Palio di Siena is a horse racing event; but it is no ordinary horse racing contest. It is the expression of extreme competition between the 17 Contrade of Siena. The citizens of Siena carry the excitement of the event throughout the year and wait for the realization of their excitement twice a year – on July 2nd and August 16th.
The event of July 2nd is dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano. This is a painting once owned by a Sienese gentleman named Provenzano Salvani, which was said to have great divine qualities. This is called ‘Palio of Madonna’. The second Palio is conducted in the name of Virgin Mary, ‘Palio of the Assumption’.
The competition is between 10 of the seventeen Contrade of Siena. The jockeys ride bareback on their horses at break neck speed to complete three laps along the race course set around the Piazza del Campo. The horse that reaches the finishing point first will be awarded with the ‘Drappellone’, which is a hand-painted banner, which they can display proudly in the Contrada museum. These banners are specially made for each Palio.
Only 10 of the Contrade are allowed to participate in the race, for want of space in the race course. Too many participants will cause accidents and mishaps. Seven contrade will automatically be the ones that are left out in the previous Palio and the other three are selected by lots.
The competition is extraordinary in all its aspects. The jockeys are bound with few rules while taking part in the race. They can do anything with their whip – from egging their horses on to harming the jockey or horse of the other Contrade. Their only aim is to win the race. Another funny fact is that the loser is not the contrade that arrives last but that which finishes second. Strangely enough, the rule is that a horse can reach the finishing point without the rider and still win the race, as the Palio is awarded to the horse of the Contrada not its jockey.
The Palio is actually a 4-day affair. The lots are picked and horses are assigned on the first day, which is called Tratta. 10 horses will be selected by the experts and vets for each Contrada. Thereafter six trial runs are conducted to decide the Palio horse. The 5th one is conducted on the eve of the Palio and the last one is conducted in the morning of the Palio.
On the day of the Palio, the Bishop conducts a special Mass for the horses and Jockeys at 8 am, in the chapel near Palazzo Communale. After that the last trial run takes place with great enthusiasm. By 10.30 am the Jockeys will be fixed and the Contrade cannot replace them thereafter.
At 3 o’ clock the contrade conduct the blessing ceremony of their horses and afterwards the parade starts. This is a grand show in which each Contrada presents over 600 of its citizens dressed in historical costumes and in their own colors, as each Contrada has its own colors and banners. This makes the parade a highly colorful event. The parade winds round the city ways and reach the Piazza del Campo by 7 o’ clock.
Then the fireworks announce the entrance of the horses. The nine horses are then arranged in their assigned places and the 10th one enters dropping the rope at the starting point. But it is not as easy as it seems. The commencement of the races depends upon the horses and jockeys being ready and it can take a lot of time. When eventually it starts, it lasts only for about 90 minutes.
The competition is so strong that the citizens tend to be violent and display little tolerance for each other. The loss of the rival Contrada is celebrated with great celebrations! But the Sienese is of opinion that in their competition lies their unity. The specialty of this event is its strange rules and regulations and the unparalleled enthusiasm shown by the citizens.
by Marina Chernyak