Siena. Il Palio.

As the horses and bare-back riders line up against the starting rope in Piazza del Campo, you can almost taste the anxiety, agitation and adrenaline, rising up from the 40,000-strong crowd. The last few weeks, months and years of planning have all led to this moment. And the next one and half minutes will decide the happiness of one of Siena’s contrade for the year to come and even beyond. This is the legendary Palio di Siena horse race and it’s a spectacle not to be missed!

Horses racing in the Palio dell'Assunta, Siena 2010

Horses racing in the Palio dell’Assunta, Siena 2010

The Palio is a piece of living history. The tradition of horse racing in Italy goes back to Ancient Roman days when a pallium, or precious piece of material, was awarded to the winner. In medieval times, the Senese people held races called palii alla lunga through the city streets, with the winner being the first bull to reach the Piazza del Campo. But these races were dangerous and were eventually outlawed along with bullfighting so the con trade, or districts of Siena, started organising donkey and buffalo races in the Piazza del Campo instead. The modern Palio horse race, or palio alla tonda, can be traced back through records to 1656 but probably goes back further and is organised by the Senese people for the Senese people. The Palio is at the very heart of this wonderful medieval city and its people, both physically and spiritually.

The official green and red poster for the Palio di Siena in 2010 showing a man in medieval costume riding through the streets on a horse and carrying the large black and white flag of Siena

The official poster for the Palio di Siena 2010

Two Palios or Palii are run each year in the city’s main square, the Campo, and both are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the co-patron of Siena. The first, Il Palio della Madonna di Provenzano, is held on July 2nd at 7.30pm and is named after the Madonna della Provenzano Church. The second, Il Palio dell’Assunta, is held on August 16th at 7pm and is named to honour the Assumption of Mary, also celebrated as Ferragosto, which takes place on August 15th. Third Palii can also, occasionally, be held to celebrate special events such as the landing on the moon or the end of the millennium but these are rare.

And although the day of the Palio is undoubtedly the most important in the Senese calendar, this isn’t just about the horse race. The Palio is a competition of courage between the contrade. It is an act of ritualized warfare as contrade battle it out to settle old scores in the Campo. And the battle starts almost immediately after the end of celebrations for the last race. Behind the scenes, meetings are taking place between the heads of the contrade. Stables can put their horses forward for consideration in the next Palio. Jockeys are back in training for the big day and a new Palio banner must be designed and made.

Each summer Sunday a contrada or district will parade around the city with drummers and flag bearers all in medieval costume

Each summer Sunday one contrada or district will parade around the city with drummers and flag bearers all in medieval costume

As winter turns to spring and the days lengthen, the first visible signs of the preparations are seen as the Sunday parades start. Each of the city’s 17 contrade has the right to parade through the city with its bandieri, or flag bearers, tambouri, or drummers and contradaioli, or members, and each has its own designated Sunday between May and September. Parading starts in the morning and goes on all day with stops for refreshment or a little bit of gentle grandstanding in a rivals contrada, often outside their chapel. Drumming pulsates through the narrow streets and alleys all day, like the city’s heartbeat. And contradaioli hymns rise up through the air, with the same tune for all but different lyrics celebrating each contrada’s courage and conquests and teasing their enemies’ faults and failures.

The next generation of contradaioli members parade through the streets all wearing their contrada scarf and singing the contrada hymns

The next generation of contradaioli members parade through the streets all wearing their contrada scarf and singing the contrada hymns

And whilst the contrade parade and the tempo picks up pace, a local or international artist is appointed by the city to design and make the drappellone, or Palio banner. Each one is a unique of artwork made from a piece of hand-painted Florentine silk made especially for the Palio and measuring 80cm by 250cm. The process that the artist follows is rigid and can take 2-3 months to complete. Each banner must include specific sacred symbols such the Madonna together with the insignia of the city, the terzi or thirds of the city and all 10 competing contrade although the style is the artist’s own choice.

Appointment to make a Palio is a huge honour, as chiocciolina (member of the Snail contrada) Cecilia Rigacci, who painted the banner for the August 2013 Palio dell’Assunta, explained recently in this interview with fellow blogger Sarah Mastroianni. The finished Palio is presented to the city at a press conference in the Podestà courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico, or City Hall, around a week before the horse race.

The Palio or banner for the Palio dell'Assunta, Siena, August 2010

The Palio or banner for the Palio dell’Assunta, Siena, August 2010

Meanwhile, on the last Sunday in May (or no later than the second Sunday in July for the August Palio) of the 10 contrade that will race in the July Palio are chosen. The 7 that didn’t take part in the last July (or August) Palio have automatic entry and are joined by a further 3 by lottery. This is an especially important moment as the contrada that have been the longest without victory, nicknamed the nonna or grandmother, looks forward to the chance to seize victory and overturn past disappointments.

