The Palio (August 16th Palio dell'Assunta and July 2nd Palio di Provenzano)
The name Palio derives from the Latin ”pallium”. It refers to a piece of precious cloth that used to be the price for winners of horse races in the Middle Ages. Still nowadays, the winning Contrada receives a cloth painted by a contemporary artist (the Palio or ”drappellone”).
The oldest documented memory on horse racing in Siena dates back to 1231. Horse races like the Palio, however, have certainly been held in Siena much before this, dating back to Roman times and possibly even earlier.
Originally, the Palio was held in honour of Saint Boniface, first Patron of the city. In 1260, when a war between Firenze and Siena ended with the great victory of the Sienese over preponderant Florentine forces at Montaperti, the city was consecrated to the Virgin Mary.
Since that year, throughout the life of Siena’s independent republic, the feast of the Assumption was celebrated with a huge procession, on August 14th, to honour Our Lady and commemorate the day of Montaperti. Celebrations included a Palio ”alla lunga”, a point-to-point race of rider less horses run on August 15th.
The first Palio ”alla tonda” (on a racetrack) took place in the Piazza del Campo on 2nd July 1632. Since then, the Palio has been held yearly on 2nd July.
In 1689 a Palio ”alla tonda” was run for the first time on 16 th August after the one ”alla lunga” of the preceding day. This race is run regularly every year since 1774.
The 2nd July Palio is dedicated to Our Lady of Provenzano (a sacred image worshipped for delivering Siena from the Black Death in the XIV century), the one of 16th August to Our Lady of the Assumption.
Siena is divided in three parts (terzi) and in seventeen Contrade (districts), as follows:
Terzo di Città Aquila, Chiocciola, Onda, Pantera, Selva, Tartuca
Terzo di San Martino Civetta, Leocorno, Nicchio, Torre, Valdimontone
Terzo di Camollia Bruco, Drago, Giraffa, Istrice, Lupa, Oca
Formerly, Contrade were parish communities, ”popoli”, and had certain administrative responsibilities within their respective territories. These included the functions of urban police, the collection of taxes and the cleaning of streets, fountains and wells. In times of war, men between the ages of 18 and 70 were drafted from each contrada and organised in military companies.
There were 38 contrade in 1318, 59 in 1327, again 38 after the BIack Death in 1348.
In 1729, the Governess of Siena, Princess Violante of Bavaria - widow of Ferdinando de’ Medici, Gran Principe di Toscana (elder brother of the last Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, Gian Gastone) - ratified the present order.
The whole population of a district is known as ”popolo” (people) without distinction for their social status or wealth. They are members of the Contrada from birth to death and participate in its life and activities. Each Sienese supports his Contrada financially according to his possibilities. You belong to a Contrada because you are born in its territory.
Nowadays, however, children are born in hospital - no-man’s land in Siena - so, a new institution has been created to welcome new-born members and confirm their belonging to the district: the ”battesimo contradaiolo”. This ceremony takes place in each Contrada, at a special fountain, on the Patron Saint’s feast.
Every Contrada has its church and its seat, with annexed museum where the won Palii and other memorabilia are held. Typical examples of the Contrada’s life are the huge open-air dinners held in the streets in which all the “popolo” takes part. One of these is a propitiatory meal held in each of the ten racing Contrade the night before the Palio, another is in September, to celebrate the Contrade having won in July and August. It is presided by the horse, whose hoofs are gilded for the occasion.
The organisation of a Contrada is that of a direct democracy, reminding the Greek ”polis”. A democratically elected Government, headed in normal times by the “Priore”, rules it. In Palio times the commanding authority passes on to the ”Capitano” (a figure similar to the ”Dictator” who, in ancient Rome, received the supreme authority during wartime), chosen by the “popolo”.
Nowadays, the Palio is certainly the Contrade’s main ”raison d’être”, but they also have many side activities during the rest of the year and an important social role: to keep alive solidarity and mutual help amongst the citizens of Siena.
There is a whole network of alliances and rivalries among the Contrade, the origin of which can date back centuries. As in everyday life, neighbours are often enemies.
