Siena is a beautiful city in Italy, which is home to the Palio di Siena and brings many tourists to the town. While visiting Siena in 2012, we were introduced to the spectacle that goes along with the famous horse race. Sadly we weren’t there to witness it, but year round the streets are filled with many events and celebrations.
The Palio di Siena (known locally simply as Il Palio) is a horse race that is held twice each year, on July 2 and August 16, in Siena, Italy.
Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, a Marian devotion particular to Siena which developed around an icon from the Terzo Camollia. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary.
The race itself, in which the jockeys ride bareback, circles the, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. It is common for a few of the jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza, and indeed, it is usual to see unmounted horses finishing the race without their jockeys.
The field consists of ten horses, so not all seventeen contrade can take part in the Palio on any occasion. The seven contrade that did not take part in that month of the previous year are automatically included; three more are chosen by draw (twice a year, in the last days of May and at the beginning of July). Private owners (among them, some jockeys) offer the pick of their stables, selected during the year after trial races, other Palio races in Italy and veterinary examination, from which main representatives of the participating contrade, the Capitani, choose ten of approximately equal quality, three days before the race. A lottery then determines which horse will run for each contrada. Six trial races are run, the first on the evening of the horse selection and the last on the morning before the Palio. The devout residents of each contrada, known as contradaioli, invoke the sacred aid of their patron saint for their horse and jockey.
The worldly improve their odds with arguably dubious methods, chiefly bribery and doping. The sensible simply keep a close watch on their stable and their rider. The horses are of mixed breed; no purebred horses are allowed.
The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of rival contrade.
The Palio di Siena is more than a simple horse race. It is the culmination of ongoing rivalry and competition between the contrade. The lead-up and the day of the race are invested with passion and pride. Formal and informal rituals take place as the day proceeds, with each contrada navigating a strategy of horsemanship, alliances and animosities. There are the final clandestine meetings among the heads of the contrade and then between them and the jockeys. There is the two-hour pageant of the Corteo Storico, and then all this is crowned by the race, which takes only about 75 seconds to complete. Although there is great public spectacle, the passions displayed are still very real.
The contrada that has been the longest without a victory is nicknamed nonna (‘grandmother’). Civetta (the Owlet) had the title from 1979 until 2009, when it won the August 16 race. Torre (the Tower) had this title for being without victory for 44 years (from 1961 to 2005), and Bruco (the Caterpillar) held the title for not winning over 41 years (from 1955 to 1996). The current nonna is Lupa (the She-Wolf), which has not had a victory since 2 July 1989, a period of 26–27 years.
I would love to return one year to watch a race, and experience the thrill of the horses running through the Piazza del Campo. The ceremony and rituals that go hand in hand with the Palio di Siena are incredible and something that I am glad to have seen first hand.
Have you ever visited Siena, or witnessed the Palio di Siena?