The tempo rises further as each contrada decorates its streets in flags and chandeliers each showing their crest or insignia as the passion, pride and pea cocking build. Work to lay the thick, specially imported sand and turf track in the Campo begins with around a week to go. And around this time the jockeys finally commit to a contrada after months of discussions and negotiations over wages which can amount to several hundred thousand Euros. So whilst bare-back riding can be dangerous the reward for the best riders is generous.

The Oca, goose, contrada's horse is led quietly into the Piazza del Campo by its stableman

The Oca, goose, contrada’s horse is led quietly into the Piazza del Campo by its stableman

And then, finally 4 days before the race itself, the official festival begins as the horses are assigned to the 10 contrade at midday. The formal ceremony involves the picking of a numbered ball from each of two tombolas – one designates the horse, the other the contrada. And it’s a fraught moment as contrade already have preferences for which horses they’d prefer having seen them training in the weeks up to the draw. When a contrada gets a good horse, you really know about it as the contradaioli swarm around to proudly parade it off to the contrada stable singing at the top of their voices all the way. The contrast, when a contrada gets a less-favoured horse, is stark as the animal is paraded off with subdued singing or even silence as rivals whistle in mockery.

That same evening the jockeys get their first opportunity to test out their horses in the Campo as the first of 6 trials takes place to accustom the animal to the track, jockey, Campo and thunderous noise of the crowd. The trials, or Prove, take place at 9am and 7.30pm (7pm for August) for the next couple of days, are open to anyone. They are a great opportunity to get a feel for the atmosphere on the actual day too as the crowd grows successively at each prova until the 5th one, the Prova Generale, on the evening before the Palio. It draws a crowd of at least 20,000 contradaioli and tourists and is almost as busy as the day itself – the atmosphere is friendly but competitive!

Photo of the ceremony to bless the contradas in Siena's black and white Duomo, August 2010

The blessing of the contradas in the Duomo, August 2010

As the sun finally dips behind the horizon for the last time before the Palio, the city streets ring out to the drumbeats of the competing contrade parading to the Chiesa della Madonna della Provenzano in July (or the Duomo in August) for a celebratory mass and blessing. The evening brings a final dinner for the jockey in each contrada as contradaioli throughout the city eat, drink and sing into the night.

Contradas parade out of the Duomo after the blessing ceremony, their flags held aloft to the sound of drummers

Contradas parade out of the Duomo after the blessing ceremony, their flags held aloft to the sound of drummers

On the morning of the Palio, the jockeys have an early start with their own Massa del Fantino, or Jockeys Mass, at the Chapel of Piazza del Campo next to the Palazzo Pubblico city hall. The final prova is run and then everyone returns to their contrada to prepare.

The tension is palpable. Contradaioli who haven’t taken the whole day off are often visibly nervous and unable to fully concentrate. Within the contrada, streets are gated off to prevent access to the temporary stables that house the horses and also to combat meddling or doping by rivals. In fact the contrade are so worried about tampering that the stableman usually sleeps in the stable with the horse for the 3 nights before the Palio! Tourists are politely reminded not to try to get near the stables once the horses are in place or you could be unceremoniously thrown out and subjected to a rather choice onslaught of curses!!

The final ceremonial duty of the contrada is the benedizione di cavallo e del fantino, or blessing of the horse and jockey, at the contrada chapel. If you are lucky enough to be invited to the blessing or to see it, please bear in mind that this is a sacred moment for the contrada and contradaioli so absolute silence is required and photography is completely forbidden in case you spook the horse. If the horse should get a little nervous and choose to leave its “calling card” on the chapel floor, however, this is deemed extremely lucky!!

And so as the final secret pacts for the win are sealed between allies against their rivals the city begins to congregate in the shell-shaped Campo. Or at the nearest bar with beer and a video screen! The wait is a tense, nervy one.

The Campo gradually begins to fill from 3pm onwards as up to 40,000 contradaioli and tourists, or the equivalent of more than two thirds of the city’s population, jostle for the best spot along the barricades. The Campo is gated off from 4pm with the only entrance open being Via Dupre to the right of the Palazzo Pubblico. Tightly packed crowds heave into the Piazza. The fortunate ones have ticketed seats on the bleachers set up around the outside of the racecourse. They will have paid anything from €150 to €400 for the priviledge of a view over the entire Campo, much more if viewing from one of the palazzi windows.

Contradaioli battle for the prime position on the barricades to get the best view of the horses

Contradaioli battle for prime position on the barricades campo

The less fortunate ones, without tickets, head for the centre of the Campo, or the “field of dogs” which is free to anyone who is prepared to stand in the full heat of the day for up to 5 hours without access to a toilet and little food or water. Once everyone is in, the Campo is then locked until the Palio has been run!

