History of the Palio in Siena | 2014 Palio Tickets

History of the Palio in Siena

The main piazza in Siena, comely known as ‘Il Campo’ is still used twice a year for the well known and very ancient Palio horse race. The Palio is internationally famous and one of the best loved Italian events. It takes place every year on July 2nd and August 16th.

The Palio is run to celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani in the mid 1600’s. The holy apparition was dubbed "Madonna dell'Assunta" and the very first Palio was run in her honour in 1656, on August 16th.

The other Palio, on July 2nd was run for the first time in 1701 in honour of the "Madonna di Provenzano" the patroness and advocate of Siena through all it’s tragic events. She protected the Sienese militia at the famous battle of Monteaperti against the Florentines.

The Palio is a secular historical tradition strictly connected with the origin of the Contrade of Siena (districts into which the town is divided). The Contrade are competitive in a spectacular way. Each has a seat, an oratory, a coat of arms, appellations, titles of nobility, emblems and colours, official representatives, festivities, patron Saints, protectors, their own delimited territories and their own population which consists of all those people who were born or live within the topographic limits of the district, according to the proclamation issued by Violante Beatrice of Bavaria on January 7th, 1730, at that time Governess of the town.

Originally the "Contrade" were fifty-nine, at least so it seems; now only seventeen exist, ten of which take part in the historical pageant and in the race at each Palio (seven by right and three drawn by lots).

Here is a list of their names, emblems and colours grouped into "Terzi" or "Terzieri" (in olden times the town was divided into three sections called: "Terziere di Città", "Terziere di San Martino" and "Terziere di Camollia".




The "Contrade" first appeared at the middle of the 15th century to celebrate certain solemn events. They were represented by special wooden devices shaped like animals, such as, for instance, a giraffe, a dragon, a porcupine, a she-wolf, a caterpillar, a goose etc. - worked from inside by the youngsters of the districts they represented. They were called after the animals themselves.

Very soon these associations began to organize shows of their own, such as: bull hunting (suppressed in 1590), buffalo races (only till 1650), donkey races and a game called "Giuoco delle Pugna" (still goes on today).

Preceding (besides the usual horse-races which took place in many towns of Italy to celebrate certain particular religious and civil events) the Sienese played other kinds of games, such as: Mazzascudo (mace and shield) because the players bore maces and shields; the Giorgiani in honour of San Giorgio (battles with blunt weapons); Elmora detto dei cestarelli because the players wore certain funny baskets (cestarelli) on their heads; le Pugna (punching) abolished in 1324 because the players started throwing stones at one another, then weapons and sticks were used and a real battle ensued. To re-establish order the Bishop was compelled to descend into the square with a train of priests and monks); il Pallone, a game played between the "Terzi" of the town. A huge ball was thrown from the top of the "Mangia" tower by the youngsters of one of the "Terzi" into the field of their opponents. This game was played on January 13th 1555 for Biagio di Montluc the French Marshal.

Of all these games only the Palio has survived. The preparations for this parade are slow and methodic like a liturgical procedure. Four days before the Palio trials take place in the "Campo" or main square which is turned into a racing track. A thick layer of earth is spread on the ground and a row of mattresses is placed against the walls at the dangerous corner of San Martino to protect the jockeys in case they fall.

The whole square is amazingly fit for this type of race because its shape is that of a mediaeval Roman amphitheatre closed at the base by the straight line of the Palazzo Pubblico. Besides being semicircular, this peculiar square is also funnel-shaped like the theatres of the imperial age. Eleven streets run into it though it is extremely difficult to perceive them from the middle of the square. All around the track, perched up against the walls of the houses, seats are ranged one behind and above the other. Windows, balconies and loggias, too, are made ready for the visitors; 33,000 seats in all, but they are far from sufficient and are always sold out long before the day of the race.

In the centre of the square there is room for about 28,000 people to stand, but this is not enough either and the roofs, the battlements and the cornices of the old houses looking on to the square are also crowded. There are people everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. Maria Emmett (of London, England) once said “The Palio is the most exciting five minutes of your life”.

