Summer in Siena means the Palio a famed historic horse race run each year on July 2 and Aug. 16. The Palio tradition dates back to the 11th century, when the race was initiated to honor the Madonna dell’ Assunta, patroness and advocate of Siena, for her protection of the Sienese militia in their battles against the Florentines.The main players of the Palio are the city’s 17 contrade, or neighborhoods, as designated back in the middle ages. The contrade formerly served a military function, though through the years the militaristic aspects have disappeared and the contrade now function as multiple tight-knit communities within the city. Each contrada of Siena has its own government, coat of arms, emblem and colors.
Today rivalries run high among contrade. Some advise, for instance, against marrying outside ones contrada, as it is likened to breaking a birthright. These rivalries culminate at the Palio. While the actual race lasts just over a minute, the planning and festivities leading up to the dropping of the rope on July 2 and August 16 last for months. Each year, April 26 marks the opening of parade season. Each contrada porcupine, goose, giraffe, snail and eagle, to name a fewcelebrates its patron saint with a lively and colorful procession throughout the streets of Siena. For each Palio race, only 10 of the 17 contrade are chosen to participate. On the day of the tratta, or the official drawing of the horses, 10 horses are selected and assigned to the participating contradeluck playing a large role in the process. For the next four days, fierce competition dominates as the contrade begin preparing for the Palio.
During these final crucial days, Siena’s breathtaking Piazza del Campo is transformed into the official race track, the perimeter ring being covered by a layer of dirt and sand. The length of the circle is .21 of a mile and the race entails three loops around the campo, equaling .66 of a mile in total. The race typically lasts a minute and a half, give or take 10 seconds. The races death-defying speeds require external and internal barricades and protective padding in specific areas. The most dangerous of these areas is the curve at the front right area of the Piazza, known as the curve of San Martino. This 95-degree angle has been the site of nearly 60 percent of the accidents that have happened in the past 20 years. After the horses are assigned, the days are filled with six trial runs, on-going celebrations and, the night before the race, a final rehearsal dinner. Each contrada lays out rows of tables 50-feet long in the street, and local restaurateurs serve bottomless bowls of pasta, platters of an assorted meats, and jugs of wine during the estimated 25,000 diners.
On the mornings of July 2 and Aug. 16, anticipation and excitement fills the streets of Siena and fazzoletti, or the colorful scarves of each contrada, are proudly tied around the necks of both young and old. A final trial run is then held. The horses are taken to the participating contradas church for a benediction. The final parade and procession begins as the Piazza del Campo fills with revellers from near and far. The seats and bleachers that have been erected all around the track host the 33,000 ticket holders are lucky enough to have a seat. Every window, balcony and loggia is filled and the center of the piazza is filled with nearly 50,000 brave souls willing to be trapped inside the piazza once the entrance has been officially closed, approximately three hours before the start of the race. The piazza is then sealed off until after the race is completed, signifying no bathroom breaks and limited accessibility to water and other liquids. Seconds before the race begins, loud shouts and competing songs of rival contrade fill the air. Jockeys riding bareback, or a pelo, work to line up the horses, making last minute deals with other jockeys to outsmart fierce rivals while waiting for officials to signal the races start.
False starts often plague the beginning and when the rope is finally dropped, the race is over before the blink of an eye. When the winning horse crosses the finish line (with or without the jockey on its back) the Piazza del Campo erupts in pandemonium in shouts, songs, and tears. The winning contrada floods the racetrack in celebration, having earned bragging rights for the coming year.