Palio di Siena, the brief history of the most famous horse race in Italy today at the center of controversy

The Siena Palio It is a centuries-old tradition that consists of a equestrian competition which is disputed twice a year in the city of Sienain Tuscany. This year the event officially started last June 26th with the presentation ceremony and the two races will take place on Tuesday July 2nd and Friday August 16th. The competition is attended by the 17 districts into which the city centre is divided, each represented by a horse drawn by lot and a jockey. The race lasts a few minutes, but gives rise to events and initiatives throughout the year. The winning contrada is awarded with a banner (the Paliofrom Latin pallium“drappo”) hand-painted, but does not receive cash prizes. The origins of the Palio date back to Middle AgesBetween the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the race found its stable home in Field Squaretaking on a form similar to the current one. For some years, the Palio has provoked protests by animal rights associationswhich however did not diminish the popularity of the race.

What is the Palio di Siena and how does it take place?

The Palio di Siena takes place twice a year, the July 2nd and August 16thThe Palio of July 2nd is dedicated to the Our Lady of Provenzano (patron saint of Siena), that of August 16th atAssumed. The Palio di Siena is one of the many challenges between the districts of the cities, which took place in medieval and modern Italy and which, in part, have survived even today. The term “palio”, which today indicates the event as a whole, is in reality the name of the banner, also called cloth or ragwhich is awarded to the winning contrada. A special one is created for each edition, sometimes with the collaboration of famous painters. There are no cash prizes at the Palio.

A horse, ridden by a jockey, from each of the districts into which Siena is divided takes part in the race. In each edition, the following take part: ten districts and, since there are seventeen in total, we follow the principle of rotation: the seven contrade that did not run the Palio the previous year are automatically admitted to the following one; to complete the number, the other three are drawn by lot. The horses are also assigned by lot, while the jockeys are hired by the contrade.

Italy in space

The race includes three complete laps of Piazza del Campothe main square of Siena, which is specially covered with a mixture of tuff, clay and sand. The participating horses enter the square in a precise order, also drawn, awaiting the “move”, the start, decreed by a special “mossiere”. In the race, if a jockey falls and the horse arrives alone (“horse shaken”, in horse racing jargon), participation is considered valid. At the Palio you can attend for freebut to find a place in Piazza del Campo you need to position yourself many hours in advance.

Spectators waiting for the Palio

The days of the Palio

The race lasts a few minutes, but gives rise to four days of events, which include the “deals with”, that is, the drawing of the horses and the tests on the race course. On the day of the Palio, the districts organize the Blessing of the Horse in their own church; in the afternoon the historical paradewhich runs through the streets of Siena from the Duomo to Piazza del Campo. The race starts at 7:30 pm (July 2) or 7:00 pm (August 16).

For the Sienese, the Palio does not only last for four days, but all the year. In fact, the contrade deal with negotiations with the jockeys, the organization of self-financing events, exercises for the historical parade and many other initiatives.

The Origins of the Palio di Siena

The origins of the Palio date back to Middle Ages. Already in the 13th century there is news of horse races held in Siena. However, the race took place “in the long run”, that is, on a route with different departures and arrivals, and not “round”, on a circular route. Furthermore, the race was not yet attended by the districts (although they too are attested from the 13th century), but by the aristocrats, who only with the passing of the centuries gave way to specialized jockeys. The current form of the Palio is documented for the first time by a Print of 1633which shows the “alla tonda” race in Piazza del Campo.

The Palio from the 18th century to today

In the eighteenth century, innovations were introduced that made the Palio similar to the current one: it was decided to have the race take place twice a yearon July 2 and August 16, and a decree was issued general regulationwhich is still partly in force today. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new rules were introduced, including those to avoid fights between jockeys before the start. Over the years, the Palio has become increasingly popular and today it is followed attentively not only by the Sienese, but also by the thousands of tourists who flock to the city and by millions of citizens on television screens.

Palio of July 2, 2011

Although the Palio is regularly run twice a year, in some cases it has been canceled. In the twentieth century, it happened during the two world wars and, more recently, in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. There are also the extraordinary paliosthat is, organized outside the two canonical dates, to celebrate specific events. The last one was held on October 20, 2018 for the centenary of the First World War.

Animal protests and security measures

For some years the Palio di Siena has raised protests from the animal rights associationsbecause falls often occur during the race and the horses involved, if they suffer fractures or serious injuries, must be put down. To overcome the problem, since the 90s the Municipality of Siena has introduced some safety measures, among which the sanitary checks on horses and the protections along the track. The number of accidents has decreased, but the protests of animal rights associations, who are calling for the abolition of the race, have not ceased.