The “Palio di Siena”

The famous horse race of Siena, called Palio di Siena, is a very important and heart-felt event, it is not just a mere historical commemoration, but it is an integral part of the people of this city, since the contrada (the city district) is like a larger family, and the contradaioli (the district’s members) are primarily friends.

The Palio is run twice a year: the first one, which takes place on July 2, is called Palio di Santa Maria in Provenzano (“Palio of Saint Mary in Provenzano”), a church in Siena on whose main altar is a bust of the Virgin Mary, that, based on a legend, has no arms.

The second Palio is run on August 16, the day after the feast of the Assumption of Mary, and therefore named Palio dell’Assunta (“Palio of the Assumption”).

The name “Palio” comes from “drappellone” (“drape, banner”), also known as “cencio” (“rag”), which is a finely worked piece of silk, the prize of the competition. It is presented one month before the race, and it is the artwork of great artists: a Sienese artist is called to paint the drappellone for the July Palio, and the subject must be the Madonna di Provenzano; while for the August Palio, it is an international artist that has to represent the iconography of the Assumption; among them some famous names of the past: Botero and Guttuso.

The designing of the Palio is a very important task, so important that the day after its delivery to the winner, it is already time to prepare the one for the next year, and the winning contrada, preserves and displays it in its own museum.

The Palio di Siena counts innumerable games and races among its ancestors, that, since 1300, took place within the city walls. In 1597 the first Palio “alla tonda” (round race) was run, during which the jockeys, riding their horses, had to run three laps around the Piazza del Campo (the square); the July Palio, instead, dates back to 1656. Since 1701 two Palio were run in August: one on the 15th, called “alla lunga” (long race), without jockeys, starting from outside the walls and running across the city streets; the other one on the 16th, called “alla tonda” (round race), around the square. During the years of the Napoleonic occupation, the race of the 15th was suspended, and never restored.

In the Palio races are the contrade, namely the districts in which the city is divided, that are competing against each other, driven and supported by a deep sense of belonging, besides a strong sense of competition. The contrade were born in the Renaissance, when they were 80, and only in 1729 became the actual 17. Each contrada is actually a little state in itself, with its own laws and statutes; it is held by a Seggio (office, post) whose head is the Priore (Prior), and it includes a Capitano (Captain) who, together with two other members of the district called mangini or tenenti (lieutenants), is in charge of the organization of the race. Every contrada has also its own church or oratory, where the blessing of the horse is celebrated on the day of the race; it has its seat and museum, where the most important memorabilia is preserved, like the gained Palios, the flags and the archive.

In every Palio the competing contrade are 10; horses are assigned to them through a lottery, and jockeys are very often professionals, rarely from Siena, but most of the times from other Italian regions, like Sardinia and Lazio. In the days before the Palio, as on the same day, many events and ceremonies take place in the city: some of them are actual rituals, as the choice and assignment of the horses, or the Holy Mass, and the blessings; some others are more goliardic, as the districts’ dinners. Of course, the most important, tension-filled moment is when the real “joust” begins.

The horses enter following a random order determined by a lottery, and they are lined up behind the Canape (a rope) on the Mossa (lit. “move”), which is the starting point, while the last one enters “di rincorsa” (“run-up”), beginning in fact the race. The mossiere (the man in charge of the Mossa, the start of the race) is the only judge who can determine if the start is valid, and in this case it is signaled by a drum roll, otherwise a firecracker is shot.

Horses must run three laps of the square, in total 1 km more or less, and the jockeys are allowed to disturb each other, but without holding. A horse can win even if “scosso”, which means without rider; the winning contrada is awarded the Drappellone, and his first move is to go to thank the Virgin Mary, either in the church of Santa Maria in Provenzano, for the Palio on July 2, or in the Cathedral, for that on August 16. Evening continues with celebrations and festivities through the streets of the district.

The Palio, however, is not limited to the two days of preparations and “jousts”: it is rather a membership, therefore something that is always present, affecting the life of the district’s inhabitants all year long, and that simply becomes more visible in these two days, gaining a major resonance.