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An Outsider's Introduction to Siena's Palio

The world-famous Siena Palio is an 800-year tradition that happens twice a year. Visitors flood the city for standing-room-only views (unless you purchase seated tickets a year in advance) of the events that spread out over five days. But for the Sienese people, it is a year-long event. The Palio is the beating heart of the social system that guides the life of Siena throughout the year. The system begins and ends with the Contrada (a district or neighborhood of an Italian city) which was established in Siena some 600 years ago. In the middle ages, each neighborhood (district) had its own army, guilds, trades, etc. Each contrada is identified by a symbol mostly an animal (caterpillar, goose, eagle) or natural icon (tower, wave, forest) that was chosen by the people to best represent their community. Today only 17 of the original 59 contrade (plural for contrada) exist. The largest is Porcupine with 5000 members and the smallest is Owl with only 600 members. Only four contrade hold the honor Nobile (Noble) designation: Eagle, Goose, Caterpillar, and Shell. They were granted such titles for the people’s bravery during a military battle or resistance.

Photo Courtesy: Dario Castagno

More about the Contrada

Whatever contrada you are born in is the contrada you are a member of. It is not uncommon for a man (Caterpillar) to marry a girl (Owl) and live in the Owl Contrada. When their child is born the child too will be an Owl. It then becomes the mother’s responsibility to make sure he/she is raised according to the Owl system. Even if they move out of the Owl Contrada, the mother will take the child to flag lessons, or drum practice, and all social events in the Owl Contrada. All contrade expect their members (including children) to pay annual dues. But in this system, if you can’t pay due to financial difficulties you are excused from paying – no judgment.

Every contrada has its own chapel. Not for weekly Masses, but you can guarantee that chapel has witnessed every member's baptism, marriage, and death. And if a marriage or burial service isn’t performed there, their contrada flag is definitely present wherever they are. The most important event in the Contrada Chapel is the blessing of the horse and jockey before every Palio.

Each Contrada has its own fountain that they use to baptize (non-religious) their members. If they adopt you, you would be baptized in this fountain as well. Most of these fountains while not as elaborate as Bernini's fountains, bear the symbol of the Contrada itself. You can almost certainly identify the neighborhood you are in by the fountain you are looking at. And it’s not unusual for owners to put their personal contrada symbol somewhere on their business building even if in a different neighborhood. They are very proud of their Contrada.

The contrada system includes rivals and alliances that go back many generations. Contrade have signed documents with alliances and statements against rivals. For instance, the Unicorn Contrada is enemies with the Owl and has two allies: the Panther Contrada and the Tortoise Contrada.

These relationships are heightened most during Palio. It is not uncommon to see a fight break out between rival contrade. But even in the midst of these fights, there are rules. One rule is you never hit someone in the face -only on the top of the head. If you see anything different, it is not a fight with regards to warring contrade. When the fight is finished, that’s the end of it. It is typical for friends from opposing contrade to engage in such behavior and then go for a drink right after.

Speaking of strong emotional displays, while Sienese are extremely hospitable to tourists throughout the year, during Palio it is not about tourism, it is about them, their contrada, and their race. So be respectful of their traditions and give them grace if you happen to be in the city center during these two weeks. Stay out of their way when they process through the streets. The entire contrada (men first, followed by women, then the children) of the 10 contrada competing in the Palio process together from their contrada to the Piazza di Campo and then back to their contrada. They sing – or rather shout their contrada theme song the entire way. This is done daily (sometimes twice a day depending on how many trail races are going on that day) during the Palio week. So there are lots of chances for you to witness this if you are there during Palio.

And never make fun of their emotional reactions during Palio days. If you pay close attention to the processes, you will see that these traditions are instilled in them from birth. It only takes a minute to watch how the children are included in all the processions and are given special seating at the trials to understand the emotions of the older generations when they do or don’t draw a good horse or when a rival horse back-kicks their jockey in a trail race. It could be accidental, but it is grounds for some extra drama after.

