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What is the Palio di Siena

The Palio beginnings are rooted in medieval days when jousting, bull fighting and boxing took place in the Campo. In 1590 Bull fighting was made illegal  by the Grand Duke of Tuscany and instead the Siena population started racing buffalos in the Campo. Over time this morphed into donkeys and then the first Palio on horseback was introduced in 1633. It has been going ever since!

The Palio is a bareback horse race around the Campo in Siena in Italy. It is held twice a year on the same date the 2nd July and the 16th August.

The race is run by 10 jockeys and horses which represent 10 of the Contradas (Districts) of Siena. There are 17 Contradas in Siena and those that cannot race are automatically

included in the same race the following year with a further 3 more chosen nearer the time to join them.

The race lasts three laps around the Piazzo del Campo, which has a thick layer of dirt and tuff put down especially for the Palio di Siena race. It lasts approximately 90 seconds.

Private horse owners offer their horses to be part of the Palio and these are narrowed down by veterinary inspection.(Pure breds are not allowed to be part of the Palio). The capitani then chooses 10 horses of roughly equal quality three days before the race to be in the Palio di Siena. The ten horses are then allocated to the specific Contrada by lottery, and cannot be changed by the Contrada.

There are six trial races before the actual Palio with the first being on the evening of the lottery selection, and the last on the Palio day morning so the jockeys can get used to the horses, and the Contradas can assess the fit between their chosen jockey and allocated horse. A jockey can be replaced by its Contrada right up the morning of the Palio di Siena.

Again by lottery 9 horses are chosen to enter the start line whilst the 10th horse, called the Rincorsa, enters when its jockey decides to, and the Palio di Siena starts when the 10th horse enters the line at a gallop. This period, which is called the Mossa, is not as straightforward as it sounds though as all the Contradas has done deals with each other so if their horse is the Rincorsa they will have been incentivized by other Contradas to only enter when their horse is particularly well placed, or their arch enemy is badly placed.

These deals are done at Contrada and at Jockey level so you never quite know if your jockey of your contrada is trying to really win or just block another jockey. 

There is a lot of argy bargy during the Mossa and this can last 5 minutes or an hour- you never know as it is all to do with the placement of the horses, and the incentives that have been offered to the Rincorsa.

The winner of the Siena Palio Horse Race is won by the horse that represents the Contradas not the jockey. Ie the winner is the first horse across the line, it does not have to have a jockey on it! This situation is known as cavallo scosso.

The loser is not the last horse, but the second horse to cross the finish line which is a position to be ridiculed. The Contrada that has the longest period without a win is derogatively called Nonna (Grandmother), and currently the Contrada Aquila (The Eagle) holds this title.

So the objective is to win the Siena Palio Horse race, but just as important is to prevent your rivals from winning. So if a Contrada loses its historical “enemy” will celebrate as much as if they had won the Palio di Siena itself! Indeed in the run up to the Palio the heads of the Contrada meet and offer each other and the jockey significant monies for one jockey to block the arch rival of another during the race; it really is more than just first past the post!

As you can see the Palio di Siena is not for tourists, it is a real ongoing rivalry with intense competition between the Contradas.

The prize for winning the Siena Palio Horse Race is a painted silk banner- or Palio – which is hand-painted for each race by a different artist.

There are certain elements that have to be included in the Palio.

  • The sacred symbols of the race; the July Palio is dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano, and August is dedicated to the Madonna of the Assumption.
  • The symbols of the city
  • The colours or symbols of the 10 Contrada participating

It is therefore very valuable as no two Palios are ever the same and are treasured in the winning Contrada Museums which exist in each district.

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