienese really excited or tense, it is Il Palio. During the Palio season you’ll witness the pride and passion of the Sienese as well as rampant contrada rivalry.
Catching the Palio Fever
We arrived in Siena two weeks after the August Palio and the streets were still decorated with the flags of Onda (the Dolphin) and Contrada del Montone (the Ram), the two winning contrade for the 2012 Palio. Some of the younger members of the winning contrade were roaming the streets with their district flags, still in celebratory mood.
I walked into a gift shop on Piazza del Campo to buy some Palio postcards and the shop owner, wearing his contrada colours around his neck, couldn’t contain his pride and joy that his contrada had won the August Palio. Presumably because I was buying Palio postcards, and therefore interested in the Palio, he was keen to let me know that his contrada (the Ram) had just won the Palio. He spoke not a word of English but was able to communicate to me his contrada victory by pointing at pictures in a brochure.
In case you’re wondering why he’s wearing a pacifier on his scarf, the Sienese consider the Palio to be the evolution of life. Victory at the Palio is likened to the birth of a baby and the members of the winning contrada automatically become newborns. At the opposite end, the contrada that goes the longest without any wins is nicknamed nonna (grandmother), which no doubt is very embarrassing for the very proud Sienese.
The Palio is an event that originated during medieval times. Before the Palio, boxing or public fights was the sporting event that people found entertainment in, and this was followed by bullfights in the 16th century. When bullfighting was outlawed, the people organized races on buffalo-back. This evolved to races on donkey-back before finally being replaced by horse racing in 1656.
The Palio di Provenzano, named in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, is held on July 2 whereas the Palio dell’Assunta in honour of the Assumption of Mary is held on August 16. Sometimes a third Palio can be held to celebrate significant events such as the moon landing or the centenary of the Unification of Italy. The races take place in the Piazza del Campo where tonnes of dirt are brought in to cover the paved floor of the Piazza. If you’ve been to Siena, you’ll know that Piazza del Campo is a big square, but not so big that horses can madly race around the canted track in a safe manner. The Palio is quite dangerous for both the jockeys and the horses and there have been many horse fatalities in the past, which is why the animal rights people are against this race.
How the Palio Works
There are 17 contrade in Siena, but only 10 horses can compete in the Palio each year. The remaining seven contrade that are not competing will automatically be included in the next year’s selection with the other three being selected by a draw. The draw takes place at the Palazza Pubblico and the results are announced by hanging the flags of the selected contrade from the window of the town hall. There’s also a process for selecting the horses.
The religious would pray to their patron saint for their jockey and horse to do well, whereas the more dubious types would resort to bribery and doping. Jockeys will sleep with their horses the night before to ensure that they’re not sabotaged by rivals. In the morning they take their horse to the chapel to be blessed. The Sienese believe that if their horse poops in the church, they have a better chance of winning!
The trophy for the race is what the locals refer to as “the rag” which is a hand-painted silk banner or the drappellone. But a lot of betting and money are involved in the race.
Interesting Facts about the Palio
There are many interesting facts about the Palio but the ones below stand out for me:
- The Palio horses race three times round the track and the race is over in about 90 seconds.
- The only rule in the Palio race seems to be that the jockey cannot grab the rein of another horse. The riders are allowed to push and shove and hit each others’ horses and apparently hit each other as well.
- It’s the horse that wins the race and not the rider, so the first horse that crosses the line wins, even if there is no rider.
- Interestingly, the jockey is rarely a Sienesse citizen.
- The jockeys ride bareback.
- The strategy in the Palio is not only to win the race, but also to prevent your rival contrada from winning, the latter giving the contrada just as much pleasure as winning the race itself.
- The horse that comes in second is the loser and not the last horse.
The Palio is a historical Sienese tradition and a two-hour colourful pageant, the Corteo Storico, precedes the race. Whereas the tourists may witness a quick and rowdy horse race, to the Sienese, every bit of the year-round race preparation follows centuries-old practices. The Palio is four days of rituals and celebrations, so if you’re intending to visit Siena around the Palio event, you’d be wise to book your Siena hotel early. The event itself is free if you stand in the Piazza del Campo, but if you want one of those elevated premium viewpoints, you’ll need to ask about tickets from the owners of those properties.
If you suffer from enochlophobia, the Palio is not for you as every inch of Piazza del Campo is packed with spectators.