All about The Palio
Do not underestimate the importance of this event for the Sienese. For them it is not just 2 days of the year on July 2nd and August 16th, but instead is something eagerly waited for, planned for, and money raised for, all year long, and the 4 days of the Palio are full of tension and celebration.
It is said that 28,000 pack into the inside of the square to watch the Palio for free from inside the race track. Add onto that the people who have paid for positions on GrandStands, Balconies, Windows and imagine the sound as the crowds roar in
support and desperation. The intensity of this experience is not to be underestimated .
So what is the prize that everyone is going to watch to be won? A painted banner called “Palio” (from the Latin “Pallium”)! Needless to say it is not the prize that counts but the honour and glory which comes in waves, and is rooted in over 300 years
of history. Few people know that the Palio was actually originally run to celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary in Siena and was first run in 1656 (as it is today, but it’s a much older tradition)
The Palio is based on a secular tradition with contradas (geographical districts) competing and each contrada has its own symbols, patron saints, coat of arms, government, territories as defined in 1730. In the past 59 Contradas used to participate,
but now only 17 remain and in each Palio there are 10 contradas participating with a horse and jockey running. 7 run by right and the remaining 3 are drawn by lots.
The “Race track”
The race track is the perimeter ring in the center of Sienna in the Piazza del Campo which is covered by a layer of earth about 15 cm thick and composed of a mix of tufo and sand. This is then steam rolled and watered periodically so that it is compact but not too dry. In racing terms it would be considered that the going was hard
What are the Horse Selection Trials About?
There are 5 horse selection trials and in each of these trials 5-6 horses run. They are run in order to see their suitability to run in the actual Palio in the Piazza del Campo. Afterwards the captains of the participating Contradas choose 10 horses for the Palio day. Interestingly they don’t necessarily choose the strongest horses. For example they may choose a reliable stable horse rather than a more flighty nervous horse that could cause problems in the race.
So once the 10 horses have been chosen they are assigned to the participating 10 contradas by a draw. This happens in the packed Piazza del Campo on 29th June/13th August and it is only after a Contrada knows which horse they have that they can put their race strategies into action. At the draw it is very easy to see and hear whether the Contradas think they have drawn a good horse this year! The horse cannot now be changed by the Contrada, but the Jockey can be changed up to the morning of the actual Palio.
Now the Contradas brings their allocated horses to the Piazza for their trials accompanied by the key Contrada members with much singing. The trials simulates the actual Palio racing 3 times around the Campo with the objective being to allow the horses and jockeys to get used to the conditions and track. There are 6 trials in total and they rotate the horse order line up.
The trial on the 1st July/15th August is called the Dress Rehearsal and has a bit more spectacle in so far as it is
preceded by mounted Carabinieri charging half way around the Campo in full dress with swords drawn.
In the evening a celebratory good luck dinner is held in each of the participating Contradas. This is outside and the Jockey and key contrada members will be seated at the main table. Expect much toasting, singing and speeches to wish the jockey and horse good luck.
On the day of the Palio the Jockeys attend a mass in the Campo and a final trial. After this trial the Jockeys are presented with their silks in the city hall and at this very late stage finally the jockeys have also been chosen and cannot be changed.
In the afternoon the horses are taken to the main church of their respective Contradas for benediction. Afterwards the Contrada members meet near the Cathedral dressed in their historical costumes which date all the way back to the 1430’s, for the Parade to the Campo where they will parade with much flag waving, and even flag throwing and catching for @ 2 hours.
The Parade consists of flag bearers, drummers, trumpeters and various musicians. There will be representatives of the Contradas that are not running this specific Palio and representatives of the Contradas that no longer exist, as well as the participating Contrada parading.
The actual Palio race
When the Pallium banner is hoisted onto the judges stand it is time for the Palio race itself.
First you have the Mossa which is the melee of the jockeys trying to get the final line up sorted. This is not as easy as it sounds as Jockeys will be trying to not only get in a good position themselves, but to only get in that good position once their arch rival is in a bad position. It is only when the 10th horse enters the line up that the Palio race starts. The crowd will go ballistic!
The overall race is 1070 m long – which is 3 times around the Piazza. Historically the fast races have been recorded as 1 minute 15 seconds and the slow ones 1 minute 20 seconds. The greatest number of falls occur at the San Martino Bend and the Casato Bend where the horses are crowded together and due to the awkward slope of the ground. As a result on the San Martino bend a row of mattresses are placed against the walls to soften any Jockey falls.
The race is bareback and the only rule at this stage is that a jockey cannot grab the reins of another horse. The winner is the first horse that crosses the line – it doesn’t have to have a rider on it and the second to arrive is considered the main loser. Contradas will celebrate a arch rival Contradas bad placement as much as if they had won themselves.
The winner clambers up to grab the Pallium banner and is given a babies dummy and baby bottle. This is because the victory of the Palio is equalled to a babies birth, and the winning contrada members are considered to have become newborns. The Palio is considered an evolution from birth to adulthood. So the Contrada that has not won for the longest time is called a
Right after the race the winning Contrada members bring the Palio to the church of Santa Maria in Provenzano (July) and to the Duomo (August). Afterwards it is taken back to the Contrada for parades accompanied by flags and drums and much celebrations!