Palio di Siena 2011. Image by Janus Kinase under creative commons license

Siena holds first Palio of 2024 on 2nd July

By Region Central Italy Culture News

The historic Palio di Siena horse race returns on Tuesday 2nd July, with bareback riders competing in the medieval heart of the Tuscan city.

Dating back to the 17th century, the Palio is traditionally held on two dates – 2nd July and 16th August. The race attracts tens of thousands of spectators with its colourful spectacle.

During the event, riders and horses race three laps around the central Piazza del Campo in a fiercely contested competition between 10 of the city’s 17 rival contrade, or neighbourhoods.

The contrade competing on 2nd July are Bruco, Civetta, Giraffa, Leocorno, Lupa, Nicchio, Pantera, Onda, Oca, and Valdimontone.

Over the centuries, the race has been cancelled only a handful of times. Notably in 1855 due to a deadly cholera outbreak, during World War II, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Last year, the 2nd July Palio was won by the Selva (Forest) with famed jockey Giovanni Atzeni aka Tittia. A riderless horse won the 16th August race in 2023.

Animal rights activists have long campaigned against the event. They argue it is cruel, lacks sporting skill, and is dangerous for the horses, jockeys, and spectators. More than 50 horses have died on the course since 1970.

The race tomorrow will be shown on Italian television network La7, with live coverage from 17.15.

History of the Palio

Flags of the Siena contrade
Flags of the Siena contrade

The Palio, meaning “banner,” traces its origins back to the 1100s. It was originally run to celebrate Saint Boniface, to whom the first cathedral in Siena was dedicated.

Initially, the race was conducted along the external roads leading to the city center. However, in the 17th century, it was moved to the Piazza del Campo.

The race consists of three laps around the square, lasting about 90 seconds, and involves 17 contrade, or districts.

Each contrada has its own church, a fountain where children are ‘baptised’ into the contrada, a stable for the horses, a social club, and a museum to preserve its local history. Ideally, these museums are filled with banners won at the Palio.

Each year, 10 of the 17 contrade participate in two races held on 2nd July, in honour of Madonna di Provenzano. On 16th August they ride in honour of Madonna dell’Assunta. Six trial runs determine the final contenders for the main races.

The horse for each contrada is chosen by drawing lots and is then taken to the contrada’s church to be blessed. The most successful horse in Palio history, with eight wins, ran from 1973 to 1983.

The jockey, a professional hired by the contrada, is crucial. However, whether he stays on the horse is irrelevant – the horse wins the race, not the rider.

The trophy is a palio, a large painted silk banner, often decorated by famous artists.

A violent race

The only rule for the jockeys, or fantini, is that they must not grab the reins of their adversaries. This means whipping a rival’s horse or even knocking a jockey off his steed is allowed.

The chaotic race in Siena’s main square attracts thousands of visitors each year, many of whom are unaware of the harsh treatment the horses endure.

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