Siena’s Palio Canceled for 2020

After an initial postponement, the Palio di Siena has been definitively canceled for 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic, according to an official announcement issued by the city on May 14.  The last time Palio races were not run was in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II.

Visitors from around the world come to Siena in the summer to witness the Palio, a horse race run in the Piazza del Campo. Jockeys riding bareback represent the contrade or districts of the city competing for the year’s Palio or banner.  It is staged twice a year: July 2 in celebration of the Madonna of Provenzano (a 16th century miracle painting) and on August 16 in honor of the Assumption of Mary. The races had been fast-forwarded to August 22 and September 26; if these dates needed to be postponed, a special edition was planned in October, which will also not be held.

“We were sorry to take this decision, but it was unanimous,” said Siena mayor.  “The Palio attracts huge crowds of people, and the tradition and rituals are impossible to modify to incorporate social distancing.”

For visitors, the centuries-old Palio stands tall among Italy’s many medieval games is the biggest pageant and sports event of the Tuscan summer. For the city of Siena, and its historic neighborhoods (contrade) that use the reenactment as a battleground, the Palio brings history and local identity to life.  Fans will need to wait until 2021 to see if the horse Remorex, the riderless winning wonder of two of the last three Palios, will strike again. (see August 16, 2019 and October 2018 Palio articles plus a spectacular 2019 Palio update).

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 contrada zones, originally formed during the Middle Ages, were organized to supply troops to military mercenaries hired to defend Siena from its arch enemy: the city state of Florence.  In modern times the districts have become localized areas of patriotism. Like small republics within the city, each has their own administration and elected council. Important events such as marriages, funerals and festivals are celebrated within each tight-knit community.  The neighborhood loyalties are so strong that most Sienese are baptized twice, once in church and once again in their district fountain.

Each of the 17 wards, named after a symbol of nature or animal, possesses a museum, a church commemorating its patron saint, a fountain and its stable for the Palio horses. (rosanna cirigliano, alex harrison & rita kungel)

To read more in Italian, visit Florence’s La Repubblica news site.