Palio di Siena


One of the most famous Italian historical reenactments isn’t in fact a reenactment at all. Legend has that the Palio di Siena is a celebration of the victory of the Siena township army over Florence in the 1260 Montaperti battle, that marked the domination of the former all over Central Italy. Unfortunately this story is wholly unsubstantiated, just like the other origin story of the festival. In fact, according to another legend, around the end of the 1500s in a drunken fit an invading Spanish soldier had tried to shoot at a famous Piety statue called the Madonna of Provenzano– but his musket exploded in his face, killing him and saving the art piece. This was considered a miracle indicating the benevolence of God toward Siena and against its occupants, and it was celebrated with growing enthusiasm, up to the institution of the palio. More realistically, the citywide festivity was born simply as one of the many ways the township militias goofed off whenever they weren’t engaging other townships. In fact “palio” races were commonly held pretty much everywhere as an opportunity to remind the population of the power and riches of the nobility, as an outlet for tensions and hidden conflicts between the many town contrade, or quarters, and as fundraisings for the local churches. The word ‘palio’ itself, in example, originally indicated a relatively expensive blanket that was given as a prize and safeguarded by a church until it was offered as dowry to the poorest girl of that quarter.

The earliest record of the modern palio di Siena appeared in 1659, in the form of a horse race around the characteristically asymmetrical and heavily sloped main square of the city. It pits the various contrade – each of them with its colorful name, costumes and insignia – one against each other. Since the race tends to be very brutal and violent, since 1729 only ten contrade participate for each edition to ensure the safety of public, riders and horses, with a complex drawing system to guarantee an even presence of all quarters through the years. The prize is still called a palio, but since the 1700s it is actually a large painting, created by a different prominent international artist for every edition.

It is said that only locals can fully understand the countless quirks of the palio di Siena, including its unique jargon that is all but incomprehensible even to Italians. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole city revolves around this event throughout the entire year. Beside the economic implications of such a tourism magnet, the people of Siena actually root for their contrada with such a rabid intensity that serious group fights are common between the different quarters, and to be from the quarter winning the palio is considered the absolute high point in the life of a citizen. In fact, each contrada has both a sworn “brother” and an enemy. To this day, this fanaticism breeds a continuing history of attacks, treasons, Machiavellian plots and more between contrade – so much that secret pacts (called partiti) are openly encouraged both to help fellow contrade and to damage their enemies. Winning a palio also involves heavy economic windfall for everyone – and sometimes not in the most logical manner. In example, the winning contrada is supposed to host sumptuous celebratory dinners (called cenini) for as many days as the number of wins since the first palio. Paying for 80 or 100 grand events can bring a quarter to its knees, so sometimes other quarters arrange to lose one race in order to put the “winner” out of the competition for years to come as it recoups.

The race itself is extremely unpredictable because the horses and their riders are matched by a drawing just before the event. Even if six trial runs are allowed to establish a rapport between man and animal, the lack of a proper training together makes the race more instinctual than technical. Until 1999 the sheer power of the competing horses was usually enhanced by steroids and other illegal drugs that made the race even more brutal; now the animals are kept under strict medical check, but the rivalry between their riders doesn’t make it much easier on them, as the horses are often used as actual weapons against the competition. Tellingly, the rules explicitly state that a horse can win the race even if its rider was scosso, meaning thrown off its back and onto the track.

There are actually two palios: on July 2nd and on August 16th – and occasionally “extraordinary” races are held to mark historical events such as the moon landing or the new millennium. In both occasions the square is jam-packed. The actual race rules take into account the peculiar geometry of the square. Since the horses starting on the inner positions are at a great advantage, these places are decided by another drawing just minutes before the start. Nine horses are then corralled between two ropes crossing the racing lane, while the tenth gallops around the square and signals the start of the race as it reaches the other. The setup is so delicate that it is normal for the actual start to take many trials, sometimes requiring the whole day before a valid start is achieved. From that moment, the race involves three full laps during which everything may happen. Throughout the years there have been violent fights between racing riders, horses slamming into the public at full speed, and even a famous treason in 1896, when the leading rider just stopped mid-track to let an opponent win… and immediately gave itself to the police to be arrested and to get protection from the lynching mob. The festival built around each palio officially extends for four days during which countless shows, parades and reenactments take place.