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The Palio, a noble tradition turned into Siena’s essence

We don’t know with certainty when this competition started, what is certain is that already in 1200, when the event was referred to as Palio alla lunga, was run a bareback horse race called the Palio of San Bonifacio and constituted a race through the city streets to the Duomo Vecchio (dedicated to St. Boniface).

These horse races organized by the noble Sienese families had a strong religious and political significance; the race started from the doors of the city and those who arrived first at the Cathedral received a “pallium” (which explains the origin of the word Palio), a richly decorated banner, which after was also called “cencio” or “drappellone”, a silk drape, which is a large painted canvas designed and created by a different artist each year and which remains in the winner’s Contrade museum.

It undoubtedly arises from a very ancient tradition, and its embryo goes back to the battle of Montaperti in 1260, where the Sienese defeated the Florentines, an event of capital importance that still today is emphasized in modern Palios. But it is closely linked also to the figure of the Madonna: despite not being the patron Saint of Siena, Virgin Mary has always been regarded as a protector of the city. The two main Palios raced in Siena are consecrated to Our Lady, the first one is raced on the July 2nd and is called the Palio of the Maddona of Provenzano, the second one the August 16th to celebrate the assumption in Heaven of Virgin Mary. Her figure has always been present in all Palios painted over the centuries. Thereto the Sienese always seek help from Her, as it happened before the battle of Monteaperti when in Duomo they offered to Virgin Mary the keys of the city or on the occasion of the second world war when during the passing of the war-front they invoked her protection. But there is another episode preserved by popular tradition that mixes the devotion to Mary with the aversion to Florence.

On 2 July 1594 the story tells of little statue of the Virgin in a tabernacle in the Contrada bearing the name of Capitan Provenzano Salvani, who had previously led the Sienese to victory. On that day, one of the guards of the medieval garrison shot at the statue with his archebus. The statue was damaged, but the fatal weapon exploded in the hands of the blasphemer killing him on the spot. This occurrence was interpreted as a sign of de- votion to the Virgin by the city. In subsequent years on the site of the “miracle” was erected the basilica dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano, anniversary which is celebrated every year with the Palio of July 2nd.

In 1500 took hold the “Palio alla tonda” as we know it today, the race takes place in Piazza del Campo surrounded by the enthusiasm of the people. From 1600 until today the race has never been interrupted, harking back to the regulation of 1656 that sanctioned its the official birth, establishing also the birth of the Contradas and the place of race. The Contrade began from 1659 to record in the minutes their victories. The Palio of Siena as an event takes place over 4 main days and the race is done on the last day. The entry in Piazza del Campo is free of course, you can access the square up to 6 pm entering from the curve of the Casato, but don’t restrict yourself only to see the race.

The Palio lasts three laps, and there is a previous negotiation during the so called “Mossa”: each Contrada can, during the excited phases of the “Mossa” establish negotiations through the jockeys to win alliances that could favor their victory, or the Contradas who do not have the chance to win, encourage the victory of the friend Contrada putting the enemy one out of contention. These things obviously occur upon payment. If you are in town on the day of the Palio enjoy the parade of the Contradas, heading to the cathedral for the blessing, admire the richness of the costumes, which date back to the time period from 1430 to 1480, and the ability of flag-wavers, observe the spasmodic expectation which can be glimpsed in the eyes of the Contrada members when they await the assigment of horses positions on the starting line.

If instead you end up on the eve of the race in a Contrada you should have the chance to see or even feast (something actually very difficult if you do not know someone that could introduce you) on propitiatory dinners organized in each Contrada; you will taste food of excellent quality, and have the chance to see with your own eyes the passion of Siena for this celebration. Eventually, never congratulate those contradaioli who arrived at second place at the end of the race, this placement is considered by the Sienese an authentic misfortune.

In any case, do not merely observe the race in a detached manner, try instead to grasp the essence and the atmosphere, and have a great regard for this event even if you do not fully understand its meaning. Be well aware that a great number of people dedicate to this tradition time, efforts and economic resources. And, despite the fact that the Palio is seen by a growing number of tourists, it is, and it always will be the feast of Siena and the Sienese.

This travel tip is part of Danilo Papi’s To the discovery of the Chianti Wine Road. From Florence to San Gimignano and Siena passing by way of Volterra click on the banner below if you are interested in buying the book.

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