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The Siena Palio and its Contrade

Cristina Fassio

My father's parents are from Asti, which is the home of the original Palio so it irks him immensely that I have made Siena my home. But the Palio here is nothing like the Palio in Asti. It is more. It is every feeling rolled into a huge endorphin explosion in your heart.

Most people, when asked where are they from or what they are, will give their nationality or ethnicity, but here in Siena you give the name of your contrada. It is the most important part of you. After contrada, Siena is the most important, then political leaning, then Italy.

What is a Contrada?

A contrada is a neighborhood in Siena. There are 17 contrade today although there were many more in history. They started out as military companies. Each company had an area of the city and each area had a job. In the old days you were born in your contrada but since home births are nonexistent now, you get baptized into your contrada. Every year, on a contrada's Saint's Day, all the babies born during the year are baptized. This is done at the fountain of the contrada and has nothing to do with the church. You are given your fazzoletto (scarf) that you will keep with you for life. You are also given your "certificate" for lack of a better word. You are now a Contradaiola. You are one for life. Your brothers and sisters of the contrada will be with you forever, through good times and bad, at all of the great events of your life as well as the little ones. They are your family. They will protect you.

I am very lucky because I was accepted as a Selvaiola as soon as I entered the building that houses the societa (clubhouse). This is very rare as Siena is a very closed city but everyone loved my husband so they made a huge effort. Over a few years I became more involved to the point where we were part of the board of directors for two years. Our wedding was in the church of the Selva and our reception was at the societa. We both had pages (men dressed in the uniform of the Selva) to represent us even though I had not been baptized. In 1997 I was finally baptized. The following year my first daughter was baptized. Ah, the pride of a parent when their child becomes a contradaiola.

The Contrada of the Forest - Selva

The coat of arms for this contrada is a rhinoceros at the foot of a leafy oak tree.

Victory celebration, Cristina Fassio

Victory Celebration

About the Palio

Now a little about the Palio. The Palio is a prize. The winner of the race gets a banner as a prize. Here in Siena we call the banner a cencio, which means rag. A different Palio is painted for each race by a different artist. The two races are:

  • the Palio to honor the Madonna of Provenzano (Palio di Provenzano) which is held on the 2nd of July
  • the Palio to honor the Madonna of the Assumption (Palio dell'Assunta) which is held on the 16th of August

There are also special Palii like the one that we won on Sept. 9, 2000 in honor of the new millennium. None of the Palii has anything to do with the other. They are separate.

The race is held in Piazza del Campo, the main square of the city. About a week before the race they lay down the dirt around the walkway of the campo. This is called "La Terra in Piazza" which also happens to be the title of a wonderful and very informative book by Alessandro Falassi and Alan Dundes. They start putting up the palchi (bleachers) and the captains' stand.

Speaking of Captains, the person in charge of a contrada is called the Priore but during the days of the Palio, the Captain is in charge of the contrada. Both of these positions, as well as all the other parts of the board, are elected positions and change every two years. The captain chooses the jockey. The captain and their helpers also see every horse race there is, know everything about every horse and every jockey. They are the all knowing and we, the contradaioli, put all our trust in them to guide us to victory. But let's get back on track.

Selecting the Contrade to Participate (the lottery)

There are 17 contrade but only 10 will be represented in each Palio. Because of this we hold an extraction/lottery six weeks before each Palio. There are seven contrade that race "di obbligo" and three that need to be chosen. The seven are the seven that did not race in the previous Palio. Remember, each Palio is separate so the seven that did not race in July for example will race "di obbligo" in the following July (not August). The 10 that did race will then be put into a lottery and three are chosen.

The entire city turns out for this lottery. There are no loud speakers or spoken announcements. On the outside of the Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) building hang the flags of the seven contrade already chosen to race. The captains make their draws inside Palazzo Pubblico and then a page puts the flag for each selected contrada out along the same row as the first seven. When it gets to 10 they continue to draw the other contrade and put their flags on the floor above in order of selection. This order is important, as it is the order in which they will be at the start line on the first trial. So the seven that were there already (before the lottery) are in the order that they were drawn the year before. Now we know which contrade will race so the preparations (and festivities) begin.

