Palio Di Siena at the Piazza del Campo. Image Credit: Chip Conley

Features | Equestrian

What brings Siena to a standstill?

7th July, 2018 | Siena, Italy

With its history dating back to the 1600s, Palio di Siena marks the biggest sporting and traditional event in the city.

Italy has ever since been seen as a football-crazy nation. Well no one can argue with that. But there’s another sporting spectacle in the city of Siena that brings it to a halt. Perhaps the only place or event that can match the electrifying atmosphere of the country’s football stadiums, this one though, is far more than just a sporting event. It’s more of a culture, a centuries-old tradition, and is all about the Sienese pride.

Palio di Siena is a bareback horse race that lasts for about 90 seconds, and is held twice a year- July 2 and August 16. While it may sound like an adrenaline rushed and charismatic race, which it really is, it’s origins are largely religious. The first race of the year on July 2, called ‘Palio di Provenzano’, was held in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano. While the following race on August 16, ‘Palio dell'Assunta’, honors the Assumption or Ascension of Virgin Mary into the Heaven.

What brings Siena to a standstill
What brings Siena to a standstill

Ten of the seventeen contrades, read districts, of Siena participate in the race each being represented by one horse. The seven contrades that don’t participate get the entry into the next July or August race by ‘right’, and three lucky contrades out of the ten that participated earlier get entry drawn by lot.

40,000 Sienese, two-third of city’s population, who rush to the Piazza del Campo- city’s civic hub and venue for the race from about 1644- fill in two-third of the stands, for the remaining 20,000 to be occupied by their fellow Italians or tourists from other parts of the world. Although the locals are not very welcoming towards the foreigners because of their belief that no outsider can understand the significance of this tradition, but one can always enjoy and appreciate the extravaganza that this event has.

Such is the sense of rivalry and loyalty to one’s contrada, that mixed-marriage couples (from different contrades) often split up before the race if both have a racing contender horse, for the ongoing racing period which mainly includes four days of preparation prior to the big day and the racing day itself.

What brings Siena to a standstill

A famous palio tradition is the open-air dinner each contrada holds the evening before the race, on July 1 and August 15. The trestle tables can go as long as covering the entire length of the district’s main street.

The race is preceded by a two-hours procession in traditional costumes which displays the glorious Sienese past, especially the 13th and 14th centuries, when the city was Italy’s financial capital and had the same population as that of Paris.