The Palio is Life. Siena’s Historic Horse Race Explained

The Palio in Siena is one of the most historic horse races in the world, attracting thousands of international spectators every summer. In recent years, animal rights activists have level some criticism at the event. Crowded, confusing, and perhaps controversial… We sat down with a true expert, Context docent and historian, Dr. Kristin Stasiowski, and talked about her love of this city and the meaning of the Palio in Siena.

Nota bene: We run a popular tour on the history of the Siena Palio.

 

Palio in Siena in action

Context: The Palio in Siena is very famous, but often misunderstood. How would explain it to an outsider?

Kristin Stasiowski: The Sienese have this saying: “Il Palio e’ vita.” The Palio is life itself. The word “palio” comes from the latin pallium, and describes the silk banner that is the prize won by the contrada, or neighborhood, who wins the horse race known by the same name: Palio. The race itself is, in fact, three laps around the Piazza del Campo in Siena, run in honor of the Virgin Mother. But, it is not considered a re-creation; a festival; a tourist event, or even a sporting event. The Palio, to the Sienese, represents the quintessential amor patria—an expression of love toward the city by its citizens.

 

View of Siena, with the Torre del Mangia - site of the Palio in Siena
View of Siena, with the Torre del Mangia

Context: There are two Palio races each summer, are they the same?

Kristin Stasiowski: The Palio of July 2nd is run in honor of the Madonna of the Provenzano, and the Palio of August 16th is run in honor of the Madonna of the Assunta. Each race appears identical, but the Palio of July is considered its own event and so is that of August. They are considered different “tracks,” if you will: July to July and August to August.

 

Context: Who participates in the race?

Kristin Stasiowski: Ten contrade, selected by lottery, participate in the race. That means, ten jockeys, riding ten horses—bare back!

 

Context: Tell us more about the contrada.

Kristin Stasiowski: The city of Siena is divided into seventeen neighborhoods knowns as contrade. These contrade are the lifeblood of the city. Each contrada is like an independent state with its own administrative staff, including a “Captain” and Prior and an assembly which represents all the members of the contrada. Each contrada also has its own church, chapter house, archive and museum that reside in the neighborhood and are frequented by the members of that contrada.

 

A Horse in Siena, Hero of the Palio in Siena
Horse in the stall

Context: You are a member of the Contrada Capitana dell’Onda. How does someone become a member?

Kristin Stasiowski: Membership in a contrada was at one point limited to citizens who were physically born within the walls of that neighborhood territory. With the advent of hospital births, that connection was no longer possible, so the contrade began to “baptize” new members once a year during the feast day of each particular contrada. Since many Sienese now live outside of the city walls of Siena, they call those contradaioli (citizens of the contrada) the contradaioli “fuori le mura,” outside the walls. Let’s just say that I am a contradaiola very outside the walls!

 

Context: Throughout the years, the Palio Siena has also sparked some controversies over the health of the horses, both during training and the race itself, with some lethal accidents dotting the history of the event.

Kristin Stasiowski: There are, I think, inherent risks for animals participating in any sort of competition especially in the case of horses moving quickly on an uneven surface with sharp turns and different elevations, which is true in Siena. That said, the Sienese are horse fanatics. When a contrada receives the horse they will use in the Palio, the horse is assigned a “body guard” and private veterinarian–both of whom (together with the jockey) actually live with the horse in a private stall in the contrada itself.  If a horse wins the Palio, it actually has a place at the head of the table during the victory dinner!

Blacksmith at work
Blacksmith at work

 

Context: Any last thoughts about the Palio in Siena?

Kristin Stasiowski: The Palio in Siena, more than any other event in Italy, requires a deep cultural awareness on the part of visitors to Siena. Everything about the city of Siena—it’s history; it’s identity; it’s spirituality—is found in the Palio. It’s not easy to “hashtag” or “tweet” the significance of 800 years of continuous history, which is what the Palio represents. For this reason alone, though many tourists go, the Palio in Siena resists mass tourism. It begs of the traveler a closer encounter, a sensitive mind and an open heart. Perhaps that is why the medieval inscription on Porta Camollia reads: “More than her doors, Siena opens her heart to you.”

 

To experience this first hand take a look our Siena Palio Tour.

 

Siena, Piazza del Campo
Siena, Piazza del Campo

FAST FACTS:

  • When is the Palio Siena: July 2nd and August 16th
  • What time does the race begin?: Usually at 7:30PM in July and 7:00PM in August.
  • What time should I be in the piazza?: If you would like to see the historic parade, you should plan to be in the piazza by 4PM.
  • Do I need to purchase tickets for the Palio?: No. The Palio Siena is free and open to the public, if you stand in the piazza. If you would like to sit in the bleacher-style seats surrounding the piazza, you could spend anywhere from 250 to 1000 EURO per ticket. The Sienese actually prefer to be in the piazza because you are right in the middle of the action!
  • How do I purchase tickets?: There is no ticket office. Most often, you need to approach the persons responsible for the bars or buildings where those bleachers are situated. Or, you could ask our Context Siena docents who would be happy to help!
  • Is the Palio appropriate for children? Yes. But, generally speaking, children under 10 years old are discouraged from standing in the piazza because there are no bathrooms, no strollers are allowed and the Sienese strongly discourage parents from lifting children up on their shoulders to see the race.

 

FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING:

La Terra in Piazza: An Interpretation of the Palio of Siena by Alan Dundes and Alessandro Falassi.

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