Twice a year, central Siena transforms into an epic, colourful spectacle, where thousands flock to witness 17 districts battle it out during the most important event on the Sienese calendar. Glory and honour are at stake, but in a game of power and politics where corruption isn’t just tolerated but celebrated, the participants need to go to extreme lengths to earn first prize for their district.
The Palio takes place twice during the summer, first on July 2, then again on August 16. But for the Sienese, the Palio is life and is on the forefront of their minds 365 days of the year. Unlike other horse races, it offers no financial reward but is run only for the glory of victory. It’s also one of the only horse races in the world where the horse wins the race, not the rider. Given that corruption and bribery are the very essence of Palio, jockeys spend the year ensuring the 90 seconds go in their favour: training bareback, securing deals with allies, building a strong network of power, bribing and threatening their enemies.
Centuries-old rivalries run deep among the 17 districts involved – known as “Contrade” – so much so that friendships and enemies among neighbours are often determined at birth. Jockeys of the Palio are prepared to risk their lives for victory, desperate to avoid the shame brought onto the losing Contrada.
Below, we offer a snapshot of the events that occur during the three days leading up to the race. Expect violence, chaos, fierce competition, rivalry and drama.
At 7am sharp on June 29, three days before each Palio, the 10 Contrade jockeys wait in anticipation during a series of events known as the tratta, which determine which horses are matched with each district. Around 20-25 horses are brought into the inner courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico to be examined by the veterinarians, who must deem them fit by the staff of the Veterinarians of the City of Siena. The horses that pass are then separated into groups and tested for three laps around the square in order to check their suitability for the track.
After the horses are presented to the district captains and lieutenants, it’s then the captain’s goal, in the presence of the mayor of Siena, to select the final 10 horses. The selection process is of high importance, with the aim to exclude the fastest and slowest horses and only select ones that are evenly matched, since no captain would like to risk his district being allocated a weak horse, or his rival a strong one.
The pictures below show the Mayor of Siena, Luigi De Mossi, assisting the horse draw.
Conducted on a stage set up in Palazzo Pubblico, the mayor and the 10 captains take to a stage in front of the Palazzo Pubblico for the all-important draw, in which the chosen horses will be allocated to the 10 participating districts. Gasps of disappointment or tears of joy are shrieked out when the results of the draw are called out, for every spectator will know in advance, either through gossip or from past performance, the strong and weak horses.
To bestow good luck, the barbaresco, or groom, leads the horse to the relevant stable, accompanied by the contradaioli (supporters of the district). From the moment the horse is assigned, it is the barbaresco’s sole responsibility to ensure the welfare of the horse. It is absolutely vital that the groom be accompanied by a bodyguard at all times to thwart sabotage, until the Palio is over.
Applause for the arrival of Luigi Bruschelli, who is nicknamed “Trecciolino” ultimately because he has won 13 Palios.
At around 7pm sharp on the evening of the tratta, the grooms and contradaioli march their allotted horses back to the piazza for the first of the six trail races, or prove. The competing horses scramble furiously as the horses trot in and line up in a designated roped area before joining the ring. Enter the incoming “charge” of the carabinieri – policemen on horseback dressed in colourful, full regalia – who compete a speedy, honorary lap that ignites the fuse for the track, only to be lit up at the start of the race.
The release of the firecracker announces the various stages of the race – clearing the track, the moment the horses enter, false moves and the end of the race. It is common to see people protecting their ears from the loud burst of noise.
Virginia Cannoni, the only woman to hold the vice barbaresco role in Siena, pictured with Rocco Nice, the winning horse from the Drago Contrada.
The night before the race, all districts come together during a feast in which all the districts of the Contrade participate in the Palio, where managers, contradaioli and guests come together during a lavish feast that takes over the main plaza. This is a time when Sienese politics comes into full swing. Despite the districts’ differences, the whole of Siena becomes one during a dinner that celebrates Sienese pride. In typical Italian style, this is also a time when gossip, corruption, speculation and general rowdiness occurs, when deals are struck with close allies and predictions made.
Each jockey sits at the table of honour of his own district with the leading figures of the Contrada. Songs, speeches and well-wishes for the success of the Contrada ensue. After dinner, the Captains of each Contrada (and their entourage) leave to meet the leaders of allied Contradas with whom they will make “agreements” to support their victory (or that of the Contrada ally) and to hinder the success of their main rivals.
Below, Stefano Cambiaggi, the captain of the Nicchio district, and Luigi Bruschelli arrive at the celebratory dinner.
The blessing of the Drappellone (a large painted canvas and winning prize): This race is dedicated to the statue of Madonna inside the Basilica of Provenzano, in which the Drappelone is taken to the church to be blessed and paraded in front of the crowds. People peer at the Drappellone in the hope of seeing lucky signs or symbols that they can link to the victory of their district, others throw hankerchiefs, and bishops touch it with their local flag offering their own blessing. It’s a true object of desire.
The blessing of the horse and the jockey: This is one of the most important aspects of the race, which highlights the important religious element of the competition. Taking place in the church of each Contrada, horses are brought into their respective churches during a religious ceremony that sees the priest offering a blessing; a wish that is almost an order: “Go and return as our winner!”
The parade participants: As part of the pageantry before the race, the Comparsa – dressed in the traditional medieval costume unique to their district – parade through the piazza to the beat of an old military drum and bearing giant flags. The costumes feature rich colours and elaborately-embellished fabrics.
Competition time: After the burst of the firecracker, the horses are released, where the jockeys are called to line up at the start in the “mossa”, an area delineated by two large ropes. Given that the start position could often be rigged and subject to bribary at the beginning of the week, the start positions are only established at the very moment the race begins. It’s here where bribery and corruption are at their most poignant, where jockeys can be seen striking deals among each other, with the mossiere (the man responsible for starting the race), and with crucial last-minute deals being cut on the start line.
Absolute silence reigns in the Piazza as lawless chaos ensues below. The race can only begin when the 10th jockey has entered the mossa at a running gallop and significantly, this moment is chosen only at the mossiere’s own discretion. It’s not uncommon for horses to be sent back to do a circuit around the plaza to gain order. Typically there are several false starts. Again, this is the jockeys’ chance to strike and offer the best deal for their district. Tensions are high here, as the moment the mossiere decides to start the race will determine which jockey’s bribe he has decided to accept. In fact, the mossiere can sometimes be seen to delay the race, often provided with a first and second warning if there is too much delay.
The winner is the first to complete three laps of the track, covering roughly 1,000 metres in total. It’s incredibly brief, incredibly tense, and occasionally brutal. All the glory and victory is bestowed on first place, with no runner-ups. The real winner is always the horse, because even in the event that a riderless horse (darkly referred to as “shaken”) crosses the finish line first, that Contrada is still the victor.
In July 2018, the triumphant victor was Andrea Mari “Brio”, winner of six Palios for the Drago district.
Here you see the captain of Drago, Fabio Miraldi, cheering for his victory.
After the race, the supporters of the victorious Contrada parade through the race sucking dummies to symbolise that they have been reborn and blessed with the Virgin’s divine milk of salvation. In contrast, die-hard fans of a losing Contrada will take a “purge” after a race to spiritually cleanse themselves of shame.
Below are the 17 districts of Siena. Affiliation to the different districts can be so strong that it’s often the case that each jockey is seen as belonging to their Contrada first, before Siena.