Palio di Siena: Everything You Need to Know About the Iconic Horse Race

Palio di Siena: Everything You Need to Know About the Iconic Horse Race

The Palio di Siena, held twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th, is an iconic horse race deeply rooted in Siena's historical and cultural fabric.

Hosted in the majestic Piazza del Campo, this event transcends mere sport; it represents an essential aspect of Sienese identity.  Dating back to medieval times, the Palio's rich history is closely linked with the Contrade, Siena's ancient neighbourhoods.

While the race itself lasts just a few minutes, the festivities and traditional celebrations surrounding the Palio extend far beyond this.

Keep reading to learn everything about this unique event and start planning your trip to Siena.

Introduction to Palio di Siena

Palio di siena: jockeys running with their horses

The Palio di Siena is a famous horse race that takes place twice a year - on July 2nd and August 16th - in Siena. It is a deep-rooted historical and culturally significant event, and it’s held in the Piazza del Campo, the city’s main square, also famous for its distinguished shell shape.

The history of the Palio di Siena dates back to medieval times: the first documented Palio took place in 1283. It was initially held in the streets of the city, then moved to Piazza del Campo in the mid-16th century. The race itself is relatively short, as it only lasts for a few minutes, but the events and traditional celebrations revolving around the Palio last much longer than this.

The entire Palio event, including various ceremonies, rituals, and festivities, spans four days, with the race on the last day. This event is tightly bound to the 17 Contrade, or neighbourhoods, that make up the city.

The affiliation to a Contrada is a crucial aspect of the life of a Sienese, and it’s a vital part of their identity. To better understand the importance of the Contrade, we have dedicated the next chapter to explaining their history.

Siena’s Contrade

Contrade's flag outside of an historical palace

As mentioned, the Contrade are the historic neighbourhoods or districts of the city of Siena. There are a total of 17 Contrade, each with its own distinct identity, traditions, and allegiances. Each Contrada is identified by its emblem, which is often an animal or symbol associated with the Contrada's history or mythology.

Their origins trace back to approximately the 12th and 13th centuries when Siena was expanding and developing as a city-state. It's believed that these divisions emerged to organize the growing population and to foster a sense of community among its residents.

Over time, these entities evolved into social and cultural groups, playing a significant role in Siena’s history, culture, and even politics.

To this day, they maintain an autonomous, democratically run structure separate from Siena’s municipality. The Contrade have their own meeting places, churches, and social organizations, and they are known for their passionate rivalries and alliances. The loyalty of Sienese residents to their Contrada is a lifelong commitment, and being part of a Contrada is a source of pride and identity.

Originally, Contrada membership was tied to birth within its territory. At that time, births mainly occurred at home in the historic centre, and in cases where a woman lived elsewhere, measures were taken to ensure the child's birth in the desired Contrada.

In 1949, the "Battesimo Contradaiolo" was introduced, a secular ritual solidifying lifelong Contrada belonging. This ritual accommodates children born outside the city walls to seamlessly affiliate with their parents' Contrada today.

In this frame of meaning, the Palio is not just a horse race; it is a competition between the Contrade, representing centuries-old traditions and the unique spirit of Siena. However, only ten Contrade are selected to participate in the race, while the remaining seven are excluded.

The selection process adds an element of unpredictability and excitement to the event. The winning Contrada celebrates lavishly, considering it a matter of great pride and honour.

The Contrade are an essential part of Siena's identity, fostering a strong sense of community and belonging among its inhabitants, even in modern times.

The 17 Contrade of Siena are:

  1. Aquila (Eagle)
  2. Bruco (Caterpillar)
  3. Chiocciola (Snail)
  4. Civetta (Little Owl)
  5. Drago (Dragon)
  6. Giraffa (Giraffe)
  7. Istrice (Porcupine)
  8. Leocorno (Unicorn)
  9. Lupa (She-Wolf)
  10. Nicchio (Seashell)
  11. Oca (Goose)
  12. Onda (Wave)
  13. Pantera (Panther)
  14. Selva (Forest)
  15. Tartuca (Tortoise)
  16. Torre (Tower)
  17. Valdimontone

Rules and Key Events During Palio di Siena

flag-wavers

The Palio involves numerous rules and key events, many of which are accessible to the public.

The initial event is the selection of Contrade. Out of the seventeen Contrade only ten participate in each Palio. The seven Contrade who did not participate in the previous race are automatically included, while the remaining three spots are filled by drawing lots around a month prior to the event.

This system ensures a mix of both rotational inclusion and an element of luck, making sure that every Contrada has an opportunity to participate in the Palio over time while also ensuring the selection process remains unpredictable.

Three days before the Palio, it’s time for the Tratta (horse selection): each participating Contrada is assigned a horse through a lottery system. Private owners provide the horses, and the jockeys, known as "Fantini," are hired by the Contrade to ride the assigned horses.

