‘Il Palio” is a bi-annual cultural extravaganza in the picturesque Tuscan city of Siena.
In reality, there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Let’s get to know this spectacle a little better, shall we?
Origins date back to the 12th Century, making it the oldest horse race in history. The first ‘modern’ running took place on 2nd July 1656, as part of the local Catholic church celebrations in honour of the Madonna di Provenzano.
Still held on this day each year the city council added a second annual Palio, on 16th August 1701, in honour of the Feast of Assumption.
Here you will witness all the ritual and rivalry of daily life in Siena’s neighbourhoods, or ‘Contrade’, a full immersion, gaining access to create artistic imagery of scheduled events, found uniquely, in the final week build-up to race day.
All horses are blessed in church, the day before a three-lap race of the Piazza del Campo. A no holds barred affair, capped to ten horses, each one mounted bareback by jockeys, or ‘Fantini’, turned out elegantly in historic Contrada emblems and colours.
A workshop saturated with eye-catching pageantry that stretches back 800 years, culminating in a frenzied race, won in about seventy seconds.
It’s an all-out, week-long, photographic festival in the heart of one of the world’s most unique events.
The full activities of the Palio start towards the end of May, with the drawing of lots of the three remaining contrade that will join the seven that have won the right to race.
With districts and teams outlined, contrade begin to arrange "deals" (engagement of jockeys) and "parties" (secret pacts for the win), despite not knowing which horse they will draw in the lot.
About a week before the race, the Palio (Drappellone), known affectionately as il “cencio”, the 'rag' in Siena, is presented to the city, commissioned by a local artist for the the Palio of July or internationally recognised artist in the case of the Palio of August and extraordinary Palios.
The Palio is an elongated rectangular piece of silk, hand-painted by an artist for the occasion.
Held vertically on a black-and-white shaft halberd, topped by a silver plate, with two white and black plumes draped down the sides.
Along with the plumes, the Palio remains the property of the Contrada. The plate is returned to the city of Siena before the two Palii of the following year, after the date with the name of the victorious Contrada inscribed on the rear.
The stone race track around the square is covered with a layer of dirt composed of a mixture of tuff, clay and sand.
Six trials are run, during which the riders have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with their horse and with the track.
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June 27th and 11th August
- 07:00 Prove di Matutine Addestramento in Piazza del Campo.
June 28th and 12th August
- 05:30 Prove di Matutine Addestramento in Piazza del Campo.
June 29th and 13th August
- 07:00 Presentation of the horses, that will participate in the Batterie, trials, to be selected to run in the Palio.
- 09:00 The so-called “Tratta” begins. It’s a process by which the 30 or so horses are matched to the ten Conrade that will participate in the Palio. The horses after being examined by vets and considered to be fit are divided into groups of 5-7 horses for the ‘batterie’ or trials and allowed to run around the Tufo track three times, determining if they are capable of running on this type of surface. At the end of the trials, the Captains of the Contrade, in the mayor’s presence, gather together and select the ten most suitable horses.
- 12:30 In front of the Palazzo Publico the extraction for the horses assigned to each competing Contrada takes place. After each racehorse, or ‘Barbero; is assigned, the “Barbaresco” collects the horse and takes it back to the Contrada’s stall.
- 19:15 First Prova. The trials begin the first of six before the Palio.
June 30th and 14th August
- 09:00 The Second Prova. The horses line up at the starting line in reverse order from the previous evening.
- 15:00 The July Procession of the "Cero Votivo," Votive Candle arrives at the church Santa Maria in Provenzano and to the Duomo for the Palio in August.
- 19:15 The Third Prova. The horses line up in the same order as the extraction when assigned to the Contrade from the previous day.
July 1st and 15th August
- 09:00 The Fourth Prova. The horses line up at the starting line in reverse order from the previous evening.
- 19:15 The Prova Generale or dress rehearsal. Horse line-up is relative to the number worn on their ears for the assignment. There is a traditional charge, “Carica”, by the carabinieri before the trial begins.
- 20:30 Dinner of The Prova Generale afterwards. Dress rehearsal dinner in all the Contrade who participate in the race, the leaders, Contrada members and guests (as many as 2000 people) all gather for dinner in honour of the Palio protagonists. The Contrada jockey is surrounded by the Contrada leaders and seated at the head of the table. After dinner the Captains and the Manglers of each Contrada go to find the leaders of the allied Contrade making arrangements to favour their victory or that of the friendly, “Amica”, Contrada or obstruct that of the adversary.
July 2nd and 16th August
- 07:45 The Archbishop celebrates “La Massa del Fantino” in the Chapel of Piazza del Campo.
