The Palio of Siena

The Most Exciting Horse Race That No One Has Ever Heard Of

Many of those who travel abroad have heard of the charming city of Siena, in central Tuscany. And in fact many who have vacationed in Italy have visited Siena, often as a day stop while on a bus from Rome to Florence. What’s amazing is that while tens of thousands of people visit Siena every year, almost none of them understand what they’re looking at as they wander the city, admiring the colorful flags that line the charming cobblestone streets. A few of them may have heard of the Palio, a horse race held there twice a year, but very few comprehend the significance of that event, and how it has transformed Siena into one of the most fascinating and complex cultures on the planet. Certainly anyone who has wandered the winding cobblestone streets of Siena’s lovely historical center has noticed the many colorful outdoor light fixtures that line the neighborhoods and the huge vibrant banners that hang over the streets.  Hang around until evening and, if you’re lucky, you might even see a small but enthusiastic neighborhood parade, complete with flag-tossing, drum beating, and passionate singing.

All of this pomp and merriment is because of a horse race? Yes…and no. First and foremost, it’s not JUST a horse race, not by a long shot. The palio is a social, political, historical and religious event that permeates life in Siena so completely it’s hard to get your head around the concept. It’s also definitely not an event held for tourists, it’s for the Sienese, who are totally consumed by it. They don’t mind if you watch, but don’t get in their way. When most of us think of the excitement surrounding an event like this, we think of it in sports terms…the passion of team rivalries, the emotion of the Olympic games, the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”, and so on. That doesn’t really scratch the surface of the Palio, but it’s a start.

The origins of the Palio go all the way back to the medieval times, 1656 to be exact. About a hundred years earlier Siena was finally defeated by its arch-rival Florence, after nearly 300 years of intermittent warfare. After the war the Sienese were disarmed and their army disbanded. Looking for an outlet for the energy and passion of their neighborhood-based soldiers and citizens, they adopted several ferocious pursuits, such as bull-fighting, buffalo racing, horse racing and lavish pageants. All of these pitted neighborhood (called contrada, or contrade for plural) against neighborhood, much as the different units of the army had been organized.  Eventually this all evolved into a bareback horse race around the central piazza, or square, by ten horses, one from each of ten contrade. (Although there are 17 contrade, only ten race at once.)

You have to understand that the contrade of Siena are far more important to their citizens than we might suspect. Each contrada is a mini-town, completely self-sufficient, with its own church, square, fountain, daycare, senior center, council, and all of the other institutions necessary for a smoothly running community, including taxes. They even have their own colors, mascot, and museum to house important memorabilia, like the Palios they have won.

And just what is a “Palio”?

The race takes its name from the prize, the “Palio”, which is a large silk banner lavishly painted by an Italian artist, depicting the Virgin Mary, the horses, Siena, and the year of the race. Each Palio is a unique piece of art. After the race the Palio is paraded around the town by the ecstatically happy winners, (and when I say ecstatic, that doesn’t quite do it justice…think singing, screaming, crying, and hugging…and that’s just the men), eventually ending up back at the contrada museum, to take its place next to the dozens of previously won Palios, sometimes dating back several centuries. These Palio, needless to say, are the most treasured possessions of the contrada.

The Palio race is a year-long event, not just a race held on July 2nd and August 16th. The planning, plotting, dinners, and strategy meetings last all year, building to a fever pitch and culminating in the spectacle of the race.

There is also a history of friendship and warfare between contrade. Nearly every contrada has an ancient “friend contrada” and likewise an ancient “enemy contrada”. Each contrada spends much time and energy, all year, making plans to aid their friendly contrada and hatching various plots to defeat their enemy contrada. Keep in mind that the best thing in life for a Sienese is for their contrada to win the Palio, and the second best thing is for your enemy contrada NOT to win. For in the Palio there is only one winner, the rest are all losers. In fact, second place is considered the worst type of loser!

To make it even more interesting, the horses are NOT from the contrada, or even from Siena, but are brought in from outside and then awarded by lottery just a few days before the race. The race officials make sure there is a mix of fast, average, and slow horses, so you really don’t know if you’ll have a fast horse or a slow one…It’s all about luck. As you can imagine, immediately after the lottery there begins an even more extreme round of plotting…for you want to try to win, but in case bad luck awards you a slow horse, then your strategy turns to plots and intrigue aimed at making your enemy contrada NOT win…which is nearly as good.

