by Tea Francesca Price
Il Palio di Siena, a bareback horserace with medieval roots, is a world-renowned event occurring every year on July 2nd
(Il Palio di Provenzano, in honor of Madonna of Provenzano) and August 16th (Il Palio dell’Assunta, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption).
Ten of the city’s 17 contrade (districts) are represented by a horse and jockey, vying for the honor of winning the race and the "cencio" (silk banner) of that race. The three laps around the Piazza del Campo may only take about 90 seconds to complete, but there are many specific traditions in the days leading up to this great event.
By this time, the Piazza del Campo, located at the heart of the city, will have been transformed into the stage of the race. The cobblestone outskirts become the racetrack after being carefully packed down with sand and dirt. The interior of the shell-shaped “square” is fenced in, creating a safe place for the thousands of spectators of the race.
The horses eligible to race are presented by owners/breeders in the morning and are carefully reviewed by veterinarians.
Divided into groups, they run trials around the racetrack to see if they are suited for the event. Those with good stamina and the ability to not be overwhelmed by crowds and noise are key.
After the best horses are determined, the mayor of Siena and captains of the contrade gather together to choose the final 10 horses. At midday, the horses are assigned to a contrada by lottery; it is a spectacle closely watched by contradaioli, and once a horse is determined, the “barbaresco” or groom, takes the horse to be blessed and leads it to the barn of their contrada where it will be closely cared for.
In the evening, the first of six trial runs (prove), which are open to the public, is held with the contrada’s jockey (fantino). The order that the horses line up is based upon the order they were extracted and assigned. This is a way to not only test the horse but also the jockey and see the compatibility in play.
While each contrada selects their jockey prior to these events, they can be changed out any time before the morning of the race. However, once a horse is assigned to a contrada, there can be no changes of steed.
The second trial run is held at 9 in the morning, and as with all of the prove, is open to the public.
At this trial, the line-up order is exactly opposite to the preceding evening. Some jockeys run their horse as if it is the real race, others reign in and take the track slowly so as to avoid injury and guide around the treacherous curves carefully. Later that evening, the third trial is run after reverting to the line-up order of the first night.
The fourth trial is run in the morning. In the evening is the trial known as the Prova Generale—it is perhaps the most similar event to the actual Palio. The carabinieri even make the traditional charge on their horses around the Piazza.
After this trial race is the “cene della Prova Generale”, the massive, feast-like dinners held in each contrada where often lucky tourists are able to join the celebration. At the table of honor with the elders of a contrada is the jockey. Chanting, singing, and speeches fill the air, buzzing already with energy and the hope of the following day’s victory.
The barrier dividing the area to become the track and the area where spectators can stand safely. Photo Credit: Tea Francesca Price, June 2015
Flags of each participating contrada fly during the time of assigning the horses. Photo Credit: Diana M. Iorio, 2012
The Day of the Palio is an early start. At 7:45 a.m., a religious mass is held for the jockeys. At 9 a.m., the final run called “Provaccia” before the actual Palio is held, and the lowest amount of effort is given in this trial in order to prevent injury or strain to the horse. Afterwards, jockeys and captains meet in the Comune di Siena to receive their official jacket to be worn during the race. After this presentation, the assignment of jockeys can no longer be altered.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon is the blessing of the horse and jockey in each individual church of the contrade, a solemn occasion. The priests sprinkle both the horse and jockey with holy water before concluding with almost an order: “Go! And return victorious!”
At this time, the bell in the Torre del Mangia (il sunto) begins its steady tolling, a deep, resonating gong echoing through the city. After this, the contrade process through the streets, before continuing the ceremonial march—in order of the first trial run—into the Piazza del Campo.
A historical procession, known as the "corteo storico", occurs before the race. Representatives of each contrada in costume & flag throwing occurs around the Piazza del Campo, while viewers peer from the sardine-packed centre of the Piazza, or from the stands, balconies and windows along the outskirts of the track.
The procession ends with the display of the Palio. The carabinieri make their sword-branded charge, and at the sound of a shot, the horses and jockeys emerge from the courtyard in by the Torre del Mangia called, “Entrone”.
Lining up can take minutes or hours, and there are often multiple false starts. However, when the race officially begins, in just 90 seconds or less, it will all be over.
In the three days leading up to the Palio, in addition to the day of, there are a total of six trial runs. These provide an opportunity for the horses to get accustomed to the track, being in close proximity to nine other horses, and ultimately, become the times when a horse is introduced to the atmosphere of the Piazza del Campo.
