Palio di Siena

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By David OrrWriter

The Palio di Siena is a neighborhood war masquerading as a horse-race. Held in Siena’s Piazza del Campo on July 2 and August 16, the renowned race features ten jockeys driving their horses bareback at race-car like speeds, three times around the outer perimeter of the piazza. The race’s historic quirkiness is part of the charm. Its roots lie in the concept of a contrada – that is, a ward, district, or neighborhood. There are seventeen of them in Siena, and each were originally setup to supply troops to defend the city in the middle-ages. Every contrada is named after an animal or a symbol, including Bruco (Caterpillar), Tartuca (Turtle), and the ever-popular Lupa (She-wolf). In the well-defined hierarchy of Siena, you belong to your contrada first, the city second, and Italy third.

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Ten of the seventeen contrade get to run the Palio, and are assigned horses from a lottery three days before the race. Every contrada has their own natural ally and enemy, and so in a sort of Renaissance Real World there is plenty of scheming in the months leading up to the race. Secret pacts are made and side-deals are arranged – if a designated contrada has no chance to win, they may try to take out a horse from an enemy contrada, which would constitute a secondary ‘victory’ of sorts.
The night before the race each contrada throws a fantastic outdoor dinner called the cena della prova generale, with speeches, singing, and plenty of opportunities to wave your team’s traditional fazzoletti (neck-scarves). The team-bonding dinner is followed by a ceremonial presentation of the horse, who saunters in like a prize-fighter and stands regally at the head-table. Other tables remain pre-reserved for foreigners, which in Siena means anyone outside the city.

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The Palio itself is held the following day, and unfolds like a three-act play. First, the ceremonial parading of the colors, or Corteo Storico, where locals throw on medieval costumes and parade down the streets with plenty of coordinated flag-throwing. The anticipation builds in the late afternoon as more and more people cram into the piazza’s belly, until the horses enter to great fanfare, circling and pawing the starting line.

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Good news for those that want the day to continue as long as possible – the entire process of getting the horses to the starting line can take up to an hour. Nine horses must all line up, while the tenth and final horse, known as the rincorsa, takes a running start on the far end. The contrada that controls the rincorsa will usually have deals placed with their allies to refrain from starting until an enemy horse is in a bad spot. When the race finally starts, the horses charge forward at absurd speeds. There are several down-sloped hairpin turns, and one can almost see the horse’s eyes raise up to the jockeys to confirm – ‘Really’? Somehow it only lasts 90 seconds and when the winning horse shoots across the finish line, whatever barriers were erected (physical and social) are wiped away as members from the winning contrada swarm the horse. Both jockey and horse are paraded to the local ward where the horse is proclaimed a deity, the jockey a god, and the streets explode with revelers like water from a burst pipe. The Palio is more than a horse race, it is bragging rights, it is family, it is community. To truly experience the race align yourself with a contrada, or rather, put yourself up for adoption – surrender to a community, let the horse choose you, and then cheer for your new family.

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Held every year on July 2 and August 16.
Get to the Piazza del Campo early on race-day.
Race begins at 7:30 pm (July) and 7 pm (August)

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