Two times per year the medieval city of Siena in Italy explodes in a symphony of horses, riders and colors in a way that can make the Derbies of today seem like tea parties for grandmothers.
Horses representing the city’s 17 districts, known as the Contrade, fight for the Palio—and have done so for hundreds of years.
It is impossible not to feel that this is the origin of horse racing as we know it. The starting line, the round track, the silks… even the infield.
Nothing is new under the sun.
The Palio is usually held twice a year, on July 2 and August 16.
However, in honor of special events the Sienese community can elect to hold a third Palio.
Enrico Querci from Pisa loves the Palio. Here is his portrait of an event that can only be painted with passionate words:
It’s not easy to write about the Palio di Siena. You need a lot of paper and ink to describe it, and still you are bound to forget something. The Palio is history, tradition, culture, passion. You can find hundreds of books about the background, the rules and the meaning of the symbols of the Palio, but to live the Palio you need to feel it deep in your heart.
It is a fantastic experience for your senses. You can’t learn all the rules and details before your first experience but you can remember the most important part: respect Siena and its people. For them the Palio is not simply a game or a race—it’s their life.
The Palio di Siena is a festival of colors. Each Contrada has its own colors, which are displayed everywhere: on coats of arms, flags, costumes of the parade and the lampposts in the streets of the historic center.
Most Contrade have one enemy and several allies. Contradaioli are loyal to their colors and detest those of their enemies. A person from Istrice Contrada (white, red, blue and black striped colors), for example, will never wear white, black and orange because these are the colors of their enemy, the Lupa Contrada.
Tourists are fascinated by these color combinations and buy scarves and flags in the shops of Siena according to their taste. Often they buy those of a Contrada which won’t even be participating in the Palio they are about to see. More on that later.
Like any tourist souvenir, you can buy these colorful scarves everywhere, but insiders know that only those belonging to the Contrada in which they are bought are official ones. The color schemes are most diverse and each of them has its own charm. It is impossible to say which is the most beautiful or the most elegant combination.
The symbols and mottos that characterize each Contrada grace the flags. The symbols are real or imagined animals or objects, while the mottos are like battle cries. Because the Palio must be conquered.
Public races organized by the Contrade became popular in the 14th century. When bullfighting was outlawed in 1590, they took to organizing races in the Piazza del Campo. The first such races were on buffalo and then later on donkeys. The first modern Palio took place in 1656. The track is designed on the perimeter of the Piazza del Campo. Hundreds of tons of dirt is put on the track and pressed. The sharp bend of “San Martino” is downhill. The sharp bend of “Il Casato” is uphill. The “Bandierino” is the finish line, approximately in the same place of the Mossa. The Palio is run over three laps of the track, and the total distance is about 1,200 metres (or 6 furlongs).
The Palio di Siena can be seen hundreds of times on television, but what the images can never accurately convey are its sounds: the anthems of the Contrade, the choruses, the sneers against the enemy.
The anthems are songs that accompany the movements of the popoli (the people belonging to each Contrada). They play when they arrive with the horses in Piazza del Campo for the trial races, when they go back to their Contrada, and at the rehearsal dinner in the streets the night before the Palio. Every occasion is a good excuse to sing. The first lines are sung by an individual while others then immediately join in to form a single powerful voice.
It sounds like a football game in the Serie A or Premier League, but with the fans of 10 different teams in the same arena. It’s not hard to understand where Italian football fans got the inspiration for their chants and flags.
The drummers and trumpets are the beat and the melody of the Palio. Piazza del Campo has the shape of a large shell and acts as a resonance board during the parade that precedes the race, while the chimes of the bells strike and thousands of people chant their war songs. Each time they fire a mortar—and you know it’s going to happen—it surprises you and makes you jump all the same.
The most striking sound, however, is an unusual one that materializes as soon as the Mossiere (the starter) receives the envelope which contains the secret order of entry. It is an eerie silence that descends on the Piazza del Campo.
You can almost hear the tearing of the envelope, while not a sound is heard from the 65,000 people present until the Mossiere calls the first Contrada to the mossa (the starting line).
Now there is a roar let out by the people of this lucky Contrada, for the first position, near the rail, is the best for a good start.
Then, immediately, there is silence once again—but a little less than before—in order to hear the name of the second Contrada. When only two horses are left, there is one last call informing everyone which horse will enter with the others. The last horse will start “di rincorsa”—or running from outside the ropes.
It gives a real “and they’re off” feel to the Palio because only at that precise moment does the Mossiere drop the starting rope.
The most beautiful sound of the entire Palio, however, can only be heard during the morning trial races. There are fewer spectators in the Piazza del Campo, and you have to stay close to the track to hear it: the muffled sound of the hooves. It is the canter that does not raise dust and which is music to the ears of those who love this race.
