Twice every year, the city of Siena is filled with the sound of thundering hooves and emotional cheering. It’s ‘il Palio di Siena’: the one event that every citizen looks forward to with unimaginable dedication.
Il Palio in general
Il Palio di Siena is a historical horserace that is held twice each year on July 2 and in August 16. For this particular event the ‘Piazza di Siena’ is transformed into a race track with a thick layer of hard sand, called ‘tufo‘. In the middle of the Piazza, in the enclosed square, spectators can watch the race as close as possible. Ten selected jockeys in appropriate colours, have to race their horses bareback three laps around the Piazza. Usually the race doesn’t take longer then 90 seconds, and it’s not uncommon to see many horses return to the finish without their jockey.
While this may seem like an average horse race with slightly rough edges, this event has a far deeper meaning for the people of Siena. And though this event is becoming more recognized all over the world, this is something only few foreigners will understand.
Dating back from the middle Ages, the city of Siena is departed into 17 areas, called ‘Contrade’. Each contrada has its own color and symbol which is strongly represented by the members of the different districts. The different contrade are named: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Turtle),
Torre (Tower), Valdimontone (Vally of the Ram). Especially during the Palio there can be a lot of rivalry between these districts.
Exactly 100 days before the beginning of the Palio the contradas start with the preparations. Each district chooses its leader which is called ‘Capitano’. This capitano will in turn choose a jockey (Fantino) who has basically nothing to do with the contrade. The horses, which are chosen by lot and will be linked to districts, do however have a significant meaning to the citizens.
Another matter which shows the respect for the horses is the fact that each of them is being blessed by a priest three hours before the race commends.
The contrada that wins the race gets the actual Palio, which is a silk banner that is carried around proudly through the streets of Siena. They march to the ‘Basilica of Santa Maria’ in Provenzano, and the festivities will last as many days as the contrada has ever won the Palio (average is 40).
The combination of the historical background and the effort of the preparations for the Palio, cause the event to be of great emotional significance. That is why after the race you will find many people experiencing various emotions such as overwhelming euphoria or, oppositely, extreme sadness.
Piazza del Campo
The Piazza del Campo is a shell-shaped square in the historic centre of Siena and a true symbol of the city. It is renowned worldwide for its beauty and architectural features. It’s very particular conformation of the ground creates a big concave surface, paved with red bricks. The square is divided by 10 stripes creating 9 pointy surfaces, representing the Government of the Nine (Noveschi). This government ruled over the city from 1292 to 1355 and oversaw the greatest stability of the city and prosperity in the medieval era.
The Piazza is surrounded by the Pallazzo Comunale (town hall) and the Torre del Mangia, a 102 meter tower. Also there are the elegant residences of the Palazzi Signorili, which belong to the wealthy families Sansedoni, Piccolomini and Saracini.
Another important feature of the Piazza is the Fonte Gaia, a fountain that was originally used as a water supplier for the city. It was replaced in 1419 and the recent version has the shape of a rectangular basin and is surrounded by several bas-reliefs. Nowadays it functions as a genuine touristic attraction.
Curva di San Martino
The ‘Curva di San Martino’ is the most famous and yet the most notorious curve in the racetrack of the Palio. It’s the first corner that the jockeys will come across and many horses slip away while making the 95-degree curve. This is why the outer wall is lined with mattresses and a team of paramedics is prepared to provide first aid. It is especially dangerous as the horses are all packed together on the first lap.
With his twelve victories during the Palio, he is the third most successful Italian jockey in the world. And more important he is one of the most popular jockeys in the history of the Palio di Siena. Trecciolino, who’s original name is Luigi Bruschelli, debuted in 1990, when he defended the colors of Civetta (Owl). His first victory came in July 1996, when he defended the contrada of Oca (Goose). From 1998 till 2005 Trecciolino has won the Palio at least once a year. In 2005 he received a special coat for winning the Palio in both July and August that year. The horse which brought him to both victories is called Berio, who is almost as popular as Trecciolino himself.
Since December 2008 he became the official jockey for the district Nicchio (Shell), but he has raced for other districts as well when Nocchio didn’t join.
The origin of his nickname is explained by him as: “It was given to me by the captain of Civetta (Owl) in 1990. Unfortunately, I fell in the first corner: the Curva di San Martino. In the past there has been a jockey who was called Trecciolo, who won the Palio three times. I was named after him.”
The jockey who Luigi Bruschelli mentioned was named Primo Arzilli, who actually won the Palio five times. Three out of those five victories were for the contrada of Civetta.
A visit to il Palio is definitely worth the visit. At least that’s what they told me. And after the research I’ve been doing for this article, I know it will be. That’s why I will be going to il Palio myself on July 2 to experience the thrill for the first time. Next time, I will let you know how it has been!