The PALIO di SIENA

The Palio di Siena, known locally simply as Il Palio, is a horse race that is held twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August, in Siena, Italy. Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. The Palio held on 2 July is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, a Marian devotion particular to Siena which developed around an icon from the Terzo Camollia. The Palio held on 16 August is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary.

Sometimes, in case of exceptional events or local or national anniversaries deemed relevant and pertinent ones, the city community may decide for an extraordinary Palio, run between May and September. The last two were on 9th September 2000, to celebrate the entering of the city in the new millennium and on 20th October 2018, in commemoration of the end of the Great War.

A pageant, the Corteo Storico, precedes the race, which attracts visitors and spectators from around the world.

The race itself, in which the jockeys ride bareback, circles the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of earth has been laid. The race is run for three laps of the piazza and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. It is common for a few of the jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza, and indeed, it is not unusual to see riderless horses finishing the race.

 

Origins

The earliest known antecedents of the race are medieval. The town’s central piazza was the site of public games, largely combative: pugna, a sort of many-sided boxing match or brawl; jousting; and in the 16th century, bullfights. Public races organized by the contrade were popular from the 14th century on; called palii alla lunga, they were run across the whole city.

When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in 1590, the contrade took to organizing races in the Piazza del Campo. The first such races were on buffalo-back and called bufalate; asinate, races on donkey-back, later took their place, while horse racing continued elsewhere. The first modern Palio (called palio alla tonda to distinguish it from the earlier palii alla lunga) took place in 1633.

A second Palio in August

At first, one race was held each year, on 2 July. A second, on 16 August, was added from 1701, though initially, the August race was run intermittently rather than every year. The August race (il palio dell’Assunta), which coincided with the Feast of the Assumption, was probably introduced “spontaneously” as part of the feasting and celebration associated with this important festival. August 16 was presumably chosen because the other days of the mid-August canonical festival, the 14th and 15th of the month, were already taken up respectively by the Corteo dei Ceri (Procession of the Ceri) and by the census.

The August Palio started out as an extension of the celebrations of the July Palio and was organized and funded by July’s winning contrada, though only if the contrada in question could afford it. After 1802, however, organisation and funding the August race became a central responsibility of the city, which removed annual uncertainty over whether or not an August Palio would run. It. was originated in 1581 on 15 August.

Restriction

In 1729, the city’s Munich-born governor, Violante of Bavaria, defined formal boundaries for the contrade, at the same time imposing several mergers so that the number of Sienese contrade was reduced to seventeen. This was also the year of the decree restricting to ten the number of contrade that could participate in a Palio; the restriction, which remains in force, resulted from the number and extent of accidents experienced in the preceding races.

The seventeen contrade are:

  • 600px Giallo listato di Nero e Turchino.PNG Aquila (Eagle)
  • 600px Giallo e Verde listati di Azzurro con quadrato Rosso.PNG Bruco (Caterpillar)
  • 600px Giallo e Rosso a quadri con liste turchine.PNG Chiocciola (Snail)
  • 600px Nero e Rosso incrociati listati di Bianco.PNG Civetta (Little Owl
  • 600px Rosa Antico e Verde con cornice gialla.PNG Drago (Dragon)
  • 600px Bianco listato di Rosso.PNG Giraffa (Giraffe)
  • 600px Bianco listato di Nero Turchino e Rosso.PNG Istrice (Crested Porcupine)
  • 600px Bianco e Arancio listati di Turchino.PNG Leocorno (Unicorn)
  • 600px Bianco e Nero listati di Arancione.png Lupa (She-Wolf)
  • 600px Blu listato di Rosso e Bianco.PNG Nicchio (Seashell)
  • 600px Verde listato di Bianco e Rosso con Cerchio Giallo in mezzo.PNG Oca (Goose)
  • 600px Bianco e Celeste a Quadri.PNG Onda (Wave)
  • 600px Blu e Rosso incrociati listati di Bianco.PNG Pantera (Panther)
  • 600px Verde e Arancione listati di Bianco.PNG Selva (Forest)
  • 600px Giallo e Azzurro Linee Diagonali.PNG Tartuca (Tortoise)
  • 600px Rosso listato di Bianco e Azzurro.PNG Torre (Tower)
  • 600px Giallo e Rosso listato di Bianco Linee Orizzontali.png Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) often shortened to Montone

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.

The race today

The first race (Palio di Provenzano) is held on 2 July, which is both the Feast of the Visitation and the date of a local festival in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano (a painting once owned by the Sienese leader Provenzano Salvani, which was supposed to have miraculous curative power). The second race is held on 16 August (Palio dell’Assunta), the day after the Feast of the Assumption, and is likewise dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After exceptional events (e.g., the Apollo 11 moon landing) and on important anniversaries (e.g., the centennial of the Unification of Italy), the Sienese community may decide to hold a third Palio between May and September. The most recent was in 2018 to celebrate the end of WWI.

