For visitors, the centuries-old Palio horse race that stands tall among Italy’s many medieval games is one of the biggest events of the Tuscan summer. For the city of Siena, and its historic neighborhoods that use the race as a battleground, the Palio is the biggest event of the year.
Twice each summer, on July 2 in celebration of the Madonna of Provenzano (a 16th century miracle-painting) and on August 16 in celebration of the Assumption of Mary, Siena holds the game in the city’s world-renowned Piazza del Campo. Though the racing itself lasts under two minutes, each Palio is truly a four-day affair, the result of months of planning and anticipation.
The Palio has been a fierce competition between the city’s contrade, or districts, since the 15th century. Seventeen of these neighborhoods remain today and 10 are represented in each race — the seven that did not participate in that month’s Palio the previous year are guaranteed entry, while the remaining three spots are chosen by lottery.
The Palio begins on the mornings of June 29 and August 13, when approximately 30 horses run trials to see if they make the cut. Once the field is narrowed down to the ten competitors, a lottery distributes them to the contrade, a nerve-wracking moment for locals that can make or break their chances. Jockeys are chosen through a much more intricate process of negotiation, connections and backroom deals that begins as early as January.
After the racehorses are distributed, the first, of six official trial runs, happens that afternoon, with the remaining five spread out over the following three days. These often draw modest crowds, with spectators grouping in the center of the piazza as they will on the day of the race. The final trial, dubbed the Provaccio, is known for its half-hearted effort as the jockeys preserve their horse’s energy for that evening’s big event.
The second day, June 30 and August 14, is known for the Procession of Candles, which carries a painted banner (for which the race is named) through the city. On July 1 and August 15, all 10 participating contrade hold open-air banquets in the streets, open to visitors who secure a reservation with a contrada early enough.
The fourth and final day, July 2 and August 16, is packed with events. Before the Provaccio, a bishop holds the Mass for the Jockeys in Piazza del Campo, and from there each contrada convenes in their respective churches for the Benediction of the Horse. Each horse is brought into the chapel and blessed, and limited space in these buildings makes visitor access very limited.
The atmosphere builds as the sun arcs across the sky, and the city’s divisions grow visually sharper. Along with their coat-of-arms (frequently animal-themed), each contrada has its own civic hall, museum, stable, anthem, church and patron saint, but usually only small details differentiate the districts for the uninitiated. But on the day of the Palio, each neighborhood displays their colors with pride, mounting flags at street corners and draping them from apartment windows.
People also tie special hand-sewn kerchiefs around their necks to show their allegiance, and versions of these are on sale across the city, so feel free to pick a contrada and add yourself to its passionate fan base. To be born into a contrada is to inherit a second family — proud, fiercely loyal and bound by rivalries that could be generations old — but locals are forgiving to tourists who wander into a district wearing their rival’s gear.
Around 4 pm that afternoon, the historical parade begins. Dressed in 15th century garb sporting neighborhood colors and insignias, locals from the racing contrade march through the city on their way to the Piazza del Campo. Drummers and trumpeters play “The Palio March” while alfieri, flag throwers, toss their districts’ banners astonishingly high into the air.
The spectacle and pageantry of the parade bring the city’s history to life, allowing spectators to truly feel part of the centuries-old Palio tradition. Blocking the procession in a narrow street will not earn you points, so be sure to find a wide boulevard or piazza to take it all in.
The parade eventually leads into the Piazza del Campo, and around 7 pm the race will be ready to start. The horses’ starting positions are crucial and set up often causes delays, meaning no two races start at the same time each year. Once it does kick off, however, it’s full speed ahead for three laps around a tricky, muddy course.
Jockeys ride bareback and have a riding crop they can use to urge their horse onward or thwack at other jockeys, and it is not uncommon that they are knocked off mid-race. This doesn’t hurt their chances at victory, though — the first horse to cross the finish line, riderless or not, is the winner. Highlighting the event’s intensely competitive tone, the horse that finishes second, not last, is considered the loser.
The Palio can be watched for free from the center of the square, but people arrive as early as that morning to secure a spot and the area is closed off once the parade reaches the piazza. More comfortable seating around the racetrack, whether in bleachers or on the balcony of someone’s home, can be purchased from the owners, but this requires a little research as there is no centralized place to book them.
The race is also televised on local channels and streamed online, so if you prefer to avoid the crowds, cheer on your adopted neighborhood from the comfort of your room. It’s also worth picking up a souvenir bag of barberi, wooden marbles painted for all 17 contrade, so that you can stage your own Palio at home. (alex harrison)