- 09:00 The Sixth and last trial, known as the "Provaccia" because of a real indifference demonstrated by the Fantini as they rest and maintain their horses form, before the race. Following this trial, all Captains and jockeys meet in the City Hall enrolling and presenting each Contrada with the silks that the jockeys will wear. Once this official jockey assignment has been confirmed made no further changes can be made.
- 15:00 In the early afternoon, once Contrada members are ready in their splendid costumes, the historic parades set off. Spectacular corteges arriving, shortly afterwards at the churches of the participating contrade. The rite of blessing the Horses and Fantini take place in the respective oratory. The priest, concludes the mystical rite, with the wish that it is almost an order: Go and return winner! Afterwards, the Contrade spill out and cross the historical centre, stopping in Piazza Salimbeni, at the "Casino dei Nobili", in front of Palazzo Chigi Saracini and in Piazza del Duomo to perform the traditional flag throwing, “Sbandierata".
- 16:00 Closure of Piazza del Campo starts. The only entranceway to the Piazza is at Via Dupre.
- 16:30 The entire procession exits the courtyard of Palazzo del Governo leaving Piazza del Duomo and heads for the Piazza del Campo. The route of the parade to the Piazza is Cortile delle Preffettura - Piazza del Duomo - via del Capitano - via S Pietro - Casato di Sopra – Casato di Sotto.
- 17:20 The Corteo Storico enters the square in order based on the results of the first trial. The race is preceded by a squad of mounted Carabinieri, wielding swords, completing a mounted charge around the track. They complete one lap at a walk, in formation, and a second at a gallop before exiting the piazza. Immediately followed by a spectacular pageant, the Corteo Storico, which includes (among many others) Alfieri, flag wavers, in medieval costumes. Over 60,000 people crowd the Piazza on race day the atmosphere is full of singing, the chanting of the Contrada marching through the streets, quite unforgettable.
- 18:15 The piazza is completely closed.
- 19:20 The Corsa begins after the Palio Banner is hoisted onto the judges stand. The race starts in the “Mossa”, an area set up on the piazza delimited by two long pieces of thick rope. The "Mossiere" then calls the Contrade in the order in which they were drawn and checks that the assigned positions are respected.
- 19:30 After the race, instantaneous celebrations erupt, an immense track invasion with madness breaking out way before the race winner is awarded the Drappellone, “the rag”. The winning Contrada members escort the Palio to the church of Santa Maria in Provenzano, in July, and to the Duomo, in August, singing thanks, “Te Deum”, to the Virgin Mary. Later the Palio is taken back to the winning Contrada and then paraded through the streets of the city, accompanied by song, drum and flag.
Important note: In the case of rain all trials will be suspended until the course dries sufficiently to use safely. On race day if the course is too wet the Palio will not be run until the track is safe meaning that it can be held on another day. All timings are compiled from previous experience together with the annual Palio schedule and are indicative and approximate. Timings for some of the August Palio daily events are scheduled roughly half an hour before those of the first Palio in July. In the case of rain, a green flag is hung in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, city hall, to inform the public.
The Corteo Storico is an extravagant procession, commemorating the ancient institutions, customs and greatness of the Republic of Siena.
A formally choreographed triumphal march transmitting centuries of festivity, joy and splendour before every Palio, since the inception of the races. Special attention is given to the participating Contrade forming the main portion of the pageantry of the parade.
On race day, in the early afternoon, town members gather in the courtyard of the Palace of Justice. Under the command of the Field Marshall, a line-up forms next to the Cathedral in Piazza del Duomo.
Leaving the square, the procession winds down crowded streets following a route which consists of Via del Capitano, Piazza Postieri, Via San Pietro, Via della Casato Sopra and Via della Casato Sotto where they join with other parade members.
The sumptuous parade enters Piazza del Campo upon the first toll of the “Sunto” the bell of the Torre di Mangia.
Pairs of sbandietori, flag-bearers, form the seventeen contrade stop around the piazza performing the “sbandierate” in synchrony with drummers.
Eye-catching exhibitions of flag-waving which culminate by throwing the flags.
The paramount focus of the parade is the passing of the Carroccio, a modern counterpart of Siena’s triumphal chariot upon which the silken Palio banner is transported.
Parade members take their places after circling the piazza and the Palio is hoisted on to the judges stand, leaving the thirty-four flag-bearers to perform their drum roll, “la sbandierata della Vittoria”.
