The Palio of Siena







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The Palio of Siena                            (Back to Siena main information page)

The Siena Palio is the most spectacular festival event in Italy: a twice-yearly bareback horse race around the Campo, preceded by days of preparation, medieval pageantry and chicanery. Only ten of the contrade can take part in any one race; these are chosen by lot, and their horses and jockeys are also assigned at random. The only rule is that riders cannot interfere with each others' reins. Otherwise, anything goes: each contrada has a traditional rival, and ensuring that it loses is as important as winning oneself. Jockeys may be bribed to throw the race or whip a rival or a rival's horse; contrade have been known to drug horses and even to ambush a jockey on his way to the race. This is primarily a show for the Sienese; for visitors, in fact, the undercurrent of brutality and the bragging, days-long celebration of victory can be quite a shock.

The race has been held since at least the thirteenth century. Originally it followed a circuit through the town, but since the sixteenth century it has consisted of three laps of the Campo , around a track covered with sand and padded with mattresses to minimize injury to riders and horses (though this does occur, and the Palio is a passionate subject for animal-rights supporters). There are normally two Palios a year, with the following build-up:

June 29/August 13 : The year's horses are presented in the morning at the town hall and drawn by lot. At 7.15pm the first trial race is held in the Campo.

June 30/August 14 : Further trial races at 9am and 7.45pm.

July 1/August 15 : Two more trial races at 9am and 7.45pm, followed by a street banquet in each of the contrade .

July 2/August 16 : The day of the Palio opens with a final trial at 9am. In the early afternoon each contrada takes its horse to be blessed in its church (it's a good omen if the horse shits). At around 5pm the town hall bell begins to ring and riders and comparse - equerries, ensigns, pages and drummers in medieval costume - proceed to the Campo for a display of flag-twirling and other pageantry. The race itself begins at 7.45pm on July 2, or 7pm on August 16, and lasts little more than ninety seconds. There's no PA system to tell you what's going on. At the start (in the northwest corner of the Campo) all the horses except one are penned between two ropes; the free one charges the group from behind, when its rivals least expect it, and the race is on. It's a hectic and violent spectacle; a horse that throws its rider is still eligible to win. The jockeys don't stop at the finishing line but keep going at top speed out of the Campo, pursued by a frenzied mass of supporters. The palio - a silk banner - is subsequently presented to the winner.

There are viciously expensive stands for dignitaries and the rich (booked months ahead), but most spectators crowd for free into the centre of the Campo. For the best view , you need to have found a position on the inner rail by 2pm (ideally at the start/finish line), but be prepared to stand your ground; people keep pouring in right up until a few minutes before the race, and the swell of the crowd can be quite overwhelming. Toilets, shade and refreshments are minimal, and you won't be able to leave the Campo until at least 8.30pm. Hotel rooms are extremely difficult to find, and if you haven't booked, reckon on either staying up all night or travelling in from a neighbouring town. The races are shown live on national TV and repeated endlessly all evening.

All year round, Cinema Moderno on Piazza Tolomei screens a twenty-minute film explaining the history and drama of the race, dubbed into various languages (Mon-Sat, in English on the half-hour 9.30am-5.30pm; 5.16).


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