The Palio of Siena and its Contrade
The Palio of Siena and its Contrade
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 società (clubhouse). This is very rare as Siena is a very closed city but everyone loved my husband so they made a huge effort. Our wedding was in the church of the Selva and our reception was at the società. 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 contradaiolo.
THE CONTRADA OF THE FOREST – SELVA
The coat of arms for this contrada is a rhinoceros at the foot of a leafy oak tree.
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 AugustThere 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
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
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
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.
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.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
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.
www.comune.siena.it: This is the city hall site. Click on the Palio button (in the middle of the page)