The procession is lead by six Pole-bearers called Mazzieri or Araldi, ambassadors of Siena dressed in black & white. They are followed by a mounted Vessillifero, standard-bearer, with Palafreniere, a groom, carrying the 'Balzana', Siena's coat of arms, escorted by four City Commanders. Twelve Tamburini, palazzo drummers and eighteen commune trumpeters, precede thirty palazzo musicians that mark the pace of the procession. Sixty-seven flag bearers carry insignias representing the cities, lands and castles of the ancient Senese Republic. These are followed by the drummer a standard-bearer and three Balestrieri, crossbow archers, representing Borogo, Città Nuova & Città Vecchia from the Città di Massa Marittima. The final components of this group are a Tamburino, drummer, a Vessillifero, standard-bearer and four Arcieri, archers from the Città di Montalcino.
Lead by a Vessillifero and three-page boys with a dagger, a helmet and sword lead the Captain of the People, who rides with a groom escort. He is followed by three Gonfalonieri, important city officials, the “Terzi” on horseback and three mounted Centurioni of the ‘Masse di Terzi”, accompanied by Palafrenieri. Three Capitani delle Masse dei Terzi, accompanied by Palafrenieri is the final component of this group
Is comprised of representatives of the ancient Studio Senese comprised of two Tamburini, a Vessillifero, a Rector, four Professors and four Students.
Siena Guild of Arts representation is formed by this group led by two Tamburini della Mercanzia a Vessillifero and the three magistrates of the Mercanzia. They are followed by six representatives of each Contrada preceded by the Vessillifero who carries the emblem of each of the guilds of every Contrada: Aquila (Eagle) Notaries – Notai, Bruco (Caterpillar) Silk Weavers – Setaioli, Chiocciola (Snail) Tanners – Cuoiai, Civetta (Little Owl) Cobblers – Calzolai, Drago (Dragon) Bankers - Banchieri, Giraffa (Giraffe), Painters – Pittori, Istrice (Crested Porcupine). Blacksmiths – Fabbri, Leocorno (Unicorn) Goldsmiths – Orafi, Lupa (She-Wolf) Bakers Fornai, Nicchio (Seashell) Potters – Vasai, Oca (Goose) Dye makers – Tintori, Onda (Wave), Carpenters – Carpentieri, Pantera (Panther) Pharmacists – Speziali, Selva (Forest) Weavers – Tessitori, Tartuca (Tortoise) Sculptors - Pietro Maestri, Torre (Tower) Wool makers – Battilana, Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) Tailors - Ligurieri
A Paggio, a pageboy, accompanied by two other armed pages, carries the "Masgalano", the esteemed city prize for the most elegant Comparsa.
The composition of the ten participating Contrade, formed of one Tamburino, two Alfieri, flag bearers, the Duce, escorted by two armed soldiers, a Paggio Maggiore, major pageboy, carrying the Contrada banner, flanked by two pages bearing the flags of the military companies. On the Soprallasso, a large parade horse, escorted by a groom, is the Fantino in gala ceremonial silks followed by the Contrada's Barbero, racehorse, lead by the Barbaresco. The Contrade participating in the Palio will enter the order established by the draw lots three days previously.
Two rows of six pages bearing a laurel festoon indicate the separation between the ten Contradas participating in the race and the seven that do not run.
Is made up of the seven non-participating Contrade, formed of the Tamburino, two Alfieri, a Duce escorted by two armed soldiers, a Paggio Maggiore carrying the Contrada banner, flanked by two Paggi Vesssilliferi bearing the flags of the military companies.
Then there are six mounted Knights with grooms, representing the Contrade which no longer exist Gallo - Rooster, Lione - Lion, Orso - Bear, Quercia - Oak, Swordsman - Spadaforte and Vipera - Viper.
A Vessillifero, flag bearer leads the Captaino who is followed by two drummers, four Pavesari, armed soldiers with shoulder-high shields. Four Balestrieri, large crossbow archers head the final sixteen Balestrieri con balestruccio, crossbow archers.
Next is the Captain of Justice who is mounted with palafrenieri, escorted by four Roncone, armoured swordsmen armed with lances.
The Carroccio escorted by eight infantry armed with Roncone is pulled by four Chianina oxen led by four cattlemen. The Palio and the Balzana are raised. Upon the Carroccio are the Provveditori di Balìa, four wise men, a footman who plays the "Martinella", a valet-holder, a bell ringing page, six trumpeters. The Carroccio, a veritable triumphal chariot, in the historical Corteso of the Palio represents above all the symbol of the independence and unity of a people that, however, knows how to gather around its institutions.
The Carroccio is followed by six Knights with grooms, representing some ancient noble families of Siena: Pannocchieschi d' Elci, Piccolomini, Salimbeni, Salvani, Tolomei, Ugurgieri.
The Historical procession ends with six-page boys bearing a laurel festoon between them.