Palio di Siena

The Palio di Siena is the most important carousel of medieval origins in Tuscany and well known abroad.

This particular Palio Italy horse race takes place twice a year in the magical city of Siena: Palio of the Madonna of Provenzano (July 2) and Palio of the Assumption (August 16). This tradition, in the balance between play and rivalry, is very ancient. The term 'palio', in fact, derives from the Latin pallium meaning 'cape' and pointed to the frequent habit, during the medieval competitions (on horseback or not), to reward the winner with a precious fabric. In the 16th and 17th centuries it became fashionable to organise these rides astride donkeys or buffaloes (the so-called Asinate and bufalate) but, during the 18th century, the importance of the Siena Palio, of the districts and its rules made it the quintessential medieval joust, and the most appreciated.

The setting where the event takes place twice a year, in the wonderful Piazza del Campo is certainly not to be underestimated. This square is shaped like a shell and transforms itself twice a year for the most followed event in Tuscany: the Palio di Siena. The jockeys are the heroes of this tournament and are often appealed with fanciful names and linked to their physical features and based on their technical qualities. Are you amazed by their small body size? The short stature and low body weight allow them to not weigh on their horse and therefore to run faster than anyone else! 

When you arrive in Siena, you should look for an elderly person from Siena, offer them a glass and let them tell you a few funny stories about the victories, defeats and disqualifications of these undisputed protagonists of the Palio di Siena. The horses, of course, are an important element of this ancient and amazing race! It is in fact the horses, who do the most difficult task and not without danger for their integrity! The Square of the Palio di Siena, on the day of the race, changes its colours: seen from the top the centre fills like a big stain (the crowd) and the surrounding corridor where the race takes place is tinged with small dark spots (the thoroughbreds) and bright dots (colours of the districts worn by jockeys).

Before getting to the heart of the districts of the famous horse race in Siena, Italy and the way the event takes place, it is important to clarify a point: the Palio Siena is not a tourist attraction designed to draw visitors, it is instead the soul of a community. Tuscany is home to several medieval festivals, such as the Joust of the Saracen from nearby Arezzo, but the il Palio di Siena is different! This event, in fact, characterizes and defines the features of the city and the divisions among the various districts: it is an expression of tradition and values. It would be difficult to find another city so easily tied and so committed to a collective event of this kind, therefore, our advice is to not miss this show! The Palio in Siena, Italy is a unique world to discover: jockeys, horses, Contrada of Siena, festivals, victories, memorable dates, hymns and the choruses that take place. Where else is there such an occasion?

After the necessary forewords, we would like to inform you about the history of the Palio horse race in Siena. It is a medieval race and the first traces date back to the 13th century, where reference is made to horse races as well as a Palio in honour of St Boniface. In later centuries the tradition of this kind of competitions between districts continued with other events such as playing ball or bullfights, but the Palio in Siena gained more space and eventually became the central event of the area of Siena.

At the beginning of the 16th century the famous districts that still exist today were further defined. The Palio di Siena, in fact, attracted 17 district ‘families': Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (Wolf), Nicchio, Oca (Goose), Onda (the Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva, Tartuca (Tortoise) Torre e Valdimontone (Tower and Ram). Do you think that you will be able to remember these?

It is also important, in this case, to specify that it is not simple divisions during the day of the race. Each district is a reality of strong belonging headed by the Prior and guided during the day of the tournament by a Captain, followed by two or three district inhabitants of the contrade of Siena called "Mangini". Each district has its own church near the place where the treasure of the Palio Siena is guarded: memorabilia, cloth hangings (trophies) of the victories, costumes of the extras, flags, photographs, archives and documents of various kinds.

When you are among the areas of this city you will surely be able to immediately perceive the atmosphere of the district!

The Palio Siena history continues to the 17th century, when the presence of the event in the Piazza del Campo is definitely confirmed (the official date is 11 July 1605) and the characteristics and rules of the carousel are outlined. In 1656 the 2nd July was chosen as fixed event of the Siena Palio Festival race in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano Festival, however, by 1701 the 16th August for the Assumption Festival was added, thereby setting two annual races. From the 18th century Palio di Siena history has become a recurring twice-yearly event and with the celebration of the Assumption there is a strong religious feeling reflecting the mystical character of the city of Siena. The Palio Siena history includes a modern regulation enshrined in 1721, followed by a public notice for a few years issued by Violante Beatrice of Bavaria (governor of Siena). The notice served to establish the boundaries between the different districts, with the aim to stop the conflicts and fights that occurred daily in the city. In the 19th century, regulations were designed to protect the game from violence, rivalry and betrayal by its citizens or jockeys. They increased up to the anniversary of the unification of Italy in the 20th century with the establishment of a true Palio justice system. The Magistrate of the Siena Contrada can issue during the Palio di Siena sanctions of varying severity for those jockeys and districts that do not respect the laws of the race: censure, disapproval and disqualifications!

Before explaining how the history of the Palio di Siena operates and what it looks like today, it is important to explain the different districts of the Palio di Siena. As decreed since the 19th century with the border Regulation of 1729, the districts (17 of them!) are separated by territorial boundaries inside the walls of the city that divide it into small areas. At this point you can choose which district to support. Do you have any preference? Would you like to be part of the Giraffe? If you were not born in this district, there is little you can do! Belonging to a Siena Contrada is something that remains for all your life, assuming you do not want to break this ancient bond with your family! Each district has a symbol and proudly waves flags and badges during the Siena Palio! Besides these, there are colours, personal mottos, official anthems, locations and patron saints, and even a baptismal fountain. Another important feature is to have districts as allies and another as the opponent and a bitter enemy. For example, let’s take the Panther district: its image symbolizes courage, and its motto is 'The panther roared and shook the people / My momentum breaks down every obstacle', St John the Beheaded is its patron saint, the colours are red and blue, the allied districts are the Snail, the Owl, the Giraffe and the Unicorn, while its opponent is the Eagle.