The atmosphere in the Campo by this point is electric. Its like the Super Bowl, multiplied by a One Direction concert multiplied by a World Cup Final multiplied by a New Year’s Eve party and then some. You get the idea! The air is thick with adrenaline, cigarette smoke and sweat as the scarf-wearing contradaioli trade jokes, jibes and insults across the sandy track. The language of some of them is rather colourful to say the least but thankfully often in dialect!!

At 4.30pm (5pm in August) the Corteo Storico or Historic Parade, which has been wending its way through the streets of the city, reaches the Piazza del Campo opening with a flourish as horsebacked Carabinieri cavalrymen gallop round in formation whilst rattling their sabres.

Photo of the horseback cavalry arrives and circuits the race track at a gallop

The cavalry arrives in the Campo

The contradas then slowly proceses into and around the Campo. 2 flag bearers and a drummer lead each horse, followed by the jockey and contrada head dressed in fearsome medieval military armour. Even the old, now defunct contrade process around before the Palio officials and then finally, 2 hours later, the Palio banner is brought in on the back of the ceremonial cart, or carroccio, drawn by 4 enormous oxen which tower over their handlers.

The Palio banner is processed into the Campo atop the carroccio cart drawn by 4 enormous white oxen

The Palio banner is processed into the Campo atop the carroccio cart drawn by 4 enormous white oxen

As the track is swept and smoothed in preparation for the race, the horses and their jockeys take refuge from the sun’s heat in the Podestà courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico. The horses have been bred for this moment but great care is taken to ensure that they are not too stressed by it.

Anglo-Arab mix bay horses with solid feet and legs, a fiery temperament and a predisposition for speed and stamina are a good fit for the Palio’s challenges. In the months preceding the race the animals are trained and stabled outside the city with regular checks by vets. Once inside the Podestà, they are checked again on race day by official vetinarians to ensure that they are fit and healthy to run. The jockeys are also checked to ensure that they are not under the influence of alcohol!

The racehorses are brought into the Campo by their stablemen

The racehorses are brought into the Campo by their stablemen

Meanwhile the course is checked to ensure its dry and not too slippery to race whilst tiny vans pull huge rakes around the course to smooth out the surface after the parade. (Even at this late stage a Palio can be postponed to another day if the course is deemed dangerous for the horses due to rain or excess water.)

A 16m rope, held taught with 80kg weights to stop the horses crossing it early, is simultaneously being strung across the course.

The starting line ropes and weights are brought into the Campo

The starting line ropes and weights are brought into the Campo

And behind the scenes, up in a wood balcony built across one corner of the Campo, the heads of the competing contrade draw lots to decide the order in which the horses will line up at the starting line with the first horse lining up against the central barricade, 8 more lining up to its left towards the edge of the course and the final 10th horse behind a second rope at the back.

The canon fires signalling the start of the Palio

The canon fires signalling the start of the Palio

At last, as a canon bellows out across the Campo, the moment has arrived to bring the horses out into the early evening sunshine. Animal welfare activists are strongly against the Palio and argue that this is an extremely stressful environment for the horses. Certainly the animals’ body language of pricked ears, high prancing and flared nostrils does seem to betray nerves but the jockeys gently steer their charges round to the starting rope, the canapo, with few refusals. Finally the Campo goes quiet and still as the crowd holds its breath.

The racehorses gradually take up their positions up against the starting rope

The racehorses gradually take up their positions up against the starting rope

The 9 horses gradually take their turn to line up against the first rope as jockeys use the last few minutes to garner advantage. At this point anything is allowed including pushing, shoving, punching and kicking with the aim being to put off or unsettle your oponents enough to give you a millisecond’s advantage at the canon. The 10th horse, or rincorsa, is held back behind a second rope until everyone is ready.

The process, the dance of the mossa bringing the horses to the starting rope, withdrawing, regrouping and starting again, can take 20-30 minutes as deals may also have been done between contrade and jockeys to influence when the rincorsa or 10th horse will move – he may be waiting for a particular horse to be well or badly placed, for example. In extreme cases, if the Palio cannot be started within an hour, the referree has the option of postponing the Palio to another day to avoid stressing the horses too much. Normally, however, once the referee decides that the 9 horses are ready and the 10th horse finally crosses the rear line, the starter, or mossiere, activates the mechanism which simultaneously drops the rope, sounds the canon and starts the race.

And they’re off!

They're off - the racehorses gallop around the Campo for the first lap!

They’re off – the racehorses gallop around the Campo for the first lap!

The horses gallop, manes and tails trailing, around the Campo as the silk pyjama-style liveries of the bare-back jockeys, in the colours of their contrade, flap in the wind. Race officials frantically clear the starting rope from the course just in time for the horses to complete the first circuit. It takes just 30 seconds or sometimes even less!

