Palio di siena

Palio di siena

Ride or die: without historic Palio, Siena is at a loss

SIENA — When the Palio di Siena didn’t take place on its usual day for the first time since the Second World War, its reigning champion, Giovanni Atzeni, holed up in his backyard stable outside his Tuscan villa, 35 expensive racehorses for company.

“On the day the Palio would have happened, I stayed with my horses,” said Atzeni, 36, the seven-time victor of the notoriously brutal, 500-year-old bareback horse race that was put on ice last year in the wake of Covid. “But my heart pounded as if the race was still on.”

With the Palio likely to be cancelled this year, too, Atzeni now spends most of his days as a freelance jockey, taking part in spectatorless races on the Italian hippodrome circuit, paid for by the government and broadcast by Sky Sports.

But the annual competition, usually held on July 2 and August 16, represents far more than the pyronautics of its death-defying jockeys. It is, rather, the culmination of a year’s worth of impassioned preparation on the part of Siena’s 250,000 residents, and its absence for almost two years has been felt citywide.

“Our culture of Palio, it is not only a horse race,” said Siena’s leghista mayor Luigi de Mossi, 66, from his office in the Palazzo Pubblico, the 13th century gothic palace that dominates the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s large, sloping central square. “What the tourists don’t see is the part of the Palio that is kind of an underworld, a relationship in the winter time and spring time between all the contradas. Without it we have lost a part of our identity.”

Certainly, though, the race itself is spectacular, unfolding as a sub-one-minute frisson of adrenaline among ten horses racing haunch-to-haunch around the impossibly tight bends of Siena’s heavily crowded Piazza del Campo, during which they are prone to abruptly fall, crush their riders, or else violently die in some other way.

Riders represent Siena’s 17 historic districts, or contradas, ten of which take part each year. Named for various flora and fauna, such as Aquila (Eagle), Lupa (She-Wolf), Giraffa (Giraffe) and Chiocciola (Snail), they spend the months before each race obsessively preparing. Horses are blessed by a priest before the main event, and victory comes to the first to complete three laps of the heavily crowded Piazza del Campo with its head ornaments intact, with or without its rider, or fantino. Fantini are permitted to whip and shove their opponents off their mounts mid-race, and the only rule is that they cannot grab another rider’s reins.

During the race, humiliating a rival often takes priority over winning outright, and contradas are known to forge byzantine pre-Palio alliances with the intent of undermining common enemies. In backroom meetings, they trade horses, riders and strategies readily. Atzeni, for instance, who was actually born in Germany and has won victories for four different contradas, says he will race for whichever offers the “best horse.”

You’ll find it all at the Palio. Ritualistic violence, often spilling over into regular violence, serves as a release valve for simmering tensions. Effigies representing X year’s loser get strung up on makeshift gallows in the street. Atzeni’s mentor, the former champion Luigi Bruschelli, was jailed after getting caught microchipping horses to make them look like a different breed. An illegal betting operation worth upwards of 15,000 euros and run via a computer server in Wolverhampton was busted by local authorities in 2015.

Yet beyond its role as a sporting event, the Palio serves as an engine of social cohesion, said De Mossi from his large desk in the Palazzo, under a vaulted ceiling adorned with a renaissance work whose name he said he didn’t know. He said that unlike a football game, or a cricket match, the Palio’s preparation involves all the city’s inhabitants at all levels of society, including municipal workers, merchants, and schoolkids.

The involvement runs deep, he said. Neighbourhoods raise flags along their streets representing the insignia of their contradas. Before and after the main event, which usually takes place in mid July and again in mid August, wild district-wide parties and concerts are thrown, large banquets are held, and processions featuring 15th century traditional costumes and drum-beating schoolkids explode noisily throughout the city.

The tourist sector is also heavily involved, accommodating the conspicuously wealthy cohort that appears each year and includes many Brits, among them Helen Mirren, Jeremy Clarkson and Tony Blair, who used to stay during his visits in a nearby castle owned by a Tuscan prince.

All of these elements have held together Siena’s social fabric for decades if not centuries, meaning the Palio’s absence has been felt acutely. Restaurateurs now have no foreign dignitaries to serve, Irish Pubs no catatonic Brits. It’s a bad time for Wolverhampton bookies, and the drummers who make up the core of the processions that normally march through the city in medieval garb, such as Eugenio “Gegio” Vedovini, 20, have little to do.

“The period without the Palio, for a drummer, is very difficult,” said Vedovini. “In my case—and in the case of all drummers, spending days doing basically nothing has been hard.”