On both the appointed days every year the "Contrade" - that is to say all the Sienese population - compete for a prize which is but a hand painted silk banner (pallium). Each year artists from far and wide submit designs in order to win the right to paint the banner for that year.

Each "Contrada" is represented by a group of young men called "Comparsa" ranged as follows: one drummer, two flag-bearers, with their flags one "Duce" or captain, two grooms, one page carrying a flag with two pages at his sides carrying the emblems of the "Contrada", the race-horse called barbero with a jockey called "barbaresco", last the jokey who is to run the race on a parade horse called "soprallasso" followed by a groom.

The historical parade is a lively display of rich mediaeval costumes which date back to the period of time from 1430 to 1480; their colours are as bright as one may fancy. The procession goes wending its way round the "Campo" square in the following order: the flag-bearer of the Commune on horseback bearing the standard of Siena (the black and white Balzana) followed by his groom, a group of macers, a group of trumpeters and musicians called "musici di Palazzo" playing on their bugles the march composed for the Palio by Pietro Formichi in 1875, the Captains, the representatives of the "Podestà" (called podesterie), the standard-bearers with the standards of the "Terzieri" of the town and of the lands belonging to the Commune called "Masse" the flag-bearers of the Corporations of Art, the captain of the peopIe (Capitano del popolo) on horseback and a group of flag-bearers with the flags of the old Republic.

Next come the representatives of the "Contrade" called comparse. The first ten are those which are to run the palio horse race; they are followed by a row of young pages bearing festoons of laurel leaves and then by the seven "Contrade" that do not run (they have no "barbero" and no jockey).

Next comes the captain of Justice (Capitano di Giustizia) riding a horse and then the representatives of the seven "Contrade" that no longer exist: Cock, Lion, Beam, Oak, Sword, Viper. Last comes the triumphal chariot (carroccio) drawn by huge oxen. In the chariot are seated the four "Provveditori di Biccherna" (administrative authority who in times of yore used to superintend public representations, the oriflamme of the Commune and the Palio to be awarded to the victor, and a group of trumpeters.

When this magnificent pageant has slowly gone round the square all the representatives go to sit on a platform raised for the purpose just beneath the windows of the "Palazzo Pubblico". When they are all seated there they look like a strange army after some most brilliant victory, or a train of heroes or of poets ready to enter Paradise. As soon as everything is quiet the flag-bearers of all the "Contrade" perform together a game with their flags called "gioco delle bandiere". They throw them high up into the air and catch them again before they touch the ground; it is a splendid, most decorative display of colours accompanied with the beating of drums, the sound of bugles and trumpets and the chimes of the big bell on top of the "Mangia" tower; the little bell on the chariot known in Siena as "Martinella" is also very active.

All this is but a prelude, a time of anxiety and expectation. when at last the horses appear and the race starts the crowd becomes delirious. Three times the jockeys goad their horses round the square and the people shout as if the town were about to fall.

The spirit of Siena is in the very colours of her "Contrade" and in all the manifestations connected with each of them, first of all the benediction of the horses and jockeys each in the church of their own "Contrada" early in the afternoon just before the Palio. It is this spirit that animates the whole event and contributes such enthusiasm and pathos to the scene.

This traditional event lasts four days of parades, religoiuse services, eating, drinking and high jinks (from the 29th of June to the 2nd of July and from the l3th to the l6th of August) and finishes in the streets of the victorious "Contrada" where the people celebrate the happy event in a most joyous way.

Whoever happens to be at Siena during those exciting days can, but join the enthusiasm of the people for the Palio and, of course, the final victory. Visitors in fact, often go roaming through the winding streets of the old town sympathizing with the "Contrada" in which they are living; they do their best to understand the alliances and rivalries between the Contrade and temporarily become fervent "contradaioli" (as the inhabitants of each Contrada are called) having much at heart the health of the race horse and of the jockey.