Il Palio de Siena

Europe - Editor - 11 June 2008

Il Palio de Siena

Il Palio is a historical and important horse racing event that takes place in Siena, Italy, and is a celebration that is not easily forgotten. Annually, on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August, thousands gather for the evening festivities the day before the race, and for the main event itself. The very first Il Palio was run on 16 August 1656 and in 1701 it was dedicated to Madonna di Provenzano. Connected to the Contradas (districts) of Siena, each contrada is represented in the race. Originally there were ninety-five, but today about seventeen remain, of which approximately ten participate in Il Palio.

The contradas that still exist are Eagle (Aquila), Wave (Onda), Tortoise (Tartuca), Snail (Chiocciola), Forest (Selva), Unicorn (Leocorno), Ram (Montone), Owl (Civetta), Tower (Torre), Shell (Nicchio), Dragon (Drago), She-Wolf (Lupa), Goose (Oca), Caterpillar (Bruco), Giraffe (Giraffa), Panther and Porcupine (Istrice). Dress code and color usage separates contra horses, jockeys and supporters from each other. It is indeed a sea of color. Fifty foot long tables take over the streets, with massive feasts being prepared, where more than twenty five thousand Sienese sit down with their fellow contradas and share stories, history and anticipation for the following day’s event.

It takes approximately a year for contradas to prepare for Il Palio. A jockey, a horse, a caretaker for the horse and the flag bearer are chosen carefully. The seriousness of Il Palio is reflected in each of the seventeen contrada museums that proudly display jockey silks, photographs, mementoes and locks of horses’ manes, as reflection on a long history of Il Palio. Each horse is also taken to church on race day for a blessing, before heading towards the Piazaa del Campo.

Unlike horse racing events that most are used to, Il Palio is a race of strategy, deals, alliances and bribery and the race itself is over in almost ninety seconds. While support is given to some contradas, others are being lined up for sabotage and the only people aware of what the outcome will be are the negotiators and jockeys, making last minute deals before the ancient rope drops and ninety seconds of speed, dust and adrenalin gets underway. Cheers, neighborhood anthems and the taunting between rival contradas heard before the race is deafening and once the race has finished, some will cheer and others will cry, but most importantly, plans for the next Il Palio will be underway almost immediately. A trip to Italy will not be complete without experiencing the energy and vibrancy of Il Palio de Siena.


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