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The Palio di Siena is a competition of medieval origin between the city’s districts. It can be said that for the Sienese it is life, passion, history. The “Carriera”, as the race is traditionally called, usually takes place twice a year: on July 2nd the “Palio di Provençale” (in honor of the Madonna of Provence), on August 16th the “Palio of the Assumption” (in honor of the Assumption Madonna). On the occasion of exceptional events or national and local anniversaries considered relevant, the Sienese community may decide to make an extraordinary Palio, between May and September.
The Palio of Siena is perhaps the most appealing folklore event in the world, a religious and civil festival whose history seems to be interwoven with the Etruscan origins of the city, so that some scholars have identified similarities among the first Sienese Palii and the equestrian games of the Etruscan people. Historically the first news of a form of Palio closer to the present version is to be traced back to the 12th century, with the so-called Palio “in the long run”, because the event enjoined crossing the streets of the city reaching the Duomo Vecchio (dedicated to San Bonifazio). The Palio of today is raced by jockeys, usually not senesi, who ride horses assigned to the Contrade; each Palio has 10 participants, according to a mechanism of draws and alternations that dates back to 1721.
The days preceding the event are characterized by a certain rituality: after the assignment of the horses to the ten districts, drawn to participate in the race, in Piazza del Campo a series of six tests (one in the morning and one evening) take place, of which the first four are used to accustom the “barbero” (the horse) to the jockey and the type of the track. The horse is at this stage prepared and given a thousand attentions, and is entrusted to “Barbaresco”, a man who looks after it until the day of the Palio. The fifth test is called “Prova Generale” (rehersal) and takes place on the afternoon of the day before the Palio; it is followed by a dinner, called “Dinner of the rehearsal”, which takes place in the streets of each of the ten districts. It is a big propitiatory dinner in which they sing, they binge but above all they drink: the Prior participates with the main authorities of the Contrada plus the jockey, who occupies the place of honor at the table, and all the Contradaioli (who live in the distric). It is the night when secret pacts are stipulated between allied districts, with the aim of winning the Palio and knocking out the rival districts. The streets are lit up to party for the occasion.
Spectacular is the historical parade that runs through Piazza del Campo before the Palio, from which you can notice its medieval and religious origin. The historical procession is now composed of more than 700 costumed characters, which have been designed and produced referring to pictorial and iconographic models of the fifteenth century tradition. The day of the Palio race, both the Contrade party (composed by the drummer, two bishops, the commander, two men in arms, the page boy who carries signs, the sable boy and two other page boys) and a part of the parade of the municipality meet in the early afternoon inside the courtyard of the Palace of Justice, and after getting in a row in Piazza del Duomo they begin to parade through Via del Capitano, Piazza Postierla, via San Pietro, via del Casato di Sopra and Via del Casato di Sotto, reached by other figures of the Council. At the first chime of the bell of the Torre del Mangia the historical procession enters the Piazza del Campo, and after two hours of parade of Renaissance costumes the Drappellone makes an entrance, which is hoisted on the Carroccio, the chariot of triumph pulled by four Chianina oxen, with four herdsmen. Besides the Drappellone, the desired prize, on the Carroccio there are also the four Balia supervisors, a page boy playing the Martinella (a typical bell), and six trumpeters of palace playing the clarion with of the famous march of the Palio.
Later, the seventeen pairs of Alfieri (standard bearer) are placed in different points of the square and perform the “sbandierate” (aving of flags) following the drums. After the performance of the Alfieri, the Comparse parade, heading towards the big stage that hosts them, while the Drappellone is placed on the stage of the judges. To close the procession twelve page boys from the Council enter with Festoons of Laurel, while the seventeen Alfieri perform the sbandierata of victory to the rythm of the drums.
After the sumptuous procession has made its entrance, the complex mechanism of the celebration kicks off with the explosion of a firecracker announcing the exit of the horses from the andron. Each jockey is given a whip with which he can incite the horse or hinder his opponents during the race. Then we proceed to approach the “mossa”, or the point where they were tense two ropes between which the horses and jockeys have to allign. The order of entry is determined by an ballot. The tenth (and last) will enter with a run up when it feels ready, thus deciding the start. If the start is not valid, a burst of firecracker will stop the horses, which will have to make do laps for about 1000 meters. Only at the first can enjoy the glory of victory, and in any case the winner is still the horse, which can also arrive “scosso”, ie without a jockey.
The festivities begin immediately, with the Contradaioli who after receiving the Palio go to Provenzano (for the Palio of July) or to the Duomo (in August) to sing the “Te Deum” of thanksgiving. From this moment on every occasion will be good to remind the city of the Victory conquered, until the autumn, when, between the months of September and October the victory supper will be held, to which thousands of Contradaioli participate and, who sits at the head of the table, as a real hero, is of course the victorious horse.
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