A canon sounds in the background and as the smoke settles from it, ten men on horseback, dressed in what looks like royal regalia, step out into daylight. They align themselves before the signal to go sounds, and then they’re off, with crowds going ecstatic all the while. No, this is not a scene from a medieval film, but the famous Il Palio di Siena, a bi-annual affair which engulfs the Sienese and transports the visitor back to 14th century Italy.
The ten jockeys represent ten of the seventeen districts, or contrade, of Siena. Every Sienese is fiercely proud of his or her contrade and remains loyal even if their jockey doesn’t finish the race.
The Piazza Del Campo, usually filled with tourists year-round, is transformed into a large racetrack, with a thick layer of dirt spanning the length and breadth of the square. Not an inch of space is left, save the racing area, as crowds knit tightly together to watch the bi-annual event.
The origins of the game are debated, but it is widely believed that after the Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in the late 16th century, races on bull back began in the Piazza Del Campo. This eventually turned into the tradition that still exists today, a horseback race that lasts about 2-3 minutes, with representatives of Siena’s various contrades.
Both Palios are held in the summer, the first on July 2nd and the second on August 16th. The first is in honor of the Feast of the Visitation and of Madonna of Provenzano, and the second dedicated to the Virgin Mary and immediately after the Feast of Assumption.
If you are expecting a horse race similar to the likes of Ascot, think again. This is a downright dirty race, with jockeys using whips not only for their own horses, but to distract other horses! And the race doesn’t stop if the jockey falls off his horse – the horse, not the man, represents the contrade, so as long as the beast is standing your district stays in the race!