Il Palio, Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Colours, crowds, shouts of joy, a square covered with tufa, ten horses ridden bareback for a race that lasts a few seconds. This is the Palio for those who see it for the first time. For the Sienese it is life, passion, history.

Dates : 2nd July and 16th August each year

Siena‘s Palio has been held since time immemorial. At least as far back as the 11th century, “Palii alla lunga” (rectilinear races) started just outside the city walls, crossed through the town and terminated beside the ancient cathedral. The prize awarded to the winner was a “pallium”, a banner made of precious cloth which gave the race its name. Starting in the 3th century the Palio came to mark the conclusion of the extensive mid-August celebrations dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s Assumption and role as patron of the town. Additional Palio races were held in Siena and elsewhere in Italy to honour patron saints, celebrate military victories and even hail the arrival of illustrious visitors to the city. The noblemen and knights who participated in the earliest Palio races gave way to jockeys with colourful names and even rider-less horses during the Renaissance.

Siena’s “contrade” (the traditional districts upon which Palio rivalry is based) first appeared in Sienese Renaissance celebrations, in which they paraded behind allegorical carts decorated with the likeness of exotic or imaginary animals. Siena’s seventeen present-day “contradas” still conserve the same names and symbols. Aquilia (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leacorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (literally Wave, but with a dolphin as its symbol), Pantera (Panther), Selva (literally a forest but with a Rhinocerous as its symbol), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower) and Valdimonte (Mountain Goat).

It was in the 17th century that the races were relocated to Piazza Campo. In this ideal, intimate scenario, three laps are run around a dirt track ringing its outer edge. Ever since the square has been regularly transformed into a hippodrome, circus and theatre, with a parade of dignitaries and prominent participants preceding the race. The parade was initially a manifestation of pomp and courtly splendour. In the 18th century it evolved into an allegorical procession, finally becoming a historical procession in its current form at the end of the 19th century to commemorate the golden age of the Sienese Republic and its institutions.

Nowadays the Palio is held on 2nd July and 16th August. The jockeys must not be from Siena, and the horses they ride are assigned to the “contrade” by drawing lots. The ten “contradas” that participate in each Palio are selected by means of a method combining alternation and lots that dates back to 1721. The three days of trial runs prior to the races and the parades and races themselves on 2nd July and 16th August mark the culmination of the social calendar for the contradas.

The Palio is just as important today as its original version was for Medieval Siena. To the inhabitants of Siena it represents the essence of their history, memories and identity.

List of Names, Emblems and Colours

Terziere di Città

  • AQUILA (Eagle) a double-headed eagle with imperial symbols. Yellow with black and blue bands.
  • CHIOCCIOLA (Snail) a snail. Yellow and red with blue bands.
  • ONDA (Wave) a swimming dolphin wearing a crown. White and blue.
  • PANTERA (Panther) a rampant panther. Red and blue with white bands.
  • SELVA (Forest) a rhinoceros bearing a huge tree hung with hunting implements. Green and orange-yellow with white bands.
  • TARTUCA (Tortoise) a tortoise. Yellow and blue.

Terziere di San Martino

  • CIVETTA (Owl) an owl. Black and red with white bands.
  • LEOCORN0 (Unicorn) a unicorn. White and orange-yellow with blue bands.
  • NICCHIO (Shell) a seashell. Blue with yellow and red bands.
  • TORRE (Tower) an elephant with a tower on its back. Dark bordeaux red with white and blue bands.
  • VALDIMONTONE or simply MONTONE (Ram) a rampant ram. White and yellow with red bands.

Terziere di Camollia

  • BRUCO (Caterpillar) a caterpillar. Yellow and green with blue bands.
  • DRAGO (Dragon) a flying dragon. Red and green with yellow bands.
  • GIRAFFA (Giraffe) a giraffe. White and red.
  • ISTRICE (Porcupine) a porcupine. White, red, black and blue bands.
  • LUPA (She-Wolf) the Roman She-Wolf suckling the twins. Black and white with orange-yellow bands.
  • OCA (Goose) a crowned goose with the cross of Savoia round its neck. White and green with red bands.

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