Palio, Festival of the

Palio, Festival of the

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: July 2, August 16
Where Celebrated: Siena, Italy
Symbols and Customs: Masgalano, Pacifier, Palio, Partiti, Rincorsa, Tratta


The horse race known as the Palio has been run in one form or another since the thirteenth century, and it has been run twice annually for more than 340 years. It is a combination of theater, religious ritual, and athletic competition that takes place in Siena, Italy, every July and August, when ten horses representing the city's con- trade or districts run three laps around the perimeter of the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo. The winning contrada takes home the PALIO , which is also the name of the silk banner symbolizing victory in the centuries-old race.

There are actually seventeen contrade in Siena, but only ten get to race because there simply isn't room for more horses on the track, which is only twenty yards wide and involves two hazardous ninety-degree turns. Three days before the race, the horses that will compete are selected by the Capi- tanos, who are the individuals in charge of organizing each district's challenge for the Palio (see TRATTA ). The jockeys are usually mercenaries hired from outside the city-individuals who can be bribed by rival contrade and by each other to obstruct their opponents, hold them back by grabbing their jackets, or push them off course. Rivalry among the contrade runs deep, and there are no rules that prevent the race captains-chosen by their contrada to devise a winning strategy-from doing whatever it takes to better their chances of winning (see PARTITI ).

The race itself is preceded by four days of elimination heats. Then, about two hours before the start, there is a magnificent procession around the race course. Each contrada has its own drummers and flag-throwers (who can hurl their flags three or four stories into the air) dressed in medieval costumes whose colors symbolize the district they represent. They are followed by the horses with their jockeys, who have already been blessed at the altar of their neighborhood churches.

It is the tenth horse or RINCORSA who actually signals the beginning of the race. It takes less than two minutes to run three laps (slightly more than a kilometer) around the Piazza del Campo, but what goes on during those two minutes is a wild spectacle unlike any other horse race in the world. The jockeys ride bareback and carry whips that they use on their own and each other's horses. They wear high-top sneakers and splash water on the insides of their pant legs for a better grip, but falling off is a common occurrence. Negotiating the two right-angle turns is so dangerous that mattresses are strapped along the outside. Horses crash into them so frequently that "going to the mattresses" has become a common Sienese expression when something falls apart or goes off course. Even a riderless horse can win the race, provided that its head ornament bearing the colors of the contrada is still in place.

In recent years, animal rights groups have objected to the Palio's brutality. Horses are often drugged to improve their performance and, in the course of their run, they are sometimes crippled. But given the fact that more than 60,000 spectators routinely crowd the stands that are erected around the track, hang out the windows and balconies of the surrounding buildings, and jam the center of the piazza just to catch a glimpse of the action, it seems unlikely that Siena's greatest festival would be discontinued.



Fastened at the top of the banner known as the PALIO is the Masgalano (from the Spanish for "best-looking"), an embossed silver plate. It is awarded to the best dressed and best coordinated comparsa, which is the costumed group that represents each contrada in the parade that precedes the race.


An unusual and fairly recent symbol of Siena's devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose image appears on the PALIO itself, is a child's pacifier. During the period of the race, many Sienese can be seen sucking on pacifiers or wearing them tied in the scarves they wear to represent the colors of their contrada. Some even tie baby bottles filled with wine around their necks so they can celebrate whenever they feel like it. These childish objects are symbolic not only of their relationship to the Holy Mother but to the contrada whose loyal sons and daughters they are.


A painted silk or heavy canvas banner mounted vertically on a long black staff, the Palio is a symbol of victory in the competition that bears its name. Because the banner is often subjected to rough treatment-particularly before the race, when it is brought to the church of Provenzano to be blessed and is occasionally damaged by the pages who try to touch it with their sharp-pointed flags for good luck-a new Palio is painted for each race by a prominent Italian artist.

The Palio depicts the Virgin Mary and is drawn around the track by four white oxen during the procession before the race. After the race is over, the banner and members of the winning contrada head up the hill to the town's thirteenth-century cathedral, where it is hung above the altar while the winning jockey kneels and offers a prayer of thanks.


A partito is a secret agreement between the captains of two different contrade concerning the course of the race. Although each contrada has a traditional enemy

Siena's Contrade

Names and Translations of the Seventeen Contrade:

Aquila - Eagle Bruco - Caterpillar Chiocciola - Snail Civetta - Owl Drago - Dragon Giraffa - Giraffe Istrice - Porcupine Leocorno - Unicorn Lupa - She-Wolf Montone - Ram Nicchio - Shell Oca - Goose Onda - Wave Pantera - Panther Selva - Forest Tartuca - Tortoise Torre - Tower within the group, which never changes, alliances and counter-alliances with other contrade may be negotiated by the race captains.

Every night for a week before the Palio, the Capitanos and their lieutenants are busy cutting deals (partiti). A contrada that has not drawn a good horse, for example, might swap its jockey with another contrada so that a third contrada can be beaten-in return for which the captain of the winning contrada will give the other a sum of money. Only two rules govern this behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing: One cannot make a partito with one's historical enemy, and only the winner pays. It has been estimated that mounting a successful campaign to win the Palio can cost a contrada more than $500,000.


The rules for starting the race are the same as those used during the elimination heats. The first nine jockeys position their horses between two starting-ropes, trying to keep an appropriate distance from their competitors. Then the tenth horse, known as the rincorsa, comes from behind at a full gallop, and the moment he reaches the first rope, it is dropped and the race begins. The tenth jockey is alerted by the starter when the other nine have arranged themselves in a suitable line-up and can choose the moment at which his horse enters.

The start of the Palio is usually a lot more chaotic than it sounds. The jockeys try to guess the exact moment at which the rope will be lowered, and they kick their horses in the flanks to get them ready to set off. False starts are common and can be dangerous, especially if the starter isn't quick to lower the rope and prevent the horses from colliding with it.


The ritual known as tratta (drawing lots for horses) takes place in the Piazza del Campo on the morning of the third day before the race. Anyone who owns a horse can present it as a potential competitor; the horses are examined by a veterinarian and, if selected, turned over to the contrade for the trial races.

Once the heats are over and the animals have been examined one more time by the vet, they are presented individually to the Capitanos, who vote on which horses will actually participate in the final race. A horse is as likely to be rejected for its obvious superiority as for its lack of speed; because the Capitanos must choose ten horses without knowing to whom they will be assigned, they tend to select those with more or less equal qualifications. The voting is open unless one or more of the captains requests that it be carried out in secret. A secret vote is held according to an old Sienese custom where black (signifying "No") and white (signifying "Yes") balls are held in a closed fist and placed inside a silver urn.


Falassi, Alessandro, and Giuliano Catoni. Palio. Milan: Electa, 1983. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Comune of Siena Official Web Site
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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