Indeed, Vedovini hasn’t taken part in official practice since June 2020, although limited sessions are expected to resume in the months ahead. He worries about his drumming skills fading: The tamburini are a competitive bunch, and becoming good enough to take part in the flagship procession before the Palio, as Vedovini has done, is a source of great pride and prestige. He began at the age of two, and described the experience of marching into the piazza as almost “libidinal.”

“There’s no emotion more beautiful, indescribable,” he said. “If there’s no Palio this year it’ll be a great blow, the Palio is life, we live for it, if you told me last year that the Palio wouldn’t run in 2021, too, I would have been disappointed beyond belief. We live it in our blood—but we need to see how the vaccines go.”

Carlo Piperno, 60, a representative of the low-slung Lupa contrada, said there had also been a damaging effect on law and order. While Siena is generally known as a crime-free city, he said, with restrictions on freedom of movement “mini-gangs” from out of town began harassing passersby in the Piazza del Campo last year. He said it was only after lockdown eased and large-scale gatherings of tambourine-players returned that the gangs disappeared. “Just being there, with this presence, the contrada made sure that the boys from the mini gang weren’t there.”

All of this made last year’s decision to cancel the Palio uniquely difficult, said Piperno, who was present at meetings between the contradas and the mayor’s office relating to the matter. “There was a sense of great bitterness and disappointment,” he said. “But ultimately it was unanimous.”

And the prospect of doing it de minimis, with the race but without the crowds, was inconceivable. Roughly 1,700 spectators typically crush together in the Piazza del Campo, supplying an electric atmosphere.

“It’s simply not possible to do a small Palio,” said Piperno. “The race itself can be done, but you lose the sense of the Palio. The preparation involves everyone, and you live it in the days and months before and after. It’s impossible to do it differently—if you do, it’s not the Palio.”

“A football match can be played without the public,” said Giampiero Cito, 44, of the Aquila contrada, who was also present at the meeting. “But with the Palio that doesn’t make sense—its magic comes from the people, the spectators, the atmosphere.”

There were, at least, ways in which Siena’s unique urban makeup was beneficial during the pandemic. Sienese say that from the very beginning the contradas came into their own, providing aid to vulnerable people, carrying out grocery shops and home care, as well as supplying hospitals with necessary equipment and bulk-buying masks to deliver to the general population.

“Neighbouring cities like Florence and Grosseto had to pay thousands of euros for masks and medical equipment,” said de Mossi, the mayor. “I didn’t have to spend a penny.”

Mayor de Mossi and the contradas are waiting until May before ratifying a final decision on whether this year’s Palio will proceed as normal, but given Italy’s achingly slow vaccine rollout the likelihood of that happening is low.

There are also questions hovering over the future of the Palio, which animal rights activists, or animalisti, condemn for the longstanding practice of summarily putting down horses who are injured mid race. The group Animalisti Italiani has urged Siena to use the pandemic as an opportunity to put an end to the competition for good.

“People who think they defend the animals in general probably they don’t know the tradition,” de Mossi scoffed, claiming that the city provides horses with a veterinary clinic, as well as a “horse resort” where retired horses finish their days until they pass.

As to whether the likely second suspension of the Palio could threaten its future, Sienese baulk, describing its pull as being of an almost cosmic nature. Cito, of Aquila, doubles as a creative director at a PR firm, but when the Palio takes place he says he becomes “primitive.”

«It’s something that belongs to the bottom of our consciousness,” he said. “It is not rational. When there’s a victory it’s like an orgasm, it’s impossible to control. I’ve seen old men crying, adults fighting with each other.” He said his earliest recollection of the Palio was as a toddler, seeing his mother yell as the race began.

Indeed, the race is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of Sienese civic life that in some quarters preparation for it, even with the pandemic still raging, goes on unimpeded.

There is Vedovini, the drummer, who several times a week heads out to a secluded garden behind his contrada’s headquarters to practice banging his big drums. In late April, meanwhile, the jockey Atzeni travelled to the small Tuscan fortress town of Monteriggioni with four horses—Zio Rosas, Aurus, Tristezza, and Viso D’Angelo—to have them assessed for the Palio as if it would be taking place, parading them before veterinarians, the mayor, and a smattering of journalists—though far fewer than usual.

“Siena is preparing to do the Palio, as always,” said Atenzi, explaining that merely going through the motions helps maintain civic pride in the city. “This is very important.”

There is no chance of it ending for good, agreed Piperno, of Lupa. “It’s like if you have a brother and you don’t see for a year, you’ll still see him—he’s your brother.”

“There is a Sienese saying that those who are born here are ‘elastic,’” he added. “The city is almost a physical force, and it always pulls us back.”

