By Ela Vasilescu – Writer

The city of Siena is without doubt one of the most beautiful medieval cities in Tuscany. Siena’s heart is its central piazza known as Il Campo, known worldwide for the famous Palio run here, a horse race run around the piazza every summer. palioThe earliest known antecedents of this horse race are medieval. Piazza Il Campo was the site of public, combative games such as pugna, a sort of many-sided boxing match or brawl, jousting, and in the 16th century, bullfights. Of all these games only the Palio has survived throughout time.

From the 14th century on, public races (palii alla lunga) organized by the “contrade”, became very popular and were run across the whole city. The Contrade are combative institutions, each with its own unique emblem and colors, representing an area of the city. Walking through the streets of Siena it is easy to know in which Contrada you are in by observing the flags and emblems displayed along the street walls. Originally, there were about fifty-nine “Contrade”; now only seventeen remain, ten of which take part in the historical pageant and in the race at each Palio.  The horse race takes place twice a year, one the 2nd of July (Palio of Provenzano, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano) and on August 16th (Palio of the Assumption, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption). Piazza del Campo, is prepared for the race as the ring around the square is covered with tuff clay. This traditional popular manifestation lasts four days (from June 29 to July 2 and from August 13 to 16). The first day is for the “Tratta”, or the drawing of the lots and assignment of the horses to each of the Contrade. Each of the Contrade can pick out their jockey but not the horse.

palio1Before the official race, there are 6 trial runs or heats, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The fifth trial, is called the “prova generale”  (general trial), while the last that takes place the morning of the main race, is called “provaccia” (bad trial), given the little effort the jockeys put into it in order to avoid tiring the horses too much. The jockeys always mount their horses without a saddle.

After the proclamation of the winner, the victory celebration moves on to the streets of the victorious “Contrada” and the winner pays for all. The prize, called “Drappellone” is a large painted canvas, each year designed and created by a different artist, which the winning contrada displays in their contrada museum. If you happen to be in Siena on one of these exciting days don’t miss out this historical event. You can share the enthusiasm of the locals and why not choose your favorite contrada to support during the race.

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