Il Palio is a horse race held twice a year, on July 2 and August 16, in Siena, Italy. The first race in July in named the Palio di Provenzano in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano and the second in August is named the Palio dell‘Assunta in honour of the Assumption of Mary. Ten of seventeen jockeys representing their contrade or neighbourhood district compete for victory in hopes of being crowned one of two champions every year. The race goes all the way back to the medieval times where public games, mostly popular combative type games like jousting and bullfighting, were held in the central piazza of Siena. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, however, the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting completely. In response, the people took to organizing races instead to fill in the gap. First they started racing buffalo, then donkeys, and finally much later on, horses like everyone else of the day.
Today the race is highly celebrated by the Sienese, and really all Italians, in culmination of the continuous rivalry between each neighbourhood. While it is only held twice a year during the summer months, the Palio is eagerly awaited throughout the year. People from all over the world come to see one or both of the races. The official race is only three laps and while it only takes about ninety seconds to complete, it’s an incredibly exciting ninety seconds to experience even as just a spectator.
I was first introduced to this race in 2009 when I moved to Florence as a language and art student. Five years later in 2014, I was fortunate enough to catch the second race in August while travelling. Despite it being incredibly difficult to find a room during the race, a friend and I managed to find one the night before with a local just outside the walls of Siena. That night our host graciously took us on a tour of his home town to show us how the Sienese celebrate in preparation for the big race the next day.
To secure a good spot to view the race, as good as one can, we made our way to Piazza del Campo almost five hours beforehand. As we slowly made our way towards the centre, we kept getting intersected by the different traditional parades put on by the participating contrade. Supporters proudly wear a flag with the symbol of their contrade around their neck as they march.
As grueling as five hours of waiting seems, it wasn’t as terrible as it sounds. Now if the weather was as hot as it had been all summer, it would be a different story. The clouds were thickly layered and the light stayed diffused most of the morning but the clouds eventually opened up enough for the sun to shine generously the last hour before the race began. We were probably among the 2-3000 people to arrive in the 28,000 capacity piazza so we were correct to arrive so early. The last two hours counting down to the race felt very enclosed, rubbing shoulders with just about everyone else around you. The shape of the piazza is an almost downward slanting shell; the inside area isn’t so bad to be crammed in but we managed to secure an area much closer to the outer side just opposite of the campanile and close to one of the exits so it would be easier to battle through the post-race rush that people push past to get to one of the many street side parties each contrade throw; win or lose.
The race goes by incredibly quick whether you’re paying attention or not. At times, it’s even hard to see where the horses exactly are because the piazza is so large and crowded, but you can easily tell if they are approaching your side by the increasingly loud wave of cheers that gravitates toward you.
Forget the Kentucky Derby. When it comes to horse racing, the Sienese are undoubtedly the most passionate people you will see when it comes to their contrada winning the race.
That year, La Civetta (or Owl) jockey Andrea Mari took the lead on the very last stretch to claim victory as champ.
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