As I said earlier, the Palio takes place twice a year. Every year on July 2nd the Palio is held in honor of the Madonna di Provenzano. And on August 16th it is held in honor of the Madonna Assunta (Virgin Mary’s Assumption which is actually on August 15th but they would never race on such a special religious holiday). Some people think the August Palio is more important because the Duomo is dedicated to the Virgi Mary and the winning jockey of that Palio is carried there for a blessing after his victory versus the smaller church event for the July Palio.

A Little about Palio Week

Palio horses must be at least 5 years old, mixed Anglo-Arabian, and they must have passed a rigorous set of tests by incredibly experienced veterinarians. They also must have practiced on a track that resembles the Campo, with its uneven elevation and two treacherous curves. These horses practice daily at these arenas outside of Siena so that the captains of each contrada, trainers, veterinarians, etc can all have a look at the field to choose from. The collective field usually consists of 10o horses eligible to run at this year’s Palio, 30-35 horses are picked and brought to the Piazza di Campo for pre-trials around the Palio track. They are presented on the morning of June 29/August 13 at the event known as the ‘tratta’. After the selection trials, the ten competing Contrada Captains choose the ten Palio horses. Later that day, the ten competing Contrade do their procession into the Campo, led by a person (in full traditional wardrobe) chosen by the Contrada to bring them good luck during the assignment of the horses. As always occurs, the horses are numbered 1 to 10. The center of the Campo is filled to the brim with the locals as this selection is an important indicator of whether or not you will win the Palio. A page dressed in the black and white of Siena chooses a capsule at random, hands it to the Mayor of Siena who presides over the Palio events, who then reads out the number 1-10 that is designated to one of the ten horses. Then a second page selects a capsule from another distributor and hands it to the Mayor, who then read its contents - the name of the Contrada. On this day there is a board that has the name of each horse and the contrada it is assigned to for everyone's reference. I have seen grown men cry happy tears when their contrada drew a horse that had won the Palio the previous year (known as a sure winner) and I have seen men throw temper tantrums because they drew the worst horse of the ten (a sure loser in their eyes). This is the part where it is important as a visitor not to make fun of or comment on the locals' behavior. To the Sienese, it is just the way they behave – no judgment. Emotion one way or the other is expected.

Waiting for the Horses to be Assigned to the Contrade

After the assignment of the horses, the jockeys are quickly hired, and strategy commences. Even if you have a bad horse and jockey, you can still offer money to an ally (if they are racing) to impede your enemy’s (if they are in the race) chances of winning. Or you can collect money from other contrade to do their dirty work during the race to build up your coffers for the next race should you be drawn to compete. This strategy is very complex and confusing. Overall just know that strategy is going on continuously throughout the year and elevated during the week before Palio. The first of six trials runs that evening. From here on and until the day of the Palio, the ten contrade process to the Campo the horse is prominently walked by the trainer in the front for the procession with the jockey walking directly behind the horse to “size up” the horse before his first mount. There are four trial (Prova) runs with jockeys and horses.

Please remember that the horses are considered heroes of the Palio and much respect is given to them during Palio weeks. Even if you get a bad horse it is treated with the same respect and honored in the same fashion. The horse is never left alone and has all the best accommodations, food, and water. I witnessed one Contrada that laid out an indoor carpet track on the cobblestone area in their Contrada for their horse’s daily walks.

The same cannot be said for the jockey. A jockey is always considered a mercenary. Someone for hire, that can easily be bought by your enemies through a race. The jockey you pay to ride your Palio horse is expected to live in your contrada from the time you chose him to the time the race starts. Some neighborhoods have people assigned to him 24/7 so as to not let an enemy contrada make any attempts at sabotage.

Starting four days prior to each Palio, contrada dinners are held. Some contrade even have lunch together as well. Each contrada holds them within its own territory. Some can be found just by walking around the city as they are open-air dinners. Some are in their “backyards” as is the case for Caterpillar. They have the most expansive interior courtyards that I have ever seen in a city center. They can serve up to 2000 members at one time. And it is behind closed doors so it is more private than some of the other contrade. The dinners are extremely important moments in the Contradas' year and are also a source of income, fundamental to the Contrada’s year-long activities as well as money for Palio race strategies.

