Il Palio de Siena

It’s much more than just a horse race!

Siena is essentially a medieval city. On July 2nd and August 16th every year, the city becomes alive with action and enthusiasm, and gets ready for one of the most famous and welcome folk festival, the Il Palio. The highlight of the folk festival is the horse race Palio de Siena that encaptures the entire city itself. It is a historic horse race that takes almost every year and takes a year for the 17 Contrade of Siena to complete their preparations for it.

The 17 Contrade of Siena form the backbone of the Il Palio. They are regarded as districts for administrative purposes. They were formed during the middle ages mainly for the purpose of providing funds, man power etc for the companies that maintain the army which defended Siena from the neighboring states. The name Wave was as a result of guarding the coastline of Siena. Slowly, the Contrade lost their administrative purpose and began to be held together only by the common interests, culture, tradition and emotions. So the role of each Contrada was changed and varied from each other. The role for each Contrada was widened. Each had their own events, victories, festivals and holidays. Nobody appreciates if one marries from an other Contrada.

During the Palio, every citizen on the scene will wave a multicolored handkerchief. The horses that dash around the Piazza del Campo at rapid speed also wear these colored handkerchiefs that carry the design of their Contrada on it. The horses may be with or without their jockeys. The race happens only for one and a half minutes. All the practice and other activities surrounding it usually cause the mayhem. The other activities of preparation include discussions, fund raising, rehearsals etc in the presence of elected leaders and representatives of the Contrada. They also organize sessions to renew or remake their costumes for the occasion.

The 17 Contrade

The seventeen Contrade are distinctly different from each other. They are as follows:

Aquila - Eagle, Casato di Sotto
Bruco - Caterpillar, Via del Comune 48
Chiocciola - Snail, Via S. Marco 37
Civetta - Owl, Piazzetta del Castellare
Drago - Dragon, Piazza Matteotti 19
Giraffa - Giraffe, Via delle Vergine 18
Istrice - Hedgehog, Via Camollia 87
Leocorno - Unicorn, Via di Follonica 15
Lupa - She-Wolf, Via Vallerozzi 71/73
Nicchio - Shell, Via dei Pispini 68
Oca - Goose, Vicolo del Tiratoio 13
Onda - Wave, Via G. Duprè 111
Pantera - Panther, Via S. Quirico
Selva - Forest, Piazzetta della Selva
Tartuca - Tortoise, Via T. Pendola 21/25
Torre - Tower, Via Salicotto 76
Valdimontone - Ram, Via di Valdimontone 6

The oldest region of the city that comprises the first cathedral is the Tortoise Contrada. The museum there depicts its role in defeating the Spaniards in 1552.

The Eagle is one of the four noble Contrade. The title was bestowed upon it by Hapsburg Emperor Charles V. This was in return for the warm welcome he enjoyed in 1536. The cathedral today is in the territory of the Eagle.

Another noble Contrada is the Goose. It has the maximum number of cenci to its credit. The parish church of the Goose is Santa Caterina. It is dedicated to the saint of Italy, who was born a Goose. This Contrada does not have any allies.

Caterpillar is the third Contrada noble. It is a working class neighborhood that earned its title in 1369. The title was earned in favor of its bravery in defeating Charles IV of Bohemia. The title was solidified in 1371, since they had revolted the city leaders. There is also a wall painting in their museum depicting their revolt. This is also the only Contrada with no enemies. The Contrada Forest comprised of the best archers. The Dragon has in its territory the basilica of San Domenico. It also includes a street known as Palla a Corda with a dead end. The last Sunday in May is the Contrada feast day. You can see that this street will be turned into a shopping mall. You can also take part in the celebrations. The dragon’s museum also has a wooden statue of ‘Our Lady’ by Jacopo della Quercia.

The Snail has its baptismal fountain right in front of its church of San Paolo. The fountain pours out wine instead of water whenever the Contrada is triumphant. The name Chiocciola has been used by Snail even as early as 1200. The collection in its museum is very rich.

The Tower’s museum has a priced collection on antiques in its display. It was originally called the Elephant. Tower encompassed the synagogue and the Jewish quarter.

The Owl Contrada bears the title ‘priora’. It hosted the first meeting of the heads. It also includes the church of San Cristoforo. It was here in 1260 that Siena had declared war on Florence.

The Unicorn’s museum has a special possession, a bell. It is believed that it has been taken from the war chariot of Florence.

The Shell received its noble title only because it attacked first during the battle. Ram, Shell’s main enemy has the same colors as that of the Snail’s. So the jockeys of Shell wear pink clothes in silk. Some parts of the Shell’s museum were designed by the world famous modern day architect – Giovanni Michelucci.

Each Contrada is twinned with a city. 16th August is celebrated as the feast day by the She-Wolf. It is twinned with Rome. There is a photograph of Giuseppe Garibaldi in the museum that was rewarded to the jockey riding the horse of Lupa as a result of winning the race in 1867. This was the only year when the race was not for the second time on August 16th. It was held on the previous day to accommodate the General’s schedules.

The two imperial Contrade are the Giraffe and the Hedgehog. The Giraffe has an imposing motto. After winning the il palio it got its title from King Vittorio Emanuele in 1936. The museum of this Contrada is richly endowed being one of the most affluent regions.

The other imperial Contrada is the Hedgehog. It dates to the Etruscan times. Since the headquarters of The Sovereign Military Order of Malta was located here, the title was given thus. The oldest fresco is found in the church of this Contrada.

The Race

The Palio di Siena is the most famous and magnificent horse race held twice in every year. The participating horses and their jockeys represent a Contrada and also wear the colors and designs of it. A spectacular procession precedes the race and this attracts visitors from all over the world. The central piazza of the town was the location for the games like pugna, jousting, bull fights etc. Races called Palii Alla Lunga were conducted by the Contrade as early as the 14th century itself. When bull fighting was banned in 1590, races were organized at the Piazza del Campo. Races in the beginning were on buffalos and called bufalate, races on donkeys called asinate and horse racing were at that time held elsewhere. The modern palio known as the palio alla tonda was first held in 1650. Only one race was held initially. The second race for the same year was added later.

The first race is on the 2nd of July. It is the day of local festivities celebrated in honor of Madonna of Provenzano. The second race is 16th August. The celebrations of the day are dedicated to Virgin Mary. The race field consists of ten horses which mean that only 10 of the 17 Contrade can participate in the race. The seven that does participate get to it the next time. The other three will be randomly chosen. The horses to run the race will be chosen by means of a draw. They will have six trials before the actual race. Prayers and offerings go along for the winning of each Contrada. These days there are bribing also. There is a spectacular pageant in medieval costumes just before the race. The loud echoes of explosives signal the onlookers the beginning of the race. Nine jockeys ride on the bare backs of their horses. The tenth horse stands behind them. The racers can use whips for their horse and worry other horses also. The winner is supposed to be that horse that crosses the finishing line with its head ornament in its place. And the loser is the one that finishes second and not last! The winner gets a beautiful banner in silk made especially for the particular year. The victory is often celebrated for months together. The losers would also have to bear the bullying by the winning team too. The winner of the 2006 Palio in July was Panther, after a gap of six years. In August, it was won by the Forest.

Let the sporting events be more of celebrations than of violence or hatred!