The Palio of Siena takes place twice a year, on July 2nd (Palio di Provenzano) and on August 16th (Palio dell’Assunta). The day of the Palio is the most important event in the town of Siena and the townspeople are loaded with emotions that day. The Piazza del Campo, which is the square where the horse race takes place, is full of people. The excitement in the air and the tension during the race is noticed by visitors.
There are so many things to say about the Palio of Siena but this article will aim only to reveal the customs of locals and their unwritten rules. But first.. .
. . . a little bit of history of the Palio of Siena
The Palio of Siena is a tradition that dates back to 1644 and has always taken place except during the period of the two World Wars. The territory of the town of Siena is divided into 17 Contrade (which are the town’s quarters) Only 10 of the 17 Contrade will take part the race. Seven of these Contrade run for right whereas the other 3 are drawn. The horses are selected among those that have passed an inspection, so the Contradas do not actually own the horse, but they are selected casually. After inspection, the draw will take place. If the horse is injured while practicing during the three days before the Palio, it will not be permitted to run. As a consequence, the number of participants is reduced. The jockey, on the other hand, can race on behalf of one Contrada, but then change his/her mind up until the day before the race on the basis of the offer that he/she, eventually, receives from another Contrada. This in not against the rules, so the unexpected a part of the game.
To win the Palio you have to arrive first after 3 tours around the Piazza del Campo. For the locals, better to arrive last than second, because the second one is made fun of. The winner takes home a large banner the “Palio” that has been specifically designed for the race in question.
Every Contrada has one or a maximum of two enemies among the other Contradas, although there is actually one Contrada that has no enemies at all: the Contrada del Drago. The rivalries between Contradas are due mostly to historical or business reasons and very often the “enemy” Contradas border one another.
The Palio is not only a historical re-enactment, but it is sincerely felt by the Siena populace, it’s a tradition that could be described as “alive”. One of the elements that underlines this sense is that during the “Passeggiata storica” (historical parade), which precedes every race, the costumes are not only referred to as customs from the past, but the Contradas update their “Monture” to more recent styles. The Monture, after the Palio, are exhibited at the Contrada’s museum along with the banner “Palio”, that has been won.
For those are interested in being introduced to the Contrada, there is a laic baptism for newborns within the quarter. Each quarter, in fact, has its own church, where even the horse will be blessed before each race by a priest with these words “va e torna vincitore” or “go and return a winner”.
The last wave of the flag
Before the Palio the standard bearer of each Contrada at the end of the Passeggiata storica passes beneath the “Palazzo Comunale” (or city hall) and throws the flag in the air one last time. The locals believe that the higher the flag goes, the luckier the Contrada will be.
The Contradaioli (which are the inhabitants of the Contrada) all have a “fazzoletto” (handkerchief) to wear around their necks, but as the Palio (banner) parades during the Passeggiata storica, people remove it and wave it in the direction of the Palio, they even try to touch the Palio while it is passing by, almost as if it had sacred powers.
The 3 bells
There are 3 significant bells during the Palio of Siena.
The Sunto bell: located on the Torre del Mangia, which rings the whole day of the event, coming to a stop only when the race begins.
The Martinella bell: this one is on the cart of the Palio, and, historically, was the bell of the Monteaperti battle. This battle was very significant for Siena’s history because they defeated the Florentine army even if the number of soldiers was much lower. They managed to win because they used a psychological element in their strategy to defeat the Florentines. They went around the hill, where the battle took place, several times, and changing their clothing when the Florentines could not see. They won the battle because the Florentines were convinced there were many more soldiers than their were. The Martinella bell represents this glorious moment in the history of the army from Siena.
The Victory bell: each Contrada has a bell, not necessarily the church-bell, which rings all night long if the Contrada wins to mark the quarter’s celebration. The contradaioli’s greatest dream is to hear the bell ring all night long.
The legend of the 4 greens
The local population believes that every time that the 4 “green” Contradas participate, the race will be unlucky, for example the horses may be hurt during or before the run. The 4 green Contradas are the ones which include green as a color in their flag. These are: Bruco, Drago, Oca and Selva.
The provaccia is the last “trial” race that takes place on the morning of the official Palio. Nobody wants to win on this occasion because if fate made the Contrada win the morning it is really difficult it will favor it in the evening of the same day.
Now you are ready to partecipate to the Palio of Siena, you just need to choose a Contrada to root for! Have fun.