Selecting the Horses

On the third day before the Palio, in the middle of the night/early morning, the tratta are run. These are little runs to select the 10 best horses. When they decide on the 10 horses that will race they give them a number behind the ear, from 1 to 10. This number, called the "Ear Number", will be used to determine the order when racing in the trials.

Once the 10 are selected, their number is put into a drawing, as are the 10 names of the contrada. At around noon the mayor, with much fanfare, selects the number of a horse and then the name of a contrada. This is the horse that you have. Each contrada selects its own jockey but the horse is chosen for you.

When the name of the contrada is called, the barbaresco (horse handler selected by the contrada) goes and gets the horse. He pulls it out and the contradaioli fall in behind. If it is a good horse there is much jumping, yelling and crying. If it is a not so good horse, silence.

Then the contradaioli, led by the barbaresco and barbero (horse) walk to the stall. Each contrada has it's own stall with apartment for the barbaresco The contradaioli sing their song. It is the most beautiful sound in the world. When the horse arrives it is put under 24-hour guard as is the jockey. In the old days other contrade would try to hurt the horse or the jockey so being guarded is very important.

The Trials

The trial races are run for a few days before the Palio to get the horses accustomed to the turns of the course and the crowds. There are a total of six trials, run over a few days before the Palio. Trials are done in the morning and the evening, with different starting orders for each race.

The trials and the palio are run clockwise (most horse races are run counter-clockwise). In the trials, the first nine horses line up from the inside of the piazza out. The 10th horse, called the rincorso, stays back from the line-up. When the judge of the race has called all the horses in to the line-up, and they are all in the right positions, the 10th may start. When it passes a certain point, the judge drops the rope that holds the horses in line and off they all go. If it is a good start then they may continue but if it isn't, a big gun powder blast goes off and they have to start again. They race three times around the conchiglia (shell as that is the shape of the square).

Dates for the Races

  • The July trials start on June 29 and the Palio race is run on July 2.
  • The August trials start on August 13 and the Palio race is run on August 16.

Times for the Races

The evening trials are run at 7:45pm for the July Palio and 7:15pm for the August Palio. The morning trials are all run at 9:00am. The Palio is run the evening of the last trial (the provaccia) at 7:30pm in July and 7:00pm in August.

Order Run in the Races

The six trials are run with the following starting order:

  • First trial (prova), run in the order decided in the lottery (extraction), is run in the evening.
  • Second trial, run in the reverse order of the first trial, is run is in the morning of the next day.
  • The third trial, run in the order of selection on the day of the tratta (the lottery when the horses are given out), is run that evening.
  • The fourth trial, run in the reverse order of the third trial, is run the next morning.
  • The fifth trial (called the Prova Generale - dress rehearsal), run in the order of the ear numbers (determined when the horses were selected earlier), is run that evening.
  • The sixth trial (called the Provaccia - bad prova), run in the reverse order of the fifth trial, is run the next day, the morning of the actual Palio race.

The sixth trial, the Provaccia, is called a bad trial as it is not really raced but just done for show the morning of the Palio.

There is a grand dinner after the Prova Generale. We hold ours in Piazza San Giovanni. We are a small contrada so only have around 900 eating dinner but some of the larger contrade, like the Chiocciola, could have as many as 3500 for dinner. Lots of singing, lots of speeches and LOTS of wine. Yes, during the four days of the Palio, the Senese people drink a lot!

Cena della Prova Generale, Cristina Fassio

Cena della Prova Generale - Dinner after the fifth trial

The Day of the Palio

The day of the Palio is a very tense day. Everyone is nervous. Early in the morning the jockeys are blessed in the Campo square. They also sign the contract to race. Up until this point the contrade could change jockeys if theirs was injured or whatever, but after the signing, they can no longer change jockeys.

One important point: of course the horse does not sign a contract, but its proprietor signs a document the day of the tratta which serves the same purpose for the days of the Palio. Because of this, if a horse gets injured at the first prova, they cannot substitute another horse in its place. A few years ago a horse was hurt in the 3rd tratta, they hoped for two days to no avail and, unfortunately, the contrada had to pull out of the Palio.