How, you might ask, is it possible to affect a race to make another contestant NOT win? It’s not too difficult in a race where there are virtually no rules. The jockeys, called fantinos, are by tradition hired from outside Siena. They are paid enormous sums, and win large bonuses for winning, rumoured to be sometimes over a million Euro. (The day after the race, the citizens of the winning contrada happily and proudly line up to pay their share of the fantino payment.) They also can be bribed to perform badly, or can be paid to work together to hamper another jockey or horse. They can hit each other with their whips, and can block, hinder, and pretty much do whatever they want to each other. Each of them also has a sizeable “war-chest” of money that they are authorized to use at the last minute, as the horses line up, to make a last-second deal with another fantino.   A plot, within a scheme, all wrapped in a conspiracy, and no one trusts anyone.   Some of the rivalries and vendettas go back many, many generations. Believe me, to the Sienese, all of this is not a game, they take it very seriously. After all, whichever contrada wins the Palio has bragging rights for an entire year….which is a bitter pill indeed for their rival contrade.

How serious are the Sienese about their contrada and the palio? I personally have witnessed my friends, natives of Siena, teach their first-born son to say the contrada name as his first word…not Mama, or Papa, but Chiocciola (snail). They were so proud they could burst!

Another friend of mine from a different contrada once related a story to me of how a young mother was spoon feeding her baby, and naming each spoonful for a different family member…”This one is for mama!”…”This one is for papa!” and so on. Each time the baby would happily open its mouth and mom would shovel it in. Then mom said “This one is for the goose!” (which was the enemy of her contrada), as the smiling baby again opened his mouth for the spoon, mom suddenly dumped the spoon onto the ground and said firmly “NO, NEVER for the goose!” This was repeated until the baby learned just who was the enemy.

It’s not forbidden for young people to marry outside of their contrada, after all, this IS the 21st century. However, it’s also common for a “mixed-marriage” couple to separate during the ten days or so leading up to the race. Tensions are just too high, and neither wants to unwittingly give away any contrada secrets or strategy to their spouse.

So let’s watch a video to get an idea of the excitement and emotion…here is the July 2013 race. Some notable points to watch:

  • The starting procedure is for the horses to line up between two ropes. One horse, chosen by lottery, gets to hang back and start the race by crossing the line of the back rope. They have a lot of power, and can start the race whenever the time is right. In this race, the Nicchio horse in dark blue is the starter. Their enemy is the Montone contrada, in the light pink uniform on the far left. The Nicchio contrada has obviously made a deal with a couple other contrada to block out the Montone horse at the start. The jostling went on for a good ten minutes before they could slyly maneuver the Montone horse behind them, then the Nicchio abruptly started.
  • The fantino for Istrice, in the striped uniform, immediately starts beating the fantino of its enemy contrada, the Lupa, for the first hundred yards.
  • Several jockeys fall off their horses during the race, but the horses can still win, even without the fantino. The riderless horse of the Pantera nearly slips in front near the end of the race, but the fantino for the Oca deftly cuts him off.
  • Lupa nearly passes Oca in the home stretch, but once again the fantino for Oca cuts him off. The Lupa fantino and horse then fall, leaving Oca to win the race.

You can watch the entire hour long video on You Tube…very interesting!

When we take our Go Get Lost groups to Siena we like to stay in the town for several days to give everyone time to wander and try to go native. We’re also the guests of one of the contrada that is running the race, so we’ll get to visit their museum, attend their private pre-race dinner, hang out with them, and cheer “our” horse on in the race!  We start the stay with a presentation about the Palio from some knowledgeable local friend of ours, and then take everyone on a visit to a contrada museum. Once you understand the significance of the contrada and the constant daily influence of the Palio, the spirit of Siena will come alive, and you’ll feel like a part of it all!

We occasionally plan trips for small private groups to experience the Palio. We watch the drawing of the horses, (mega-exciting), take part in the dinner and festivities with the contrada, and of course we’ll be in a private apartment (with food, wine…and a bathroom!) overlooking the square to watch the race, screaming for our contrada! We also manage to get out into the lovely Tuscan countryside to visit some vineyards, taste some wine, learning how to cook Tuscan-style, and have plenty of free time to explore on our own.  We generally only have 12 people on our Palio extravaganza, drop us a line if you’re interested.