The Palio is perhaps the most important event in Siena’s calendar, and takes place twice a year. It is essentially a horse race that is run to celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenazo Salvani. In its essence, it is a historical tradition that is strictly connected with the origin of the contrade of Siena (the districts into which the town is divided) and is more than just a mere sporting event for the Sienese. The various contrade challenge each other in this passionate horse race that is held in the heart of the city at the Piazza Del Campo.
The original Palio was run by 59 contrade of which now only 17 remain. Each person in Siena belongs to a specific contrada, and participates in the life of the contrada and the organization of the Palio throughout the year. The Palio is thus an essential part of the lives of the Sienese and to understand their passion for it you have to attend one of the races. The actual race lasts only 90 seconds but the preparations for the race followed by the joyous celebrations by the winning contrada last all year round. The first race on horseback is said to have taken place in the year 1656.
Tips for Visitors
The Palio represents the perfect opportunity to experience first-hand the warmth, vivacity and the passion of the city of Siena. If an opportunity to attend the Palio comes your way, don’t give up the golden chance to experience it. It is a good idea to stay in Siena as traffic to get to the city on the day of the race can get pretty bad. On the eve of the Palio, each contrada holds a dinner which includes singing, dancing and great food. You can buy tickets to these dinners in advance.
It is possible to attend the race for free from the centre of the Piazza Del Campo. The Sienese make it a point to never miss the Palio therefore, to get a place in the centre one should arrive by at least 4:30 p.m. on the day of the race. For a prime location, particularly for spots near the Mossa and the Gaia Fountain along the racetrack, one has to reserve spots in the morning. You can also buy tickets to view the race from bleachers, balconies and windows around the Piazza in advance. The bleacher seats aren’t very comfortable but offer an excellent bird’s eye view of the spectacle.
Refreshments are sold within the Piazza, however, there are no public conveniences. One is advised to carry along one’s own refreshments and a cap or a hat to protect against the harsh Italian sun. Avoid taking children along given the large crowd that has a tendency to get carried away by passions and emotions and become a tad bit rowdy.
About the Palio
The rules and regulations have undergone many changes over the centuries making the Palio a pretty complex event. Stated below are some of the major rules and traditions of the Palio, which may help one understand the event a little better.
- The Palio race is held twice a year, on July 2 (Palio of Provenzano), and August 16 (Palio of the Assumption, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption).
- The main square in Siena, the Piazza Del Campo is prepared for the race and a ring of tuft clay is created around it. The horses run on this ring.
- Out of the 17 contrade only ten take part in the race of which seven are those that did not get the opportunity to participate in the previous race, while the other three are drawn by lots.
- The Palio takes place over a span of four days, with the actual race taking place on the fourth day. The first day is devoted to the “Tratta” where horses are allotted to the different contrade by lottery.
- The jockeys always ride bareback without any saddles.
- The prize of the race is a Drappellone or large drape, which is a large printed canvas that is designed by a different artist every year. The winning contrada displays it in their Contrada museum.
Day of the Palio
On the day of the Palio the entire city is in a visible state of excitement, and the entire day is dedicated to the event. At around 8 a.m. the “Messa del Fantino” or Mass to the Palazzo Communale is celebrated with the Bishop presiding over the ceremony. Shortly after the mass at around 10:30 a.m., the “segnatura dei fantini” takes place in the Palazzo Communale and the names of the jockeys are announced. The names cannot be substituted from that point onward.
A benediction ceremony of the horse is performed in every contrada at around 3;30 p.m. After the ceremony the horse and the jockey representing the different contrade join the large parade wearing historical costumes. The parade with over 600 participants makes its way through almost all the alleys of the city and arrives at the Piazza Del Campo at around 5:00 p.m. Shortly thereafter, an explosion of firecrackers signals the grand entry of the horses into the Piazza. As each jockey comes out, he receives a whip made of ox sinew which is used by the jockeys to both prod the horse as well as to irritate their opponents in the race.
The race starts off in an area set up on the Piazza which is delimited by two long pieces of thick rope called the Mossa. The Mossiere who presides over the entire race calls the contrade in the order in which they were drawn and ensures that the assigned positions are duly respected.
The representatives of the first nine contrade take up their assigned positions in the area between the two ropes, while the representative of the tenth contrada gallops into the area signaling the start of the race. Since rivalries run deep and there is possibly nothing worse than seeing the enemy contrada win, false starts where the jockeys don’t stick to their assigned spots are a common occurrence.
The horses have to complete three laps around the Piazza del Campo and the first horse that crosses the finish line with or without its jockey is declared the winner. The winning contrada is then bestowed with the Drappellone, and the victorious contrada members head towards the Church of Provenza (after the July race), or towards the Duomo (after the August race) to offer a prayer of thanks.
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