Palio of Siena
The Palio of Siena is one of Italy’s most famous and ancient events. Held twice a year in the beautiful Tuscan city of Siena, it attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world. Over time, the Palio has become a symbol of Italian culture and history, representing the pride of the districts of Siena and their passion of recreating, each year, this ancient tradition of timeless appeal.
What is the Palio of Siena?
The Palio of Siena is an event steeped in history and rooted in the city’s social fabric. The districts and Palio boast a centuries-old history, with the earliest records of their existence dating back to 1239 and containing references to the “Palio Alla Lunga” (horse races in the streets of the city).
Horse races through the streets have been popular since ancient times, but it’s not until 1633 that we find the first written record of the districts challenging one another in the Palio held in Piazza del Campo. Until 1700, the race only took place in July. From this date onwards, the Palio was also held in August.
History of the Palio of Siena
Today, the Palio of Siena is a strong moment of aggregation for the city. But how did this event come to exist? Siena’s national holiday used to be celebrated with a horse race in honour of the Virgin of the Assumption – venerated as the city’s patron saint. Celebrations culminated with the Palio, held on 15 August, after a ceremonial offering of candles to the Madonna on behalf of the cities and castles loyal to the Republic of Siena. (The ceremonial procession of candles still continues today).
As far back as the 13th century, there is evidence of a horse race being held in Siena, and documents dating from before the 12th century mention a “Palio of San Bonifazio”, the titular saint of the ancient cathedral that stood in Castelvecchio before the current one was built.
Later, when Siena became one of the richest cities in Europe during the Middle Ages, the Palio became a recreational event and the closing moment of the annual festivities in honour of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Siena and its Republic. The pivotal events in these celebrations was the ceremonial offering of candles and census inside the Cathedral, a rite of both religious and political significance, performed as an act of devotion to the Madonna of the city and of subservience to Siena’s rulers.
The final and official regulation of the Palio was issued on 17 May 1721 by the College of the Balia. On that occasion, various aspects of the event were regulated, such as the times, the number of prizes for the winners and the registration procedures for the districts. Since then, aside from interruptions due to wartime events and pandemics, the Palio has always been held twice a year, on 2 July and 16 August.
The Palio of Siena has been of historical significance for many notable figures: not only did Cesare Borgia, known as “Valentino”, take part in the race, but at different times in history, so did members of many major Italian noble families, from the Este and the Malatesta to the Gonzaga and the Colonna, and even Lorenzo the Magnificent himself.
When is the Palio of Siena held?
As explained above, due to historical reasons and the event’s natural development in the city of Siena, the Palio of Siena is held twice a year. This major event takes place in Siena every year in July and August: the Palio in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano is held on 2 July, while the Palio in honour of the Virgin of the Assumption is run on 16 August. In both cases, the race is held in the afternoon, following the traditional procession.
Keep in mind that it is possible for the date of the Palio to vary by a few days. There have been well-known instances of bad weather that caused the race to be postponed: holding the race in total safety for the horses and their jockeys is paramount. When the decision is made to postpone the race, the traditional method of communicating the postponement is displaying a green flag in the window of the Municipality of Siena.
How the Palio of Siena works
The Palio of Siena is deeply rooted in the territory of the city. In each Palio, 10 out of 17 city districts compete for the Drappellone. These include the 7 districts that did not run the Palio the previous year and 3 more drawn by lot among the rest. The order in which the horses enter the starting block is only revealed at the last minute by the “mossiere” (the sole judge of the validity of the race) who is positioned on the “verrocchio” (a small stage).
The drawing of the districts takes place on a Sunday afternoon (the last Sunday in May for the July Palio and the second Sunday in July for the August Palio). The flags of the rightful seven participants and of the three drawn by lot are displayed at the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico, following a number of trumpet blasts. Traditionally, this happened at 11am on a Wednesday, the town’s market day.
Starting with the July Palio in 1936, the assignment of the horses was once again staged in front of the Palazzo Pubblico. Since the extraordinary Palio of 28 May 1950, the starting order known as the “Mossa” – determined secretly and at random – was established, with the use of a “fiasca”, a metal object with a perforated barrel, inside which wooden straws bearing the colours of the participating districts are mixed and placed in order.
Ahead of the actual race, no less than 6 trial-runs are carried out, one in the morning and the other late in the evening. The fifth test, which takes place the evening before the official Palio, is called the “prova generale“, while the final test-run takes place in the morning itself, and is called the “provaccia” (bad trial-run) due to the minimal effort put in by the jockeys, so as to avoid straining their horses.
The solemnity of the Palio is absolute: to start with, 9 of the 10 horses enter the ropes, according to order of entry. Only one horse, drawn as the “runner-up”, remains outside the ropes and determines the actual start of the race (referred to as the “carriera”), under the watchful supervision of the “mossiere”.
As the horses prepare to start the race, the traditional deal-making between jockeys (known as “fare i partiti”) takes place, with friendly districts seeking to establish alliances against common enemies. The entry of the horses can take so long that operations may be postponed to the next day, should visibility issues arise. Jockeys run “alla bisdossa”, that is without a saddle.
The race consists of three clockwise laps of the Piazza del Campo. The first horse to cross the finishing line wins the race, with or without its jockey (falls are frequent). This is what is called a “shaken” horse, or “cavallo scosso”.
The winning district heads to the Captains’ stage to collect the victory banner, which is made by a different artist each year. This banner will first be taken to church (Santa Maria in Provenzano in July, the Duomo in August) where members of the district will sing “Il Maria Mater Gratiae (Te Deum)”, a hymn of thanksgiving to the Holy Virgin, and then to the district itself, where it is preserved as a trophy.
Prizes for the winners of the Palio of Siena
The material prize of the Palio is the so-called “Drappellone”, i.e. a banner designed by a different artist each year, which the winning district will display in its museum.
But, as well as the banner, winners of the Palio of Siena obtain recognition as the victors in the city’s largest and most prestigious event.