Palio di Siena

Thousands of spectators, coming from all the world, fill the Piazza del Campo to capacity on the day of the Palio di Siena.

The Palio di Siena (known locally as the Palio delle Contrade), the most famous palio in Italy, is a horse race held twice each year on July 2 and August 16 in Siena, in which the horse and rider represent one of the seventeen Contrade, or city wards. A magnificent pageant precedes the race, which attracts visitors and spectators from around the world.

Both horse and rider are dressed in the colours and arms of the Contrade: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower) and Valdimontone (Ram).


Any connection with the sacred games of the ancient Romans being obscured by time, the earliest known antecedents of the race are medieval. The town's central piazza was the site of public games, largely combative: pugna, a sort of many-sided boxing match or brawl; jousting; and in the 16th century, bullfights. Public races organized by the Contrade were popular from the 14th century on; called palii alla lunga, they were run across the whole city.

When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in 1590, the Contrade took to organising races in the Piazza del Campo. The first such races were on buffalo-back and called bufalate; asinate, races on donkey-back, later took their place, while horse-racing continued elsewhere. The first modern Palio (called palio alla tonda to distinguish it from the earlier palii alla lunga) took place around 1650. At first, one race was held each year, on July 2; a second, on August 16, was added later.

The race today

The first race (Palio di Provenzano) is held on July 2, which is both the Feast of the Visitation and the date of a local festival in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano (a painting once owned by the Sienese leader Provenzano Salvani, which was supposed to have miraculous curative power). The second race is held on August 16 (Palio dell'Assunta), the day after the Feast of the Assumption, and is likewise dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After exceptional events (e.g. the Apollo 11 moon landing) and on important anniversaries (e.g. the centennial of the Unification of Italy), the Sienese community may decide to hold a third Palio between May and September.

The field consists of ten horses, which means that only ten of the city wards can take part in the Palio on any occasion. The seven wards which did not take part in the previous place are automatically included; three more are chosen randomly. Three days before the race, private owners offer the pick of their stables, from which representatives of the participating Contrade choose ten of approximately equal quality. A lottery then determines which horse will run for each Contrada. Six trial races are run, the first on the evening of the horse selection and the last on the morning before the Palio. The devout residents of each Contrada invoke the sacred aid of their patron saint on their horse and jockey. The worldly improve their odds with more profane methods, chiefly bribery and doping. The sensible simply keep a close watch on their stable and their rider.

The race is preceded by a spectacular pageant, which includes (among many others) Alfieri, flag-wavers, in medieval costumes. Just before the pageant, a squad of carabinieri on horseback, wielding swords, demonstrate a mounted charge around the track. Spectators arrive early in the morning, eventually filling the centre of the town square, inside the track, to capacity; the local police seal the entrances once the festivities begin in earnest. Seats ranging from simple bleachers to elaborate box seats may be had for a price, but sell out long before the day of the race. The landlords of buildings overlooking the piazza sometimes stipulate that tenants must be absent on the day of the Palio, in order to rent the space to spectators.

View of the Piazza del Campo, where the Palio is run.

At 7.30 p.m. (July) / 7 p.m. (August), the detonation of an explosive charge echoes across the piazza, signaling to the thousands of onlookers that the race is about to begin. The race itself runs for three laps of the Piazza del Campo, the outer course of which is covered with several inches of dirt and the corners of which are protected with padded crash barriers for the occasion. The jockeys ride the horses bareback from the starting line, where there is only room for nine horses. The tenth, the rincorsa, stands behind those nine. The start is given by a local authority called Mossiere, who has to wait for all the horses to be in the correct position. When this moment is (with great difficulty) achieved, he activates a mechanism that instantly removes the canapo, the starting cord.

On the dangerous steeply-canted track, the riders are allowed to use their whips not only for their own horse, but also for disturbing other horses and riders. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line with its head ornaments intact — the rider does not necessarily need to finish, and often does not. The loser in the race is considered to be the Contrada whose horse came in second, not last.

The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is newly created for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the Palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of the various Contrade.

After the race, a certain curiosity might traditionally regard the result of the bets that the inhabitants of each Contrada (contradaioli) made about the Palio; frequently, the losers have to bear being ridiculed by their winning opponents.

There is some danger to spectators from the sheer number of people in attendance. There have also been complaints about mistreatment of horses, injuries and even deaths, especially from animal rights associations and even from some veterinarians. In the Palio held on August 16, 2004 the horse for the Contrada of the Bruco (Caterpillar) fell and was badly trampled as the race was not stopped, despite possible additional safety risks for other horses. The horse died of its injuries, raising further complaints from animal rights organizations.

