About This Festival
For two days a year, the Palio di Siena, or Il Palio as it’s more commonly known, takes over the city of Siena with its epic horse race. While it’s more of a sporting event today, its origins are deeply religious; the July 2nd race, Palio di Provenzano, is held in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano, while the Palio dell’Assunto, on August 16th, honors the Assumption, or Ascension of Mary into Heaven. The race is often violent (in some races, more than half the riders get bucked from their horses), so it doesn’t hurt to have a little divine guidance.
Il Palio - Straight Out the Gate
The races date back to the Middle Ages, when the contrade, or districts of Italian cities, hosted public games including boxing, bullfighting, and horse racing. In the 16th century, bullfighting was outlawed and horse races took their place as entertainment. The first modern iteration of Il Palio took place in the mid-1600s, and the second race in August was added in the 1700s, likely as a side effect of the celebration of the Assumption. The event is named after the palio, or prize banner, which is displayed in a museum for days leading up to the race.
The 17 contrade of Siena are the contenders in each Palio, 10 of which are chosen each year to compete. Horse owners from around the city donate their mixed-breed horses (there are no purebreds allowed) for the race, and each one is assigned to a contrada via lottery. Horses are decorated in elaborate headgear while jockeys use whips to goad them and distract or startle others. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line—with or without its rider. The loser is the second-place horse. Jockeys are allowed to do virtually anything to their opponents and each contrade has a rival district so you can see some serious “horse play” in this event.
Even though the big race only lasts less than 2 minutes, the festivities go on for 4 days. A few days before the race the best horses are chosen in the tratta, a ritualized review of the steeds, which are matched with jockeys to ensure that only the best compete. A series of six trail races, daily at 9am and 7:45pm, take place in the 3 days that precede the main event in the Piazza de Campo. It’s worth going a few days early to feel the build-up of anticipation that grips Siena plus it’s easier to get a balcony seat during the trials.
On the day of the big race, tensions are fierce; so high that during the blessing of the horses in each of the contrade’s churches, it’s considered an omen of good fortune if the horses defecate on the church floor. At 5pm, the Corteo Storico is held in the Piazza del Campo. This is a lavish pageant where each contrada is represented by an alfieri dressed in a historically accurate medieval costume and waving their flag. The entire city is then sealed off in preparation for Il Palio, with most of the choice vantage points booked far in advance and for a lot of money (up to €1,000 for a coveted balcony seat).
The race is only 90 seconds long, and there are no rules. Jockeys are as focused on tripping up their competitors as they are on winning, which can include shoving other jockeys and diverting rival horses. It’s no coincidence that the Italians describe unsavory characters by saying, “They are like a jockey.” Whips are crafted from the skin of a bull’s penis, which is rumored to pack a potent punch.
The dramatic race only becomes more so when a winner is declared. Il Palio is all about local and national pride. The crowd gets lost in celebration, the winning contrade goes buck wild in victory and losers weep in defeat. The winning contrada receives the banner, made of hand-painted silk and hoisted vertically on a shaft. Despite the fact that the race is thoroughly secular now, the banners for each race are designed to include iconography relating to the Madonna of Provenzano and the Assumption, respectively. Exalted or depressed, everyone parties well into the night with processions, drums, dancing, shouting and plenty of wine.
Unlike many other festivals, visitors aren’t welcomed by the locals with open arms although everyone is in a “la dolce vita” spirit. In the eyes of the contrade, a foreigner can never grasp the importance and significance of this event, but you can respectfully enjoy the show—and what a show it is.