Such antagonisms have important implications for the Palio. In the days before the race, many underground contacts are made to establish agreements (”partiti”). A ”partito” is a secret arrangement in which one party promises to pay a certain amount to another in exchange for its help during the race.
Secret meetings are held between the Capitani of different Contrade assisted by their lieutenants (”mangini”), during which negotiations are carried out and deals are struck.
A lot of money can be pledged and promised during the establishment of these secret agreements and the different Contrade’s ”purchasing power” also comes into play (bigger districts have more supporters, are richer and can therefore afford to pay more).
Winning the Palio is very expensive because the jockey receives an extra bonus and all the promises of the day before have to be honoured.
Since 1721, for security reasons the number of Contrade that can take part in the race has been limited to ten. The seven that are excluded are entitled to run in the following year with three other drawn by lottery out of the ten Contrade that raced the year before.
Horses are selected three days before the race. Anyone can enter horses for the selections but it is only a small number of breeders and aficionados who in fact do so. Owners of the racing horses get a very modest compensation but are covered by the Town Hall should the horse die in the trial runs. Their reward is glory.
After a first veterinary control, all horses presented are tested on the Piazza in batteries of five/six at a time to see how they react to the racing track. The Piazza is covered with special sand, known as ”il tufo” because it is obtained from a tufaceous rock. Only ten horses are retained, the weakest and the strongest candidates being excluded, so as to make as homogeneous as possible a group.
Once a horse is assigned by draw, it is entrusted to the Contrada that received it and cannot be replaced. Should it hurt itself during the trial runs after the Tratta (six official ”prove” plus a number of unofficial ones at night) or otherwise be unable to run, the Contrada to which it has been assigned withdraws from the race.
Jockeys (nowadays rarely Sienese, mostly from Sardinia or Maremma) are mercenaries, and very well paid ones when they are reputed to be strong.
The selection of a jockey by the Contrade normally depends on the quality of the horse received by draw (those who have the favourite horses will try to secure the most experienced jockeys). It is also influenced by the progress of negotiations during the ”partiti”. The selection therefore depends from each Contrada’s strategy for that particular Palio. It is not unusual, for instance to see a jockey riding the horse of a Contrada during the ”prove” and changing to another for the race. It is also possible for a Contrada usually employing a particular jockey to ”lend” him to an ally, either because it does not participate in the race or because the horse it has been attributed in the draw has little chance of winning.
In the days before the race, jockeys are kept under the strictest surveillance by their respective Contrada so as to prevent them from having any contact with other Contrade that could try to buy them out.
The blessing of the horse
On the day of the race, in the first hours of the afternoon, the ”comparsa”, the group of walk-ons who will parade through the city and in the Piazza del Campo, dresses up in the Contrada’s seat.
Shortly after, the horse is brought in the often tiny church and there, standing in front of the altar between the jockey and the Capitano it is blessed by the ”Correttore”, the Contrada’s priest. In the utmost silence, the Correttore pronounces the ritual formula ending with the words: ”vai e torna vincitore” (go and return as winner). The horse is then brought back to the stable and - as soon as he is gone out - the battle cry of the Contrada and the rolling of drums explode into the packed church.
The historical parade - Passegiata Storica
The parade (passeggiata storica) is a backwards allegory of Siena’s history from 1559 - when Montalcino, last stronghold of the sovereign Republic, capitulated and the Sienese state was definitively annexed by Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, then first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
All the Contrade parade in the Campo, the ten racing first, then the seven who are not.
The Palio is displayed on the ”Carroccio” the chariot representing the ”Comune” that was brought to battle in medieval times (at Montaperti the Sienese troops captured the Florentines’ Carroccio). ”Sunto”, the bell of the Torre del Mangia in the public palace, tolls continuously during the parade.
The historical procession is divided in 14 groups:
The ”Gonfalone” (standard) of Siena opens the parade, followed by the representation of the Siennese army, then the University of Siena and the Guilds. A page carrying the ”masgalano” a chiselled silver plate (normally horrible) given as prize to the Contrada whose ”comparsa” was the most elegant is the fifth group. Group six present the ten racing Contrade.