We must also specify that only 10 of the 17 Siena contrada participate in the race and they are chosen for each Palio, at least 20 days before the race, through a lottery. 7 of these are selected 'by law' as they were excluded in the race of the same date the previous year, while the remaining three are drawn between those ten who had participated.

Here we will explain the preparatory stages of the Palio in Siena, Italy.

During the four days of organization and preparation for the Siena Palio events are held that herald the horse race itself. First of all, the tratta where the horses are matched to the participating districts and consequently to their jockeys. The next step is crucial as for six times, morning and afternoon, the condition of the horses and jockeys are assessed the fifth is called 'general' and the last, called provaccia, takes place in the morning the same day of the Palio.

The great and much awaited event finally arrives on the day of the Palio di Siena!

Early in the morning in the chapel of the Palazzo Comunale 'the jockey Mass' is celebrated, followed by the provaccia and the signature of the jockeys, making it impossible to replace the latter.

As for the jockeys, the Palio di Siena history is rich in legends and anecdotes about the events of these contestants: slender and of short stature, they are called with nicknames of all kinds and among the most famous and victorious is Vinegar (winner of 14 editions!), Clamp, Heartbreaker, Trecciolino, Sadness Cicciolesso, Mezz'etto, Match and many others!

Let’s get back to the day of the Palio Siena. After scoring the jockeys, a blessing of the horse then takes place, the knights and the extras of the districts begin a parade and the flag show in Piazza del Duomo. From here the colourful procession begins accompanied by musicians, up to the Piazza del Palio di Siena, where the procession ends with the outbreak of the firecracker which signals the release of the horses from the so-called Entrone and the race can start.

Each rider receives a nerbo (dried beef tendon) that serves to encourage the horse or to disturb their opponents during the race and finally they approach the starting point, where there are two lines with stretched ropes and where each participant must align. We find at this point another extraction phase in the Palio di Siena.

As per the Siena Palio tradition the order of entry is established by luck and happens thanks to a particular extraction mechanism made with balls arranged in an oval container to ensure that the order of entry is decided only by the fate.

The operation is performed three times so that the mossiere of the Siena Palio horse race can set aside two orders of departure, in case irregularities occur early in the race, for example, foul play on the part of the jockeys.

The Siena Palio horse race jockeys are distributed between the ropes in the order decided by the draw, while the tenth and final enters with the "run-up" and can, in this way, decide how and when to make their move. At this point the mossiere lowers the front rope and the race finally begins. This is the most awaited moment in which, among the agitated crowd, there is an unreal air of suspense! Sometimes it happens that the departure is invalid, so it has to be immediately interrupted by another burst of mortar. The horses stop and restart from the initial 'move' the tension builds and the expectation of the race becomes bigger and bigger amongst the Palio Siena Contrada which start to sing chorus out loud! If instead the horses are free to go, the Palio di Siena can finally take place without further interruptions. The jockeys must complete three laps in a clockwise direction and the first to arrive at the conclusion wins.

It would be correct to say that the horses are the real winners of the Palio Festival in Siena (sometimes not without great sacrifices), especially since the victory can also be done with a 'shaken' horse, i.e. without its rider (in fact, it is not uncommon and accidents of various kinds occur).

In any case, the victory is followed by a real roar of exultation of the winners and the screams of the defeat of the all the other ones. Immediately the inhabitants of the Palio Siena Contrade run to the Captain’s stage to withdraw the banner that will be treasured in the headquarters of the district. The Siena Palio celebrations include the receiving of Palio trophy, the transferral to the Church of Provenzano (in July) or the Cathedral of the Assumption (in August), the Thanksgiving and the chanting of the Te Deum in a moment of maximum spiritual and town union.

The victory lasts until the next tournament and is a continuing source of pride, enhanced with dinners and parties for the district. The district winner will later in September and October enjoy a victory dinner with decorations and tables full of all delights.

We need to just add another detail of the rivalry that characterizes the famous race of the Palio Festival in Siena. Each district has its own official opponent, according to the rules of the Palio, but when one has won the other one is automatically defeated although it has not participated in the race for reasons of extraction. Similarly, the district which comes second turns its own enemy into a winner (participant or not). This particular plot of winners and losers is an example of the principle of limited good: the health and wealth of an individual are provided only at the expense of another. Referring this rule back to the race, in order for a district to win the Palio the defeat of another district is necessary, obviously their sworn enemy!

After this explanation of the Palio di Siena do you feel ready to experience its electrifying charge of expectations and hopes of victory? If you participate in an itinerary of Tuscany a day trip to Siena to enjoy this unique medieval festival in the world is all that is needed! If you do not want to attend Mass in the early morning or the trails, you can just arrive in the afternoon! Now that you know what the Palio di Siena is you can organize and make a visit to the city to see the main monuments and enjoy a bit of its historical centre.

Bear in mind that this festival is experienced by all the citizens of Siena as a moment of collective and spontaneous union and the districts manage their own spaces. The seats in the grandstands or to watch the tournament from the balconies of the buildings adjacent to the Piazza del Palio di Siena are sold directly by the owners of shops or houses. In any case, any vantage point you choose, we strongly recommend you get there at least half an hour before the parade. If you dare, go to the centre of the square: the entrance is free and it will definitely be the most exciting race of your life. Find yourself a moment to scream along with the Siena inhabitant to incite the chosen jockey!

By Insidecom Editorial Staff

Past editions