The field consists of ten horses, so not all seventeen contrade can take part in the Palio on any occasion. The seven contrade that did not take part in that month of the previous year are automatically included; three more are chosen by draw (twice a year, in the last days of May and at the beginning of July). Private owners (among them, some jockeys) offer the pick of their stables, selected during the year after trial races, other Palio races in Italy and veterinary examination, from which main representatives of the participating contrade, the Capitani, choose ten of approximately equal quality, three days before the race. A lottery 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. Corruption (bribery) is commonplace, prompting the residents of each contrada, known as contradaioli, to keep a close watch on their stable and their rider. The horses are of mixed breed; no purebred horses are allowed.

The carroccio of Siena during the Corteo Storico procession preceding the Palio of August 2006

The race is preceded by a spectacular pageant, the Corteo Storico, which includes (among many others) Alfieri, flag wavers, in medieval costumes. Just before the pageant, a squad of carabinieri on horseback, wielding swords, demonstrate a mounted charge around the track. They take one lap at a walk, in formation, and a second at a gallop that foreshadows the excitement of the race to come, before exiting down one of the streets that leads out of Piazza del Campo. 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 may be had for a price, but sell out long before the day of the race.

At 7:30 p.m. for the July race, and 7 p.m. for the August race, the detonation of an explosive charge echoes across the piazza, signaling to the thousands of onlookers that the race is about to begin. The race itself runs for three laps of the Piazza del Campo, the perimeter of which is covered with several inches of dirt and tuff (imported and laid for the occasion at great expense to the city) and the corners of which are protected with padded crash barriers for the occasion. The jockeys ride the horses bareback from the starting line, 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 (the mossa) can take a very long time, as deals have usually been made between various contrade and jockeys that affect when the rincorsa moves – he may be waiting for a particular other horse to be well- or badly-placed, for example.

View of the Piazza del Campo, where the Palio is run

On the dangerous, steeply canted track, the riders are allowed to use their whips (in Italian, nerbi, stretched, dried bulls’ hide) not only for their own horse, but also for disturbing other horses and riders. The Palio in fact is won by the horse who represents his contrada, and not by the jockeys. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line—a horse can win without its rider (a condition known as cavallo scosso). A horse can also win without its decorative headgear (spennacchiera), although the opposite belief is widely held even among the Sienese. The loser in the race is considered to be the contrada whose horse came second, not last.

The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of rival contrade.

There may be some danger to spectators from the sheer number of people in attendance. There have also been complaints about mistreatment of horses, injuries and even deaths, especially from animal-rights associations and even from some veterinarian. In the Palio held on 16 August 2004, the horse for the contrada of Bruco (the Caterpillar) fell and was badly trampled, as the race was not stopped despite possible additional safety risks for other horses. The horse died of its injuries, raising further complaints from animal-rights organizations.

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 that fact nearly as merrily as a victory of its own, regardless of whether adversarial interference was a deciding factor. Few things are forbidden to the jockeys during the race; for instance, they can pull or shove their fellows, hit the horses and each other, or try to hamper other horses at the start.

The most successful ward is Oca, the Goose, which has won 63 races (at least according to their records, which start from 1644), followed by Chiocciola, the Snail, with 51, and Tartuca, the Tortoise, with 46. Oca is also the contrada with the most wins in recent history (from 1900 to 2010) with 21 victories, followed by Selva, the Forest, with 18, and Drago, the Dragon, with 17.

Among jockeys, the most victorious of all time is Andrea Degortes, nicknamed Aceto (‘Vinegar’), with 14 wins (from 1964 to 1996). Angelo Meloni, nicknamed Picino (active from 1897 to 1933) has the second in the number of wins with 13 successes, and Luigi Bruschelli, nicknamed Trecciolino (still active), has the third most of 12 wins (although he claims 13 victories, his horse won without him one year).

The most successful horses were Folco and Panezio with eight wins each, followed by Topolone with seven.

In recent history (from 1900 to the present), only three wards have succeeded in winning both the July and the August races in a single year (the term in Italian is fare cappotto) with the same jockey. Tartuca (the Tortoise) accomplished the feat in 1933 with jockey Fernando Leoni (nicknamed “Ganascia”) on Folco. In 1997, Giraffa (the Giraffe) won both races, with jockey Giuseppe Pes, nicknamed Il Pesse. In 2016, jockey Jonatan Bartoletti, on the mount “Preziosa Penelope”, won both the July and August races for Lupa (the She-wolf).