WHAT IS THE PALIO? SIENA'S HORSE RACE IN A NUTSHELL

A medieval road in adorned with blue and white flags for the Palio di Siena



The twelve must-knows for people wanting to impress fellow travelers with their thorough knowledge of the Palio di Siena, the world’s oldest continually hold sporting event. 



1. WHAT IS THE PALIO?

Italy's most famous horse race takes place twice a year on piazza del Campo, Siena’s shell shaped medieval square.

2. WHEN IS THE PALIO? 

Each year on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. The July race called Palio della Madonna di Provenzano starts at 7.30 pm, the Palio dell'Assunta in August at 7 pm. However, both races are proceeded by a pageantry procession, so prepare to access piazza del Campo three to four hours before the start of the race. The festival lasts for a total of four days each time, which are made up of trial races and neighborhood dinners.



July Palio 2011 on Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo and Palazzo Pubblico during Palio 



3. WHO CAN PARTICIPATE?

Siena has 17 neighborhoods (contrade in Ialian), but only ten of them can participate in each race. The seven contrade which aren't running the July Palio in the current year are designated to participate in the July Palio the year after (the same system applies for the August Palio). To make up the total number of participating contrade, a month before each Palio three additional neighborhoods will be drawn out of the ten contrade which have run the race the year before. This means that of the two Palios each year, a contrada may be running both, one or - in unlucky cases - none at all.

4. WHAT IS A CONTRADA? AND HOW MANY ARE THERE?

contrada is a neighborhood or tiny city district in Siena's historic town center. Each of the city's 17 contrade is made up of just a few roads, but has its own HQ with Palio museum, a stable for the horse and a church where mass and horse blessing take place on the day of the race. During the rest of the year the HQ is in constant use for meetings and neighborhood dinners. Most contrade also have a fountain where every new contrada member is 'baptized' and welcomed as a member of the neighborhood. This means that whilst everybody can be a fan of a contrada, you're only able to be a contrada member if you're born into it (see my interview with a member of the Lupa (she-wolf) contrada). 

5. THE NAMES AND SYMBOLS OF SIENA'S 17 CONTRADE

Aquila - the Eagle
Bruco - the Caterpillar
Civetta - the Owl
Chiocciola - the Snail
Drago - the Dragon
Giraffe - the Giraffe
Istrice - the Porcupine
Lupa - the She-wolf
Nicchio - the Seashell
Oca - the Goose
Onda - the Wave
Pantera - the Panther
Selva - the Forest 
Tartuca - the Turtle
Torre - the Tower 
Leocorno - the Unicorn
Valdimontone or Montone - the Ram

Most contrade are easily recognizable as the animal they're named after also appears on their flag and on the ceramic plates and statues in the neighborhood. Not named after an animal, but still represented by one are three neighborhoods: Onda (wave), with the symbol of a dolphin, Selva (forest) represented by a rhino carrying a few trees and Torre (tower) by an elephant carrying a tower. 


Horses and jockeys in the colors of the Lupa, Onda and the Chiocciola neighborhood (from left to right)

6. SINCE WHEN HAS THE PALIO BEEN RUN IN SIENA?

Siena’s bareback horse race is one of the oldest continuously happening festivals in the world. The tradition started with bull fights, horse races and other public games hold on piazza del Campo in the Middle Ages. The Palio horse race has taken place in its current form since the 17th century. 

Palio horse races are also run on a smaller scale in other Italian cities. However only in Siena has the race been continuously run since the Renaissance. 

7. HOW LONG DOES THE RACE LAST?

365 days of the year which culminate in 1 minute and 15 seconds (the time needed for the three rounds on piazza del Campo) on the 2nd of July and the 16th of august.  

The race track on piazza del Campo on the morning of the July Palio





8. WHY IS THE RACE CALLED IL PALIO?

Il Palio is the name of the painted silk cloth that the winning contrada will bring home (there is no price money involved in the race). The Palio cloth is also called drappellone or cencio in Siena, and each contrada proudly exhibits the won Palii at its museum. The oldest still existing Palio dates back to 1719 and can be seen at the museum of the Aquila neighborhood. The silk clothes are traditionally painted by local artisans, but in more recent decades also by internationally known artists. Contrada Tartuca's museum exhibits Palios painted by Sandro Chia, Fernando Botero and Igor Mitoray. 