The lineup rotates between the exact order at which the horses were extracted/assigned to the contrade and the exact opposite order. This allows for an idea of the capability of both a horse and a jockey, as there is an opportunity to start in different positions. The evening of the Palio, however, there is complete silence as the lineup is announced live after a random extraction.
A jockey can be traded by a contrada at any point before the day of the Palio, but the horse cannot. Therefore during the trials, careful attention is paid to ensure that the horse is never worn out or injured. To and from each trial, the horse is escorted by its “barbaresco” from each individual contrada’s stable. All horses are very well cared for and treated, and their health is regularly assessed so as to be sure they’re healthy and ready for the race itself. For this reason, perhaps, while some jockeys like to see the full speed of the animal they were partnered with, other jockeys hold back their horses during the trials so as to prevent overexertion.
The track is attentively cared for and smoothed before every trial. Photo Credit: Tea Francesca Price, 2015
Spectators of the trials stand in the shadow of the tower to avoid the hot sun. Photo Credit: Tea Francesca Price, 2015
Early morning trials tend to be less crowded as jockeys run laps. Photo Credit: Bruno Price, 2010
The Corteo Storico is a solemn, 2-hour "choreographed" parade held always before Il Palio di Siena.
Starting in the early afternoon, around 700 participants are lined up by the field master outside Il Duomo di Siena. There are 14 groups of participants, all in medieval costume, from hair right down to shoes. The ten contrade participating in the race also join this walk to the Piazza del Campo, preceded by a drummer, two flag-throwers, a leader guarded by two men-at-arms, a standard-bearer, a shield-bearer, and two pages, in addition to the jockey mounted on a parade horse, followed by the racehorse led by the groom.
From outside the Duomo, they process through large crowds lining the streets toward the Piazza del Campo. And only upon the first tolling of the bell in the Torre del Mangia, do they enter the Piazza del Campo. Seventeen pairs of flag-bearers stop at different points around the track to perform spectacular flag-throwing presentation in synchrony with the beat of the drums. The drumbeat which sets the pace of this procession is known as “passo della Diana”, which translates to “the steps of Diana”, while musicians (horn and brass players) play “The March of the Palio”.
The end of the procession arrives in the form of the carroccio, which historically would be the cart serving as a religious altar and organization in times of war; in modern times, the oxen-drawn cart bears the silk banner of the Palio itself. After circling the piazza once, the parade dissipates and it is time for the race.
Click the photo to be linked to a full, detailed list of the 14 groups participating in the Corteo Storico via
The carroccio bearing the Palio banner wheels into the piazza in August of 2008.
Video Credit: Diana M. Iorio
Two, long pieces of thick rope are all that set the area where the horses and jockeys line up. The names of the contrade are called in the order of extraction, but only the first nine contrade line up in this area known as “the mossa”. The final, 10th contrada starts the race from behind at a gallop, and only when this happens does the race officially start.
Often there is more than one false start, as keeping the horses in their assigned spots while confined together in a small area surrounded by thousands of people is not easy. Silence sweeps over the piazza during the wait for the start of the race, which can take anywhere from minutes to many hours.
When the race has an official start, however, the horses must run three laps around the track. The very sharp curve of San Martino and the “curva del Casato” on either end of the stretch beneath the Torre del Mangia, often cause collisions and falls. Should a jockey fall off, a real risk due to riding bareback and the chaotic nature of the event, a horse can still cross the finish line first and win without its jockey.
The winning contrada claims the “Drappellone” or “il cencio”, a hand-painted silk banner that is in itself the Palio. In July, a Sienese artist is commissioned to paint the Palio, while the Palio dedicated to the Assumption of Mary is commissiond from a non-Sienese artist.
After the race is over, the victorious contrada takes possession of the Drappellone and proceeds with the horse and jockey to Provenzano (July) or il Duomo (August) for a prayer of thanks.
The race track of Il Palio in Siena, Italy is symbolized by the red line, while the crucial points are highlighted in blue & green. The race begins at La Mossa, going past Fonte Gaia, and consists of three laps. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, 2007
Celebration after the Palio di Provenzano in July, 2015. Click on photo for link to article & video.
Photo Credit: Tea Francesca Price, 2015
Celebration after the Palio in August, 2012. Video Credit: Jack O. Lyroid (Creative Commons)