The Palio is a mixture of skill, strategy and luck. Put these ingredients into the blender that is the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, shake well and what is served is the winner of the Palio.
A lottery determines which horse will run for each Contrada. Because the field consists of 10 horses, not all 17 Contrade can take part in the Palio on any one occasion. However, the seven that did not take part in that month of the previous year are automatically included.
It is impossible to quantify to what extent the abilities of the captains of the Contrade affect the outcome of the Palio, as it also depends on their ability to weave relationships during the year and during the days of the Palio itself.
You need a lot of good fortune to win the coveted Cencio (the Palio’s nickname): a good position at la mossa, a favorable race and above all, a fast horse. A good horse is the object of desire: he is the protagonist, and he is the one most loved and pampered by his people.
A horse who loses his jockey in the Palio can still win, but a jockey without a horse can’t. Therefore, one of the key moments if one hopes for victory is the draw of the 10 horses that the captains have chosen four days before the Palio.
The draw has the sanctity of a religious function. The Mayor of Siena shows all the tickets that bear the numbers of the horses and the names of the Contrade before inserting them into anonymous capsules. Two young pages place them into two transparent ballot boxes at the two ends of a long table. One is for the Contrade, the other for the horses. One page draws the Contrada while the other draws the horse.
Therefore, the true architect of the victory of one Contrada over another is the page who draws the horse. The boy is 11- or 12-years-old. He is serious, taken by his role, and he isn’t acting. Nobody knows his name, his Contrada, or what colors are painted on his heart.
He is spontaneously serious, measured, staid. One wonders why they have chosen him for the drawing, and why he has to draw the horses’ names instead of the Contrada. The Palio is in his hands, and, perhaps, he knows it: he is Fate.
He extracts the first capsule, and he brings it to the mayor, who opens it and shows the people the name of the horse while reading it aloud. The page, however, has already returned to the urn. Not a smile, not a grimace, as the names are drawn and the match with the Contrade formed.
The Chiarine (trumpets) that had opened the ceremony, play again to say, “The drawing is over, now it’s time for the Palio.” The impassible pageboy leaves the stage. Not a hint of his emotions is visible even though the tension has lifted. These moments will remain burned in his memories. He was the Fate of this Palio.
GOING TO THE PALIO
After the morning draw, the Contrada’s people come back home with their horses, their idols. Horses are precious and irreplaceable because while the jockeys can be changed until the last minute, horses can’t.
The Barbaresco (the Contrada’s head lad) lives with the horse 24 hours a day, meaning he sleeps with the horse as well. Time runs fast in the following three days.
You can watch the trial races in Piazza del Campo each evening and morning, where jockeys try their horses on the sharp track. After the “provagenerale” (the evening before the Palio) you can breath the atmosphere of the Contrada rehearsal dinner. While is for the people of Siena, it is possible for the tourists to take seat!
The day of the Palio is unbelievable, and one event follows the other, hour by hour. The Jockeys’ Mass in Piazza del Campo is celebrated by the Bishop of Siena. The last trial race takes place. Then there is the dressing of the people participating to the historical parade.
The blessing of the horses takes place in the Contrada’s churches and chapels, with horses walking into churches that sometimes are so small only a few tens of people can assist the ceremony. The priest always says to the horse after the blessing “Go! And come back as the winner!”
You hear the murmuring of the people and then their roar, but only when the horse is out of the church.
The historical parade goes through the town and into Piazza del Campo. The crowd, the sounds, the colors begin to overtake you. The horses come out from the entrone, or the court where they stay before the race.
There are 65,000 people on hand who each love ONE of the Contrada and it’s horse. Not because they bet on it or because they like the colors, but because it’s their life, their family, their honor. As it has been for hundreds of years.
In an explosion of passion they’re off, taking turns that most modern race horses would not be able to navigate. Jockeys ride bareback while sporting the colors of their Contrada. People are on all sides. The rules are few.
The horses and riders circle the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times. It is over quickly.
For a Contrada with an inferior horse and slim chances of winning, the major goal might be to make sure its enemy Contrada does not win. More often than not, a jockey falls off. Usually several of them do. It doesn’t matter. Unlike most racing, a horse wins if it crosses the line first, with or without its jockey.
The victorious horse becomes an immortal hero as the Palio is given to the winning Contrada. Its members cry for joy. They lead the horse and jockey through the narrow streets of Siena to their home quarters, where celebrations last until the last of the Contradaioli run out of song and wine.
The other nine that made it to the race cry in desperation and walk home in silence…unless they happened to beat one of their arch rivals. That is almost as good a reason for celebration.
This is the Palio di Siena. The four-day fest that takes a year to plan.