The Palio of Siena

Posted on December 17, 2012


The Italian city of Siena dates all the way back to the Etruscans and its historic centre as been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Essential to the identity of Siena is the traditional horse race, the Palio that dates back to the 15th century. Ten of the seventeen Contrade into which the city is divided, are drawn to participate in this annual race round the Piazza del Campo. Not only is the Palio a great manifestation of identity, it is also the greatest symbol of rivalry between the seventeen Contrade. The races take place twice a year, 2nd July and 16th August and are preceded by long celebrations, especially when the horse and jockey are blessed by the churches of the various Contrades. On July 2nd is called Palio di Provenzano as it is both the Feast of Visitation and the time for the local festival dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano. All the contrado flags and the race itself receive blessing in the Church of Santa
Maria del Provenzano.
This ceremony is held in the cathedral on August 16th, the date for the second race called Palio dell’Assunta, the same date for the Feast of Assumption and is held in honour of Virgin Mary.
Before the actual race, there is a historical parade where the participants are dressed in
medieval/renaissance clothing in a particular order governed by their official position. After the parade the flag bearers of the Contrados perform in what is called Gioco delle Bandiere and when this is done, the horses and riders finally enter for the race.
It is a great build-up for a short finale: the three laps round the piazza for the bare backed riders rarely last longer than 90 seconds. The race itself can be violent and many riders get thrown off their horses, especially in the awesome curve of Casato.
Recently there has been a change of the Palio rules following a government decision,
including restriction on the use of the whips and anti-drugs and doping controls for both
horse and rider. Still, animal rights activists do not think that the changes are enough and call out for a total ban on the Palios, not only in Siena but in the whole of Italy.
The winners of 2009 were the Tartuca on July 2nd and the Civetta on August 16th.
You can catch many of races on youtube.
For those of you who are further interested in the Palio of Siena, I can highly recommend the 2004 documentary “Last Victory” by John Appel.
Note: The seventeen contrado include: The seventeen are: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco
(Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Little Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Crested porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (Female Wolf), Nicchio (Seashell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Black Panther), Selva (Forest),
Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower) and Valdimontone (literally, “Valley of the Ram” – often shortened to Montone).