Leading up to the event, the racehorses undergo trial races - also open to the public - allowing the jockeys and horses to familiarize themselves with the track and test their strategies.The training sessions happen twice daily, at 9 am and 7:30 pm and people wanting to attend the trials can enter the square up to 30 minutes before. The Prova Generale (general trial) is the most important one, and it takes place the evening before the Palio.

The Contrade prepare extensively for the event, organizing ceremonies and rituals to bless their horse and jockey. During the nights leading up to the Palio race, each Contrada organizes dinners in the streets and squares of their neighbours.

The dinner happening the night before the Palio is particularly important, and in some cases, tourists can attend.

On the day of the Palio, a grand historical parade takes place in the Piazza del Campo called Corteo Storico. This parade showcases participants in medieval costumes, flag-throwers, drummers, and various other performers.

The main event, the Palio horse race, typically takes place at 7pm, and consists of three laps around the Piazza del Campo, lasting approximately 90 seconds. However, the starting signal, known as the Mossa, may be repeated multiple times until it's considered valid.

The race is known for its high intensity and the increased risk of accidents, as horses run bareback and jockeys spur them on with whips, especially around the sharp turns on slippery grounds in crowded conditions. Consequently, in the event of rain, the race might be postponed to the following day for safety reasons.

The victory of a Contrada is determined by its horse crossing the finish line first, regardless of whether the jockey falls during the race. The triumph belongs to the Contrada, not the jockey, and the victorious one receives the Palio, a painted banner symbolizing prestige and honour.

Celebrations in the streets of the winning Contrada can last for days, while the losing Contrada's surroundings may remain closed or quiet.

Plan Your Trip and Make the Most Out of the Palio

Big crowd watching the Palio, Palazzo Pubblico in the background

The Palio di Siena is an intense experience both for participants and witnesses, so it is vital to plan ahead and evaluate if you are well prepared. When organizing your trip to Siena for the Palio, remember to secure your accommodation well in advance, and if you are still looking for the perfect accommodation, visit our portfolio of villas to rent in Siena.

To fully immerse yourself in the event, we advise you arrange a four-day visit, which allows you to partake in all the festivities associated with the Palio, including the horse selection, trial runs and communal dinners. This way you’ll be able to get a glimpse of the atmosphere and the life of a Sienese during such an important time.

But if you have time only for the grand race, here are our suggestions on where to see it.

Best spots to watch the Palio:

  1. Piazza del Campo.
    You can watch the Palio for free in Piazza del Campo. This is the more authentic experience, but it requires a bit of planning, and it is definitely not for everyone. The first thing to know is that the square gates close 3 hours before the start of the race, so make sure to get there in time. Be aware of the heat, and dress appropriately, making sure to bring sunscreen and hats. There will be many people around, so avoid obstructing other people's view (e.g. hats need to come off during the race and don’t hold your phone or camera too high to record the race). Please note that chairs are not permitted within the square, and restrooms are unavailable once you enter. However, refreshments are available for purchase. Children under 12 are also not allowed in the square for safety reasons.

  2. Grandstand Seats.
    The grandstands set up around the square offer ticketed seating for a clearer view of the race. They provide elevated views and a more organized experience, but tickets need to be booked well in advance. By choosing this option, you will remain near the race while enjoying a more comfortable viewing position. However, currently, there is no official website available for purchasing tickets.

  3. Windows and Balconies.
    Some residents rent out their windows or balconies overlooking the Piazza del Campo. These spots offer a higher perspective and a more private viewing experience, but they come at a much higher cost.

Best Practice
Evidently, this event holds profound significance for the Sienese community, and is not just a re-enactment of historical events. The Palio is a fundamental part of the city's life, and belonging to a Contrada is something the Sienese take very seriously. For these reasons, it's important to keep in mind certain behavioural rules to avoid unpleasant situations.

- Do not attempt to approach the horses, and do not bother them with loud noises.
- Do not disturb the Contrada members during moments of high tension.
- Do not obstruct the view.
- Be respectful during tense moments and refrain from making sarcastic comments or jokes.
- Follow all instructions and try not to get in the way. If asked to move, do so without arguing.
- In case of a brawl or confrontation between members of rival Contrade, discreetly move away immediately and refrain from taking photos or filming the altercation.
- It is not advisable to enter the track immediately after the race.
- Pay attention to the colours you wear, and avoid showing up in a defeated Contrada wearing the colours of the winning one.

The Palio is not just a race; it represents a centuries-old competition between the Contrade, echoing ancient traditions and fostering a sense of unity and pride among the Sienese. This event continues to thrive and captivate both locals and visitors alike, and it’s a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in Siena's vibrant cultural heritage.

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