9. FANTINO / The jockey

The fantino (jockey) is only chosen once the contrada knows which horse it will be running with (the horses are drawn on the first of the four Palio days in piazza del Campo). The jockey is payed by the contrada and at times agreements are taken between different contrade amiche (befriended neighborhoods) so as to help each other against a common enemy. Jockey's deal and wheal until the last moment before the race starts and offer each other sums of money for the support in case of the defeat or victory of a particular neighborhood. 

10. THE PALIO HORSES

The horses are the most important players in the Palio race. Which is why horses are venerated like saints in Siena. A horse that looses its jockey during the race can nevertheless win as long as it still wears the colors of its contrada when arriving at the finishing line (this happened last time in 1996). The horses are bred especially for the Palio and are blessed in a special mass in each contrada on the day of the Palio. 

Accidents and animal rights: The sloping piazza del Campo and the heated nature of the race make it a dangerous event for horses and jockeys alike. Conditions have been massively improved over the last decades, e.g. thanks to better protection and special selection and training of suitable mixed breed horses. Nevertheless accidents keep happening. Italian animal right movements are constantly monitoring the conditions of the race and requesting further improvements. 

Jockey and horse of the Aquila neighborhood before a trial race

11. THE ANIMOSITIES BETWEEN THE CONTRADE

Enemy contrade are in many cases adjacent neighborhoods and rivalry stems from century old quarrels in regard to exact territory of each contrada. At times alliances are installed between neighborhoods so as to improve each others chances to win a Palio, or to lessen the ones of an enemy contrada. 

Only Bruco, Giraffa and Selva don't have a rival contrada. Of the remaining 14 neighborhoods the enemies are: 

Oca and Onda vs Torre (Torre is the only contrada to have two enemies)
Civetta vs Leocorno
Nicchio vs Valdimontone
Istrice vs Lupa
Aquila vs Pantera
Ciocciola vs Tartuca

The race is medieval at heart. Jockeys often work mercenary style for the best paying contrada and will change neighborhood from race to race. Whilst the jockey is meant to bring home the Palio, he is also supposed to prevent the enemy contrada from winning. This can be well seen in the July 2013 video where the fantino of il Nicchio (wearing dark blue in the back) is supposed to start the race, but keeps biding time until his enemy from the Montone neighborhood (in the salmon colored outfit on the left) is blocked by other horses. 

Right at the beginning of the race you can also observe how the jockey of the Istrice neighborhood (in a stripy outfit) keeps hitting the jockey of its enemy contrada, la Lupa (wearing black and white colors). 




Palio di Provenzano, July 2013



12. HOW TO WATCH THE PALIO FOR FREE? 

Access to piazza del Campo is in fact free for everybody during trial runs and the two Palio races in July and August. The atmosphere in the square is amazing, but make sure you bring sunscreen and a hat (water can be bought on the square or bottles refilled at the Fonte Gaia fountain). 

Seated viewing on the wood tribunes and from the houses around the square is only available on payment (prices start from 250 Euro). Tickets have to be booked well in advance. There is no official vendor for Palio tickets, so it makes sense to shop around. Also remember that there's no access to toilets from inside the square and from most tribunes. Kids are not allowed into the square (and the Sienese are happy to disregard this anytime). Before coming out check the schedule of the trial runs and main races to plan your stay.  

For in-depth Palio insight (and after 500 years of history there's a lot more to know!), check the website of ilPalio.org with films from the race all the way back to 1936, or watch two entertaining Palio documentaries in English by Guardian Travel and Wider World of Sports. Once back home, be sure to follow Siena's famous race each year live on TV or via streaming. And don't forget to open a bottle of Tuscan wine with it. 

Preparing for the contrada dinner in the Chiocciola neighborhood


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