In the race of July 2006 the Palio was won by the Contrada of the Pantera after a gap of 12 years since their last victory. In the August 16 race, the Palio was won by Selva, the forest, who maintained a lead throughout most of the race.

Fun facts about the Palio di Siena

The Palio di Siena dates back to the early Middle Ages and has always been a source of curiosity and enthusiasm also outside Siena. The hard and traditional horse race can boil over some emotions. The event is very famous, so tourists come from all over the world to attend the spectacle. Here are some interesting facts that not everybody might know about …

Palio is not only on July 2 and August 16

The race takes place every year on July 2nd and August 16th. In both cases, the event lasts four days, from the assignment of the horses to the contradas, to the morning and evening rehearsals to the Palio. For the Sienese contrada member, the Palio is not only reduced to these days: the Palio is «every day of the year». Those who visit their own contrada only in the days of the Palio are in fact derogatory called «quattrogiornisti» («the four-dayers»). For the true Sienese, it is important to actively participate in the life of their neighborhood throughout the whole year.

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A horse can win without a rider

It happened already 24 times that a district won with the horse without jockey; in this case one speaks of the «cavallo scosso», the «shaken horse».

The Mossiere never watches the race

The Mossiere has the task to align the horses before the start and check off when the contradas start the race. Once he has done his job, he leaves the field and never watches the course of the race.

​Who is the «Nonna» (the grandmother)?

The Palio has a special language and refers to the contrada that hasn’t won for the longest time as the «grandma».

​The Drappellone

The Drappellone is the only prize the winning district receives. It can also be called «Cencio». Each year its creation is entrusted to local artists (Palio in July) and international artists (Palio in August).


The Sienese, who hold official positions at city level, cannot join any contrada.

A unique view

The person who enjoys the most breathtaking view of the Palio is the person who rings the bell of the Torre del Mangia until the horses come out. Then he goes to the tower clock to admire the Palio from there.

The blessing of the horse

On the afternoon of the day of the Palio, the pastor of each contrada blesses the horse that will participate in the race with holy water and shouts «Go and return as a winner».

​Sanctions and disqualification

Although the race on the outer ring of the Piazza del Campo sometimes appears unorganized and chaotic, one must not believe that there are no rules in this race. On the contrary, the almanacs are full of sanctions imposed on individual jockeys or their contradas to punish misconduct before and after the race.

The origins of the Palio di Siena

The Palio di Siena has ancient origins and still represents one of the most famous and unique events in Italy. It takes place in Siena and involves the different Contrade in the town in a horse race set in Piazza del Campo. This particular horse race, traditionally called “career”, is held twice a year: on 2nd July the Palio is run in honor of the Madonna di Provenzano and on 16th August the one in honor of the Madonna Assunta.

But what are the origins of the Palio di Siena? When did this competition start and how has it evolved over the centuries? In this article, we find out everything there is to know about the history of the Palio Senese.

When and how the Palio di Siena was born

The very first traces of a form of Palio in the town of Siena date back to the XII century: at the time, the competition involved crossing the streets of the city reaching the Duomo Vecchio and was called Palio alla Lunga. From the XIII century, the event was dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, patron saint of the town, and began to be part of the celebrations of the Assumption together with the offering of candles to the Madonna; the prize for the winner was a cloth of precious decorated fabric, called “pallium”, from which the word Palio derives.

At the time, only the nobles participated in the race, but with the birth of the Contrade, another kind of show began to be organized. At the end of the XVI century, the local “giochi rionali” made their appearance which will consolidate the identity of the individual Contrada, which will have been the real protagonists of the competition ever since.

The Palio di Siena arrives in Piazza del Campo

At the beginning of the XVII century, the race was transferred to Piazza del Campo for reasons of safety first of all: the Palio, in fact, was very dangerous because the horses ran at full speed in the narrow city streets. In addition, only a few people enjoyed the event, due to the venue (the narrow streets). We, therefore, moved from the “long” to the “round” Palio, because it takes place in Piazza del Campo. The date to which the first Palio di Siena is traced as we know it is July 2, 1652.

From that moment it was decided that not only the nobles would run but the Contrade themselves would have had the opportunity to choose their own jockey. The Palio dedicated to the miracle of the Madonna of Provenzano, celebrated on 2nd July was run for the first time in 1656 while a second palio of the districts was introduced from the XVIII century. The proposal was put forward by the Contrada of the Goose (Oca), which, after winning the competition of 2nd July 1701, offered a sort of re-match to the opponents on the occasion of the Assumption celebration, on 16th August. The two palios are therefore officially recognized since 1774 by the Municipality of Siena.

