The Palio di Siena: a race of the soul
From the Middle Ages to its present day format
If there is one event that you should not miss when visiting Siena, it is the famous Palio di Siena. A horse-race, which for centuries has been breathing life into the city. The origins of the Palio can be found somewhere in the dark ages, together with the earliest testimonies of horse-races in the city.
Early times: first festivals, prize and location
In the mid- 1500s, the festivities begin to gradually shift from the city streets to Piazza del Campo, and at the same time the Contradas began to form into the communities that we recognise today. For centuries the prize for winning the Palio remained the Pallium: a precious cloth for liturgical furnishings, which was displayed on the City cart during the pageant.
From the Tower a bronze sound falls down/the pageant continues among rolling drums/to the Contradas’ glory/and the amazement/that invades the shell/of the Campo […]Eugenio Montale
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the Palio di Siena became what it is today, when Piazza del Campo became the official location of the race. The first Palio with horses took place in 1644 and since 1656 the Palio alla tonda (round the square) has been held on a regular basis. The spiritual nature of the Palio di Siena is in fact associated with this new structure, and the race was dedicated to Our Lady of Provenzano, as well as to Our Lady of the Assumption.
Modern times: from the Enlightenment to the present day
The definitive regulations for the Palio di Siena date back to the Age of Enlightenment. Since then, and still today, each of the 17 Contradas in the city constitutes a small State, governed by a Governing body headed by a Prior and guided during the Palio by a Captain.
In addition to its territory, each Contrada has a Church, with a museum housing centuries of heritage: memorabilia, victory banners, costumes from the Historical Pageants of past Palios, flags, an archive and much more.
Today the Palio di Siena takes place on July 2nd, in honor of Our Lady of Provenzano, and on August 16th, in honor of Our Lady of the Assumption. But the entire city is already fully immersed in preparations for the big day three days beforehand. As a matter of fact the horse trials and allocation of the horses takes place 3 days before the Palio. There are 6 horse trials (once in the morning and once in the afternoon) that allow the jockey to get to know the horse, and vice versa. These horse trials are an important part of the Palio for the Sieneses, as well as fascinating for visitors in the city for the historic event.