The Palio is a horse race held twice each year, on July 2 (Palio di Provenzano) and on August 16 (Palio dell’Assunta) in Siena. The backbone of Il Palio are Siena’s 17 contrade (or city wards): Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Hedgehog), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower), Valdimontone (Ram).
Over the centuries, the contrada has lost its administrative function and has become an area held together by its residents’ common emotions and devotions. In each race, only ten of the seventeen contrade participate: the seven which did not participate in the previous year’s Palio, and three others chosen by drawing lots.
Private owners offer the pick of their stables, selected during the year, from which main representatives of the participating contrade, the Capitani, choose ten of approximately equal quality, three days before the race. The luck of the draw then determines which horse will run for each contrada. Six trial races are run, the first on the evening of the horse selection and the last on the morning before the Palio
The horses are of mixed breed. No purebred horses are allowed. The night before the race, the streets are bathed with soft golden light from hundreds of torches and lanterns. Each contrada laids out rows and rows of 50-foot-long tables in its largest square, and local restauranteurs are serving up huge bowls of pasta, gigantic platters of meat and legendary sides of vegetables. Approximately 25,000 Sienese are eating in the streets that night.
Spectators arrive early in the morning, eventually filling the centre of the town square, inside the track, to capacity. The local police seal the entrances once the festivities begin in earnest. Seats ranging from simple bleachers to elaborate box seats (or window and terrace places at a private family homes) may be had for a price, but sell out long before the day of the Palio.
A magnificent pageant, the Corteo Storico, precedes the race which includes (among many others) flag-wavers, in medieval costumes. The drappellone (banner), or palio, known affectionately as “the rag” in Siena, is the trophy that is to be delivered to the contrada that wins the Palio.The palio is a piece of silk, hand-painted by an artist for the occasion.
The competition itself: ten horses and riders - at breakneck speed, bareback and dressed in the colours representing ten of the seventeen contrade - circle the Piazza del Campo (on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid) three times. The race is achingly brief, barely a minute and a half. It is not uncommon for some of the jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza and it is not unusual to see an unmounted horse win the race. The detonation of an explosive charge is the signal that the race is about to begin.
The starting line is an area between two ropes. Nine horses, in an order only decided by lot immediately before the race starts, enter the space. The tenth, the rincorsa, waits outside. When the rincorsa finally enters the space between the ropes the starter (mossiere) activates a mechanism that instantly drops the canapo (the front rope).
This process can take a very long time, as the deals made between the contrade affect the start. Sienese don’t mind: they know the jockeys are using that “wasted” time to make last-minute offers of alliance or treachery. Lip-readers are in heavy demand. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line — a horse can win without its rider. The loser in the race is considered to be the contrada whose horse came second, not last.
The Palio differs from “normal” horse races in that part of the game is for the wards to prevent rival contrade from winning. When a contrada fails to win, its historical enemy will celebrate the fact nearly as merrily as a victory of its own, regardless of whether adversarial interference was a deciding factor.
The Palio di Siena is more than a simple horse race. It is the culmination of ongoing rivalry and competition between the contrade. The lead-up and the day of the race are invested with passion and pride. Formal and informal rituals take place as the day proceeds, with each contrada navigating a strategy of alliances and animosities. Although there is great public spectacle, the passions displayed are still very real.
If you’re interested in attending the Palio, you have two basic options:
1. You can stand in the Piazza.
The advantages are that it’s free of charge and it gives you a great opportunity to mix with the locals. Since the Piazza is raked, almost anywhere you stand affords a good vantage point for most of the race. The disadvantages are that since the race track actually encloses the Piazza, the fences are closed before the pageant and it is impossible to leave until the race is completed (no restroom access).
2. You can buy a ticket for a reserved place:
- bleachers around the piazza (from euro 200 to 600)
- private window (euro 700 and up)
For information about prices or to reserve your tickets: