Il Palio: Siena's Greatest Spectacle

| © Costanza Maremmi / Culture Trip

Twice a year, Siena’s iconic, medieval Piazza del Campo is transformed into a pulsating, claustrophobic racetrack. Il Palio is a dramatic battle that is played as much off the track as it is on it, with the city’s different contrade (districts) vying for the glory success brings. Virtually unchanged since the 14th century, it is a race about desire, pageantry and pride.

The Piazza del Campo, the town’s central point, has been the site of public events for over 700 years, with forms of boxing, jousting and bullfights. When bullfighting was outlawed by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1590, the contrade began turning the races into more formal events. The first modern Palio was held in 1656 and very little has changed since.

The race is held twice a year on July 2 and August 16 with jockeys dressed in traditional attire, riding bareback three times around the piazza. A few days before each race the perimeter is covered in sand and dirt to form the track, while 15,000 spectators crowd into the center of the square. Each horse receives a blessing the day of the race. A firecracker is set off to signal the entrance of the horses once they arrive at the piazza and that the start of the race is imminent. The jockeys then ‘receive a whip made out of ox sinew which they can use to prod their horse or to irritate the other opponents in the race’ and the stage is set.

Those lucky enough to watch from the windows overlooking the event can roar the racers on from above; for those packed into the center it is hot, overcrowded and unrelenting. But for everyone, there are the arguments to be had about which Capitani, from which contrada, have bribed which jockey.

Siena is split into 17 contrade, each carrying the name of an animal or symbol, all of which have their own long, complicated history, often with heraldic associations and traditions.

Set up in the Middle Ages, when feudal Italy was in a state of constant battle, the contrade had a duty to supply troops to the city to defend itself against other city states. The days of military obligation are long gone, but fierce loyalty and civic identity remain within each contrada. The contrada someone is born in is the same they live in, and the same they are buried in. Even today, mixed marriages are still frowned upon.

Every contrada has its own motto, museum, fountain and baptismal font. Every event and festival is only celebrated within your own contrada. Virtually all have allies and adversaries.

Traditionally, the residents of Aquila (Eagle) were notaries. Their rivals were the grocers and chemists of Pantera (Panther). The tailors of Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) are at odds with their neighbors, the potters, Nicchio (Seashell), but are allied with Onda (Wave), the carpenters.

The contrada that has gone the longest without a Palio victory to their name earns the title of ‘nonna,’ the ‘grandmother.’ When they do eventually win, the title, along with the embarrassment, is passed on to the next, and so on.

In 1729, due to the high number of accidents experienced in each Palio, the race was restricted to 10 contrade per race. The seven contrade that do not take part in the July race are automatically included in the next; with three more chosen by a draw. It is then down to the Capitani – the representatives from each contrade to get together to choose 10 horses deemed of equal quality from private owners, some of whom are jockeys themselves.

What the Capitani can’t choose is their horse, it is the lottery held in the piazza four days before the race that decides if they get one of the favorites or one of the mares. Local residents take it upon themselves to guard their horse, the stables and their jockey, given the high levels of bribery and corruption that have existed as long as the race has.

In the Palio it is the horse that wins the race, not the jockey. So if a jockey is thrown off his horse, which is a regular occurrence, and goes on to finish first, that is good enough for its contrada to claim victory. That said, jockeys can become legends if they win.

Andrea Degortes, or ‘Aceto’ (‘Vinegar’), who rode from 1964-96, holds the record for wins with 14. Angelo Meloni, nicknamed ‘Picino’ and, Luigi Bruschelli, ‘Trecciolino’ each have 13 victories.

Bruschelli features heavily in the exquisite feature length documentary Il Palio. Much of the film focuses on the buildup to the first race of 2013, with Bruschelli as the veteran, with the political clout to influence those around him, going up against the much younger Giovanni Atzeni, out to stop Bruschelli matching Degortes’ record.

What is clear from the film is how much the race means to the Sienese. The three laps of the race may only last 90 seconds, but Il Palio builds up for weeks beforehand, and the celebrations go on long after the dirt has been cleared from the square, sometimes for months.

There are rituals, festivals and events leading up to each race. Capitani are constantly maneuvering one another politically (Tuscany is Machiavelli country after all) in order to gain the upperhand. There are favors owed, debts to be paid off and everybody has an opinion. The Italian word for ‘jockey’ is ‘fantino,’ but in Siena it has also come to mean ‘untrustworthy.’

To the casual observer, the medieval attire of the jockeys can be misleading, but this isn’t a historical society re-enacting events of the past. The racing is frenetic, the collisions are brutal and the support is ferocious.

Huge amounts of money are exchanged, feuds are formed and fights break out, but no money is won. The prize is a banner of silk hand-painted by a different artist for each race, which is then hung in the winning contrada’s museum. That, and the glory of the victory, is more than enough for the Sienese. Nobody wants to be nonna.

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article