Early in the afternoon the horse and jockey are brought inside the contrada's church and blessed by the contrada priest. Then everyone goes off to get dressed for the main event.

As the contrade were based on military companies, the men of the contrade (never women) dress in the montura (military garb) from the 16th century. There are two flag throwers and one main drummer. If your contrada is racing, you will have 17 or 18 people dressed. Less for those not racing. All 17 contrade participate in the corteo storico (historic parade) that goes from the Archbishop's house next to the Duomo where they are all blessed, to the campo. The horse is part of the corteo as well as the jockey. It is all a very somber event. They are not to talk or smile. They must go all the way around the campo, stopping to do flag throwing at four places. There are judges who will vote after the August Palio for the best performance by a contrada in both Palii.

After the parade the participants sit in the bleachers directly in front of Palazzo Pubblico. The horses are inside the building. When the time is right, a white flag is raised in front of the entrone (the main doors into palazzo pubblico) then a drummer starts drumming and then the mortar blast is heard. The Senese are easy to spot during this time because as soon as the white flag goes up you will see thousands of Senese with their fingers in their ears as the mortar blast is right at the starting line and is very loud. Now the horses come out of the entrone. The ragazzi (boys and men) who are dressed get to their feet. As their contrada's horse and jockey pass, they root them on. The jockeys stop their horses for just a moment to soak up all of the adrenaline.

After this, the horses continue on to the starting line. They walk in circles while the main judge calls out the order of the horses. The order was chosen directly before the race and no one knows it (well I guess the person who made the selection does). The method that is used for the selection of the order has been used for centuries. The central element is a silver beaker shaped container. Inside are 10 colored balls that represent each of the racing contrade. The colors are those that each contrada uses; orange green and white are the colors of the Selva for example, red, blue and yellow those of the Chiocciola. The beaker is shaken then turned upside down. The balls go up the neck of the beaker and they are locked in place. The top ball is position one, second is two, etc. This process is done three times so they have back up starting orders in case of problems.

So the horses are called in to the line-up, tension mounts, jockeys negotiate for better positions, pay offs are discussed, etc. etc. Most times the judge tells everyone to go back out of the line-up and they are called in again in a minute to get the horses some room to calm down a little. The start can go on for a long time. The race has been put off until the next day a few times because they couldn't get a good start and it got dark.

The Race

The race starts and everyone stops breathing. It is the longest and the fastest 90 seconds in your entire life. You can hear your heart pounding the entire time. Three times around and the race is done. The first horse, with or without rider, to cross the finish line, still wearing its face emblem is the winner. The people of the contrada run onto the track. Men and women, young and old are all crying. They are hugging the horse, the jockey, each other, anyone. The ones who aren't hugging the horse are standing below the captains' stand, where the Palio is held, and scream "daccelo" which means give it to us. The Palio is lowered and the proud contradaioli take it and the winner's walk begins. The Palio is first brought to the appropriate church (Santa Maria di Provenzano for the July Palio and the Duomo for the August one). Here the contradaioli thank the Madonna by singing te deum. Just sitting here typing those words brings back the feeling. I have tears in my eyes and goose bumps (brividi). It is such a wonderful feeling. Then the Palio is brought out of the church and walked around the city, with flag throwers and contradaioli following it, for days and nights.

Once a contrada wins, it becomes reborn. It is the baby. The contrada that hasn't won in the longest (currently that is the Torre, 41 years since their last victory) is called the nonna (grandmother). They have the cuffie (earmuffs) and the babies have the Palio. The contradaioli, young and old, hang pacifiers on their scarves and walk around with pacifiers in their mouths. They also fill baby bottles with wine and walk around drinking from said bottles. After the victory, the tension goes away and frivolity begins. Lots of partying, lots of singing, lots of parades, lots of fun.

Contrada Enemies

One very important point I have not covered yet is enemies. Of course, when you have 17 groups trying to all get the same prize year after year, you will end up with enemies. Most enemy contrade are next door neighbors like the Chiocciola and the Tartuca. A street is all that separates them physically. There are also friendly contrade. Selva for example has no enemy but claims both the Tartuca and the Chiocciola as friends. Friends help each other, enemies hinder each other. Because of this, when your enemy is racing and you are not, you align with the other contrade to make sure that your enemy does not win. If you are both racing you try to get the other contrade to help you win and your enemy lose. Coming in second is the worst way to lose, as you were so close to victory.