The rules of the Palio di Siena

In 1729 the borders of the seventeen Sienese contrada were established: each of them is like a small state, governed by a seat led by the Prior and led in the palio by a Captain, aided by two or three contradaioli called lieutenants. The territory of each Contrada houses a museum inside which flags, memorabilia, documents and any object or writing relating to the Contrada itself are kept.

The modern regulation of the Palio di Siena dates back to 1721 and, hough over the centuries there have been modifications and variations, it has remained substantially unchanged in its fundamental points. The Palio was suspended only during the First and Second World Wars. Today, even if for tourists it is only a folkloric horse race, the Palio di Siena is a fundamental moment in city life, around which the life of the Contrada and its inhabitants revolves.

Palio di Siena

The Palio Di Siena is a historic event that dates back to the 6th century and continues today, every year it occurs in the famous Piazza del Campo on the 2nd of July and 16th of August. It is a passionate (actually incredibly passionate) and legendary horse race without saddles, which we were fortunate enough to witness and experience! Siena is split into seventeen areas, or in Italian ‘contrade’, in which ten of them participate in the race. Each contrada has its own symbol/mascot of an animal or something related to nature such as: the eagle, the wave, the panther etc. It was beautiful to see that each area has its own unique and colourful flags (the same colours are used for the uniforms of the jockeys) as well as museums of the history of wins and loses, jockeys and horses. We were both surprised to find out that the jockey is partnered with a horse at random, only 4 days before the race! You will see the mascots all over the city as you walk around, as Siena is split into 17 contradeas. Remember to look up at the iron decorations on the surrounding buildings, also the statues and gargoyles at the very tops of buildings as they are tailored to each contrade.

The Piazza del Campo is a beautiful square that is jam packed every year with families, friends, tourists and members of the contrade as it is an important event (also free to watch depending on where you watch from). We were advised that for a better view of the race, we should watch from outside of the center of the piazza, from a balcony or allocated viewing spots from high up to have a birds eye view of the entire event — these viewing spots are charged for. Luckily for us, our friend Caterina invited us to watch the race from her apartment which directly faces the piazza! We had an aperitif (aperol spritz for Scott and a Prosecco for Angus) together before the game began around 7pm as they had a pregame mass, as soon as the race initiated, we felt as though it was a game of quidditch! Screams and roars echoing from the wave of people, jockeys irritating each other with the traditional whips made out of ox sinew and I’m sure we heard the subtle sound of drums under the loud cheering. A couple of the jockeys had fallen off of their horses, no one was hurt too badly, what’s more important is that the horse can still win the race even without the jockey! Seeing the square before the crowds arrive, it really doesn't look big enough for a horse race, with their very tight corners and it seems as though there isn't enough room to manoeuvre!

The race consists of 3 laps which should only take 2-3 minutes, when actually the whole Palio event lasted for hours. With continuous false starts at the beginning of the race, it often takes more than 15 minutes to reset the race after a false start and there is normally a scuffle between rival riders. 3 hours later, the false starts were still going on. Luckily for us, we were in comfort at our friend's house, but to be stuck in the middle of the square with the roaring crowd for all that time wouldn't be fun! After 4 hours, the race eventually starts and is all over after 3 laps, which took around 2 minutes! Don't blink or else you might miss it! The atmosphere of this event, the extreme passion, pride and competitive spirit that the riders and their supporters have is what creates the fun of this event.

The winner of the Palio was.

The contrada La Selva “the woods”! Caterina’s contrada! She was over the moon and as were we for her, the horse brought a lot of honour to the community of selva. Even though it was our first time experiencing the Palio Di Siena, we felt an overwhelming feeling of joy seeing how happy so many people were, after the winner was announced, the street parties and dinners commenced! The street lights were brighter than ever for the first, second and third winners, as well as festive music and colourful clothing; as for the losing contrade their street lights were turned off and it’s best not to go down those streets as the losers remain disheartened and not in the festive mood. The celebrations consist of traditional Sienese music and food, residents set dining tables outside of their houses for a grand street party, we got stuffed with Italian cheeses, hams, salami, barbeque, wine and beer, all for an affordable price.


Visiting the Palio di Siena was an amazing experience full of different emotions and was most certainly fun! We recommend attending if you are interested in history, sports, competitions or just to try something different. If you dislike crowded places, this is probably not an event for you as the whole of Siena overflows with people of all ages and at times may be hard to move. We advise you not to stay in the centre of the square during the Palio, or else you will not be let out by the security guards until the event is over — which can be many hours later. A lesson we learnt from seeing another Palio in Castiglion Fiorentino!

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