If you ever visited Siena, you surely must have heard of its famous Palio. This horse racing tradition that goes back 300 years, is the most important event in town. But for the Sienese, Palio di Siena is more than just a horse race. The air is loaded with emotions and jam-packed with people twice a year, when the race takes place in Piazza del Campo.
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The Cultural Meaning of Palio di Siena
The European Renaissance might have began in Tuscany but Siena didn’t care to keep up with it. The Tuscan town got stuck in the Middle Ages, deep rooted in tradition. In order to understand the Palio, you’ll have to know a few things about the Sienese.
Siena is divided into contrade or wards, each having its own emblem and colors, its own unique mascot and its own flag. But it doesn’t stop there: each Contrada has its own church, its own museum, its own motto, and a host of traditions.
While walking around Siena it’s easy to know which Contrada you’re in because most homes display one of the 17 flags representing the distinct districts. An interesting fact is that you cannot become a Contrada member, you have to be born into it.
Residents are extremely loyal to their own Contrada and celebrate holidays, victories, marriages, baptisms, or funerals only with their Contrada. It is advised that you do not marry out of your contrada, but if that happens the wedding will be celebrated in a neutral ward.
The rivalry between the wards becomes visible and important during the Palio or the horse race. Married couples from different contrade will often split up during the race.
How Palio di Siena Horse Race Unfolds
The Palio is the soul of Siena, the true essence of belonging to the city. Historic documents reveal that this long tradition goes back to the 6th century. The horse race takes place on July 2 and August 16 every year, at the Piazza del Campo.
The rule says that only ten out of the seventeen contrade can participate in each race, so the first seven are those that did not participate in the previous race and the other three are drawn by lots.
The Palio prize is called “Drappellone”, which is a large painted canvas designed each year by a different artist. The winning contrada displays the prize in their own museum.
Order Above All
Despite the fierce rivalries and tensions between the contrade, there’s virtually no crime, violence or disorder associated with it. Apparently, other than traffic and crowd control, the police in Siena seems to have little to do.
Ain’t No Party like the Palio Party
The Palio festivity lasts for four days each time, from the the drawing of the lots and assignment of the horses, to the warm-ups and the victory parties. Each Contrada has its own jockey but not its own horse.
Each Contrada has a bell, which which rings all night long if the Contrada wins, to mark the quarter’s celebration. The greatest dream of each Sienese is to hear the Victory Bell ring in their Contrada during the Palio di Siena horse race.
The horses are being assigned at the beginning of the four days. Trying to get into the city with 60,000 people to watch the Palio may be difficult and overwhelming. But if you want to get a feel of the atmosphere that animates Siena during this crazy horse race, you could take a day-trip to Siena from Florence to see horse-race trials. The trials take place on any of the three days before the actual event.