July 1st and August 15th – The Provo Generale (dress rehearsal). This is the second to the last trial run before the big day and probably the most attended. This is due in part because the procession starts with the Blessing of the Palio banner in the July/August designated church. The Contrade drum and flag bearers along with all the town folk gather inside the church for a short blessing and presentation of the Palio banner. From there the competing contrade process to the Campo. Siena’s Horse Mounted Band starts the race followed by the local police – also on horseback that leads the historical war charge re-enactment. This time the contrade enter into the campo according to the number that the horses had in their ear or marked on their rear end at the time of the draw. So if you drew horse number one, you are the first to enter the Campo.

July 2022 Palio Banner

The General Rehearsal Dinner follows the profession back to the contrada after the last trial. Palio captains, committee members, managers, contradaioli (contrada members), guests, and even tourists gather for dinner. At the table of honor with the VIPs of the Contrada is the jockey. Songs, speeches, and well wishes for the success of its Contrada are granted by the members at the head table. Lots of singing/chanting of the fight songs and lots of wine. As with the social system of the contrade, the entire contrada assists in preparing, serving, cleanup, etc. of the big event.

Me and My family at the 2016 Bruco (Caterpillar) July 1 Dinner

After dinner, the Captain and the handlers of each Contrada visit the leaders of the friendly and allied Contrade to make agreements to favor their own victory or that of the friendly Contrada or hinder that of the opponent: all on the word.

The Big Day

Palio Day- July 2nd and August 16th after the "unimportant" but final trial run (horses are merely trotted out by their jockey so as not to injure them before the big race), a very special blessing of the horses in their respective Contrade Chapels take place. The horse is brought all the way inside the Chapel and Contrada’s Priest blesses the horse with words such as “Blessing on you this day. Go be victorious!” Then the Corteo Storico (Historical Parade) begins with all 17 Contrade processing this time to the Campo. The procession into the Campo and around the track is one of the highlights of the Palio. It is a 2-hour procession that includes Italy’s Mounted Cabineri (military police), tandem team flag competition (only for the 10 competing contrade), presentation of all 17 contrade in historical regalia, presentation of the lost contrade that are no longer existent, and children with laurel wreaths and garland to name a few. When the Carroccio (war cart) with the Palio banner finally entered the track, The contrada members in the stands and in the center of the Campo wave their fazzoletti (neck scarves) to cheer on their team, and the moment of the Palio begins.

Photo: Pamela Bomkamp

Photo: Dario Castagno

Photo: Dario Castagno

The ten jockeys on their mounts are given their ‘nerbo’ (whip) and make their way out of the courtyard of Palazzo Pubblico and to the starting line. The crowd hushes as the envelope with the order of the horses between the ropes is announced, The last horse announced does not enter inside the ropes, but stays back as the “starter” of the race. The race starts when the “starter” horse and jockey enter the area and the front rope is dropped. If the start is declared valid by the ‘mossiere’ (the person in charge of the starting line), three laps are run at breakneck speed and victory is won in less than 90 seconds. Important to note that if a jockey falls off the horse the horse can continue his race. A jockey-less horse can win the race for his contrada (and has).

Photo Courtesy: Dario Castagno

Sometimes it takes a long while for the horses to line up so tightly and in the right order. If the horses get highly agitated and/or the jockeys can keep the horse in the right lineup, the “mossiere” can call the jockeys back out of the starting area and they start the lineup all over again. This is when you can really see the deals being made between the jockeys and the jockey in the starter position. Who can offer him the best deal to start the race to their advantage? And there can be a lot of false starts as the “mossiere” can drop the front rope if he sees any danger of horse tripping or hurting themselves by coming too close to the front rope. If this happens the jockeys trot their horses around the track and back to the starting line.

As you can see, it is more than just a 90-second race around the track. Not just at the race itself but for the Sienese people. It is something that is continuous all year long and has an undercurrent that runs throughout the city.

There is so much more than what I tried to fit in these 2700 words. I encourage you to plan on experiencing a Palio week at least once in your lifetime. It is fascinating. And an experience that I am happy to attend again and again.

I can help you plan a Palio experience and/or get you in touch with the right people in Siena. Contact me here for more information.

Additional resource: July 2022 Palio Video


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