Many fights break out during the days of the Palio. Each contradaiolo sticks to his contrada area as much as possible but things happen. When the Pantera walks back to their area they have to go through part of the Aquila territory - this can get dangerous. Especially if one has a better horse. One year eight police officers ended up in the hospital after trying to break up these two groups.

I'll never forget walking home one day with my now husband and a good friend from the Tartuca. It was in May, the day of the extraction. Both Pantera and Aquila were selected. As we got to the boundary of the Aquila we saw a group of men of the Aquila taking off their watches and kissing their girlfriends goodbye. The three of us looked at each other and decided to go the long way, which was through the Tartuca instead of straight through the Aquila and Pantera. We did not want to be in a war zone.

Another thing you learn while living here is not to wear your fazzoletto in certain areas. This is something that I try to convey to tourists. If you happen to be given a fazzoletto by a contrada (not the ones bought at the tourist shops), don't wear it outside of the contrada. It is like wearing gang colors.

If enemies are racing it makes the race that much more fun. The tension goes into tilt. The Oca and Onda are both enemies of the Torre. A couple of years ago they were all racing. The worst scenario possible happened. Onda was the rincorso, so of course he would not start until the Torre was in a bad position. Oca kept trying to get them as well so it was a start that took one hour and 15 minutes. Three smoke breaks for the jockeys and probably 20 people taken from the center because of heat exhaustion.

Some other Facts

The jockeys are given a nerbo when they come out of the entrone for the race (not the trials). This nerbo is a whip made from the stretched and dried phallus of an ox. They can use this on their horse and on the other jockeys but they cannot use it until after they pass the first balzana which is the little white and black metal flag that is on the track. When enemy contrade are racing and the jockeys start a good nerbata (whip fight) it makes the race so much better.

The race is bareback and the jockeys wear athletic shoes. It has always been bareback but I would be willing to bet that they didn't always wear the athletic shoes.

A new law went into effect in 2001 that is very important for the Palio and its horses. Previously, they used any type of horse pure bred or not. In 2001 they ruled that pure breeds were no longer allowed. This means that the horses used are a lot sturdier and can handle the turns much better. If a horse does get injured, it is taken to a hospital that was built for the Palio horses. The hospital is on acres and acres of roaming land. If the horse is not able to ever race again, it gets to live out its life at this "retirement village". By the way, horses are not put down here for a minor injury. Only for life threatening injuries.

The week after the Palio, the winning contrada puts on a parade where they make fun of the other contrade. Lots of singing and dancing and drinking here too.

A couple of months after the Palio, the winning contrada holds the victory dinners. Every night for a week there are dinners, one for the men, one for the women, one for the children, etc. The victory dinner itself (the first of all the dinners) is the best. The horse and the jockey are the guests of honor and the horse has its own table that it stays at during the entire meal.

How to Watch the Palio

It is free to stand in the center of the piazza but it can get very hot. Normal temps for July and August are around 100F and having to stand under the sun for hours and hours with no breathing room is very dangerous for young and old alike. In August I counted 21 people being carried out and that was only in the last hour. Be careful if you plan to watch it this way.

If you prefer seats in the bleachers or on the terraces, you will need to start planning at least a year in advance. Best bet is through your hotel.

Resources

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3113: June 2004: New photos posted by Cristina.

www.comune.siena.it: This is the city hall site. Click on the Palio button (in the middle of the page) then English and you will find a lot of info.

www.digitalidentity.it/siena: Here you can see the videos of the trials and the race.

www.ilpaliodisiena.com: Great site. They have a pretty informative FAQ too.

www.intuscany.net/catalog/palio_tickets.html: Buy tickets online.


Cristina lives in Vagliagli, Siena, Italy and keeps busy with her website Expats in Italy (expatsinitaly.com) and her relocation business.

© Cristina Fassio, 2002

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