“For more than half an hour, the lawyer Maggioni looked out his window and saw that the procession, which commenced the traditional Palio of Siena, was still flowing slowly by.” This excerpt comes from the novel “The Palio of Dead Riders” by the well-known literary duo Fruttero and Lucentini. It’s a fast-paced story of passion and pride, history and struggle, victory and defeat. Why do I bring this up? The Palio, the legendary horse race, takes place twice a year in the Italian city of Siena. The town in Tuscany may be small, but it possesses a radiance that extends far beyond the Italian holiday region. In this blog post, I’ll tell you everything about the traditional event that takes place on July 2nd and August 16th within the city walls of Siena.
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The Palio is more than just a horse race
I already knew that the Italians were passionate football fans, sticking with their favourite clubs through thick and thin. The citizens of Siena, however, raise the bar when it comes to local patriotism and club loyalty. Siena is divided into 17 contrade, or districts, representing all the citizens. The Palio on the historic Piazza del Campo is unlike any other horse race. If you have images of the British Ascot races in your head, get rid of the well-groomed track and crazy hats. In Siena, the Palio is wild, loud, cramped, and above all a phenomenal experience that everyone should try on a Tuscan holiday.
Four days before the big event, Piazza del Campo is transformed into an arena. The square is at the heart of the Tuscan city and the venue for the horse race. Yes, you read that correctly: Ten riders on horseback barrel down a 300-metre-long, 7.5-metre-wide race track around the square. Tribunes are erected round the city for the spectators, the square is covered with sand, and the whole city is decorated with the flags and pennants of the contrade. The anticipation of the Sienese people is palpable. In front of the trattorias, long tables and benches are set up in every narrow street, where guests can sit, celebrate, and enjoy a glass of Tuscan wine. Would this be when the first bets are taken for which contrada will win? Actually, you shouldn’t bet on the Palio horse race, as tradition states that it brings bad luck. Instead, the horses are blessed before the race. The Palio Festival is, after all, dedicated to the patron saint of the city, the Virgin Mary.
The Contrade of Siena
United by the colours, separated by the colours – that’s probably the best way to describe the atmosphere at the Palio. It begins with the solemn entry of the contrade into the arena: first comes the flag and then the racehorse representing the contrada. Finally, the rider follows on another horse, which is only used for parading. After the contrade, a flag-wagon is driven in with the eponymous Palio (from the Latin “pallium“, meaning “cloth”, “cloak”, and then later “flag” or “banner”). The Palio is redesigned every year and handed over to the winner of the race. Not every contrada has a chance for victory: Of the 17 total contrade, only 10 participate in the race: the seven who had to sit out the year before, plus three others. However, the two races in July and August are separate, and contrade may participate in both races.
Victory celebration or bitter disgrace?
The contrade also need luck with their racehorses. An independent committee selects the ten best horses from a pool of sixty after watching them in previous races. Which horse goes to which contrada is pure luck, a fair method since poorer districts will receive a great horse that they might not otherwise be able to afford. But the Palio isn’t about money; it’s about fame and honour. Oftentimes, a team’s own victory comes secondary to ensuring that the rival contrada doesn’t win. The jockeys are also independent of the contrade – they come from all over Italy to participate in the race. They’re aware of the risks they’re taking on: the “fantini” (the riders) can try to slow each other down by sideswiping during the race. Riders can fall from their horses, which can be painful, but it doesn’t disqualify the team. A horse can still win without its rider, so long as it still has the diadem of the contrada on its forehead when it crosses the finish line. The only thing that would immediately disqualify a horse would be losing the diadem.
100 Seconds of Adrenaline at the Sienese Horse Race
The race itself is short. In front of the medieval backdrop of Siena’s old town, there are three laps around the Piazza del Campo. From the shot that signals the start of the race to the tenth horse crossing the finish line, the whole thing takes about 100 seconds. The clamorous beat of hooves is only drowned out by the screaming crowd of spectators cheering on their riders. Soon after, a roar goes up – there’s a winner. Siena goes into a joyous frenzy, a celebration that goes on for several weeks. Pennants and flags are swung proudly and the Palio is handed over. Whoever ends up in second place suffers the most shame, because this ranking is traditionally worse than last place. Until the next race, that is.
The Palio horse race is definitely one of Tuscany’s secrets and it’s truly a cultural event. If you’re already planning a summer holiday in the holiday region of Tuscany, you should definitely not miss this. Until then, I recommend reading up on the region and I’ll see you this summer in Italy – if not in Siena, then maybe on the Amalfi coast.