The entire race consists of 3 circuits as the Campo reverberates to the cacophony of shouts, screams and supplications from the contradaioli, willing their horses and riders on to victory. By the second lap the field has begun to spread as veteran jockeys use their skill to urge horses on along with their whips made from the stretched, dried skin of a bull’s “pride and joy”. And all the time vets and paramedics are on stand-by around the edge of the course in the rare event of accident to either horse, rider or spectator.

Dried Palio whips made from the skin of a bull's penis! Ouch!

Palio whips made from the dried and stretched skin of a bull’s penis! Ouch!

By the third and final rotation, the noise is deafening as the winning horse crosses the finish line in around 80-90 seconds to the sound of a second canon fires 3 times signalling the end of the race. And as long as the horse is still wearing its colours on its forehead, it can win with or without its rider.

Within seconds contradaioli have leapt the barriers to swarm the winner and congratulate the horse and rider, assuming he’s still seated! Men clamber up the wooden balcony to claim the Palio banner and the winners process off to the Church of the Madonna della Provenzano (or Duomo) to give Te Deum thanks before heading for their own contrada chapel for a private thanksgiving.

And unlike other races, the loser of the Palio is the contrada whose horse came second, not last. But within minutes of the final cannon an army of roadsweepers is out clearing the days detritus and within half an hour, the Campo is pristine again!

A team of city street sweepers cleans the Piazza del Campo in just a few minutes

A team of city street sweepers cleans the Piazza del Campo in just a few minutes

The day closes to the sound of drums and singing again as the street lights of the losing contrade are switched off and the winners parade the Palio round with huge pride. Winning contradaioli are also often spotted sucking on flashing dummies that signify their re-birth from mother Siena. The celebrations go on into the night and continue for weeks to come with the final celebratory dinner taking place in late August or even September.

The winning contrada parades the silk Palio banner around the city streets all through the evening, singing all the way

The winning contrada parades the silk Palio banner around the city streets all through the evening, singing all the way

So as, the Palio dell’Assunta 2014 drew to a close for another year and the horses headed off to the peace of the pastures around the city, plans for the 2015 Palii started again in earnest. For some horses, 2015 will bring another Palio, for others the start of a long retirement. For the contradaioli 2015 will offer another chance to settle centuries-old feuds and be reborn. And for us tourists, travellers and part time supporters, 2015 will bring the chance to witness another Palio full of excitement, tension, courage, passion, battle, stress, competition, tears, tantrums and ultimately victory! Leave me a comment if you’ve ever been or plan to go one day! I, for one, can’t think of a better way to pass a sultry summer’s evening, nestled in the beautiful scoop of the Piazza del Campo atop the hills of Siena. I’ll see you there!

Drummers drumming

Drummers drumming

Useful information

Palio della Madonna di Provenzano – 2nd July

Palio dell’Assunta – 16th August

Schedule of the Palii

TV coverage – Rai2 transmit live from the Palio from 6pm in both July and August.

Tickets can be booked via various agencies including 2Be Siena here 

Film & Book – A new film and book about the Palio are to be released in Autumn 2015 – more details here

Tips for attending the Palio

  • Wear the contrada fazzoletto or scarf with respect around the neck, across the shoulders not on wrists, bags or anywhere else!
  • Don’t trespass into the contrade during dinners unless you have an invitation or ticket
  • Don’t trespass into the contrade centres, ie into the gated areas, once the horses are stabled there
  • Be quiet and don’t take pictures in the contrada chapel or Duomo during the blessing of the horse
  • Take a bottle of water and fan with you to the Campo, you will need it!
  • Join in to cheer on your chosen contrada
  • And enjoy yourselves!!!

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12 Responses to Siena. Il Palio.

  1. The Palio is definitely on my bucket list!

    • lizbert1 says:

      Fabulous!! I’d recommend going to Siena a few days before the race, maybe in time for the assignment of the horses to the contrade so you get the full build up! Its worth it and adds to the atmosphere so that by the time it get to the Palio itself you’re just as bought into the win as the contradaioli!! Have fun!! :o) PS Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Fishink says:

    Such a vibrant spectacle. Love the crowd shots with all their different colours on. Looks like you had another fab day.

  3. lizbert1 says:

    Thanks Craig! It was one of the most exhilarating (sp??) days ever and I hope to go back again one day! Even now watching the video takes me back to the moment (which was actually 4 years ago) and brings back all the excitement! I watched yesterday’s Palio on TV and it was just as exciting and thankfully it looks like all the horses were happy and healthy at the end so all ended well for another year. I’ll add the photos to our slide show……!!!! ;o)

  4. Francis says:

    I loved your account of the Palio.

  5. Reblogged this on Sassi Italy Tours and commented:
    Check out this detailed account of the Sienese Palio! Sounds like a thrill.

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