Group seven are pages of the Comune separating the racing from the non-racing Contrade.
Group eight are the seven Contrade not participating in the race.
Group nine are the six suppressed Contrade, ”Contrade Morte” that parade with six knights, their sallet lowered.
Group ten are Crossbowmen, preceded by their Captain and their standard.
Group eleven is the ”Capitano di Giustizia” the highest civil authority in case of war, mounted with an escort of men at arms.
Group twelf consist of the ”Carroccio”, drawn by four magnificent white oxen. In the Middle Ages this chariot, bearing the Comune’s insignia, was brought into battle and mass was celebrated on it during the fight. At Montaperti in 1260, the Sienese captured the Florentine Carroccio.
The Carroccio carries the Palio (the painted cloth that will be given as prize to the winning Contrada). Members of each Contrada, who occupy specific sectors of the Piazza wave scarves with their colours and shout “daccèlo” (give it to us) when the Carroccio passes next to them, to salute the Palio and as a ritual and propitiatory ”begging” for victory.
Group thirteen consists of six knights representing prominent Sienese aristocratic families.
Finishing group are pages of the Comune bearing a garland and closing the procession.
The parade finishes when the Carroccio arrives in front of the Palazzo del Comune. The Palio is brought at the start (la mossa) escorted by the “Maestro di Campo” and the ten “Rotellini”, the officers, dressed in black and white customs, who directed the parade.
To start the race, nine horses must align themselves in the drawn order within two ropes, the front one of which covers the whole length of the track. The tenth horse must gallop in and - at that very moment - the starter (il mossiere) must lower the front rope and let the race go off.
In order to prevent prior agreements, the departure order is unknown until the last moment. A special commission who sits above the start decides it by draw when the horses enter the Piazza. The starting order - in a sealed envelope - is handed over to the mossiere, who immediately starts calling the Contrade into the ropes, at the place fate has assigned them.
As horses enter the ropes, onlookers discover the starting order and excitement in the square grows to an indescribable level.
Contrade who have a good horse normally give their jockeys a special budget to make last minute agreements with other jockeys, buying favours or neutrality from their would-be opponents with bribes called ”beveracce”.
Jockeys can be recognised from the colours of their jackets:
Starting is never easy and can take quite a long time. In the increasing confusion, with the whole piazza shouting, jockeys will try to place themselves in what they consider the best position, regardless of the order. They will try to pursue their own strategies, pretending not to hear the mossiere’s commands. The starting order is hardly ever respected as jockeys try to take as much advantage as possible hoping for a better start or to handicap a rival.
A long delay in starting will have the consequence of decreasing considerably the strength of the more delicate horses and of increasing their nervousness. The effects of the ”beverone”, a special cocktail of stimulating drugs the barbareschi administer to horses immediately before the race, will also diminish. All this will favour stronger though maybe slower horses.
The mossa can not be repeated if the ”mossiere” confirms it is valid by waving a white flag from his podium. Perfect starts are rare and more due to chance than planning.
When the ”mossa” is valid, horses gallop three times around the square (in total about one kilometre) and one of them will be first at the arrival.
A horse without jockey (cavallo scosso) can win the race provided it keeps the cockade with the Contrada’s colours (that is part of its harness) on his forehead.
Falls are common given the shape of the Piazza, because of the speed of horses and because jockeys ride bareback. Most falls happen at the turns of San Martino and of Casato that are particularly challenging for horses and riders.
During the race (but not before the start) jockeys can use the whips to hit and hinder other jockeys or horses.
The race lasts about seventy-five seconds, although this time can seem endless.
At the end, the jubilant people of the winning Contrada take the Palio from the start and bring it first to the church (Madonna di Provenzano in July and Duomo in August) for a Te Deum to thank the Virgin Mary for the victory and then in the Contrada, where wine flows freely for all those who turn up. Emotion, tears and laughter, cries and songs of triumph and joy, merry-making, celebration, drinking and parading throughout the city go on all night, and in the following days. The pride and memory of the victory remain forever with the Contrada.
from a text by Marco Manetti