The Palio di Siena (known locally as the Palio delle Contrade), the most famous palio in Italy, is a horse race held twice each year on July 2 and August 16 in Siena, in which the horse and rider represent one of the seventeen Contrade, or city wards. A magnificent pageant precedes the race, which attracts visitors and spectators from around the world.
Both horse and rider are dressed in the colours and arms of the Contrade: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower) and Valdimontone (Ram).
Any connection with the sacred games of the ancient Romans being obscured by time, the earliest known antecedents of the race are medieval. The town's central piazza was the site of public games, largely combative: pugna, a sort of many-sided boxing match or brawl; jousting; and in the 16th century, bullfights. Public races organized by the Contrade were popular from the 14th century on; called palii alla lunga, they were run across the whole city.
When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in 1590, the Contrade took to organising races in the Piazza del Campo. The first such races were on buffalo-back and called bufalate; asinate, races on donkey-back, later took their place, while horse-racing continued elsewhere. The first modern Palio (called palio alla tonda to distinguish it from the earlier palii alla lunga) took place around 1650. At first, one race was held each year, on July 2; a second, on August 16, was added later.
The race today
The first race (Palio di Provenzano) is held on July 2, which is both the Feast of the Visitation and the date of a local festival in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano (a painting once owned by the Sienese leader Provenzano Salvani, which was supposed to have miraculous curative power). The second race is held on August 16 (Palio dell'Assunta), the day after the Feast of the Assumption, and is likewise dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After exceptional events (e.g. the Apollo 11 moon landing) and on important anniversaries (e.g. the centennial of the Unification of Italy), the Sienese community may decide to hold a third Palio between May and September.
The field consists of ten horses, which means that only ten of the city wards can take part in the Palio on any occasion. The seven wards which did not take part in the previous place are automatically included; three more are chosen randomly. Three days before the race, private owners offer the pick of their stables, from which representatives of the participating Contrade choose ten of approximately equal quality. A lottery then determines which horse will run for each Contrada. Six trial races are run, the first on the evening of the horse selection and the last on the morning before the Palio. The devout residents of each Contrada invoke the sacred aid of their patron saint on their horse and jockey. The worldly improve their odds with more profane methods, chiefly bribery and doping. The sensible simply keep a close watch on their stable and their rider.
The race is preceded by a spectacular pageant, which includes (among many others) Alfieri, flag-wavers, in medieval costumes. Just before the pageant, a squad of carabinieri on horseback, wielding swords, demonstrate a mounted charge around the track. Spectators arrive early in the morning, eventually filling the centre of the town square, inside the track, to capacity; the local police seal the entrances once the festivities begin in earnest. Seats ranging from simple bleachers to elaborate box seats may be had for a price, but sell out long before the day of the race. The landlords of buildings overlooking the piazza sometimes stipulate that tenants must be absent on the day of the Palio, in order to rent the space to spectators.
At 7.30 p.m. (July) / 7 p.m. (August), the detonation of an explosive charge echoes across the piazza, signaling to the thousands of onlookers that the race is about to begin. The race itself runs for three laps of the Piazza del Campo, the outer course of which is covered with several inches of dirt and the corners of which are protected with padded crash barriers for the occasion. The jockeys ride the horses bareback from the starting line, where there is only room for nine horses. The tenth, the rincorsa, stands behind those nine. The start is given by a local authority called Mossiere, who has to wait for all the horses to be in the correct position. When this moment is (with great difficulty) achieved, he activates a mechanism that instantly removes the canapo, the starting cord.
On the dangerous steeply-canted track, the riders are allowed to use their whips not only for their own horse, but also for disturbing other horses and riders. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line with its head ornaments intact — the rider does not necessarily need to finish, and often does not. The loser in the race is considered to be the Contrada whose horse came in second, not last.
The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is newly created for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the Palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of the various Contrade.
After the race, a certain curiosity might traditionally regard the result of the bets that the inhabitants of each Contrada (contradaioli) made about the Palio; frequently, the losers have to bear being ridiculed by their winning opponents.
There is some danger to spectators from the sheer number of people in attendance. There have also been complaints about mistreatment of horses, injuries and even deaths, especially from animal rights associations and even from some veterinarians. In the Palio held on August 16, 2004 the horse for the Contrada of the Bruco (Caterpillar) fell and was badly trampled as the race was not stopped, despite possible additional safety risks for other horses. The horse died of its injuries, raising further complaints from animal rights organizations.
In the race of July 2006 the Palio was won by the Contrada of the Pantera after a gap of 12 years since their last victory. In the August 16 race, the Palio was won by Selva, the forest, who maintained a lead throughout most of the race.