Passion, Pain, Pleasure: Il Palio

Every July 2 and August 16 an event takes place in the Tuscan city of Siena that is not for the fainthearted. Held in honour of the Madonna, Il Palio is a bareback horse race that in its colour and excitement continues to illustrate its medieval origins.


A Festa in the Campo del Campo, Siena, 1597 (oil on canvas), Rustici, Vincenzo (1556-1632) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images


The contest takes place in the Piazza del Campo, the principal public space in Siena, and attracts tourists from all over the world. It is, however, especially popular with the Sienese themselves who live in a city divided by seventeen wards or districts known as contrade. Each has their own vibrant flag that displays the ancient emblem after which the district is named, such as Leocorno (Unicorn), Drago (Dragon), or Lupa (She-Wolf).


Siena: The Appearance/Entry Drago Quarter, 1845 / Private Collection / Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Sergio Anelli / Bridgeman Images


As the Palio pits each of these contrade against another, an intense rivalry develops between them, which is tangible throughout the city. In the days leading up to August’s race, contrade flags are flown from the city’s buildings and individuals dressed in each contrade‘s traditional clothing parade the streets waving flags, beating drums, and feeding a fervour that overtakes the medieval town.


Siena: The Appearance/Entry Tortuca Quarter, 1845 / Private Collection / Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Sergio Anelli / Bridgeman Images


The festivities culminate in a centuries-old spectacle. From early morning on the day of the race, crowds of spectators start to gather in the Piazza del Campo beneath the looming campanile of the gothic Palazzo Pubblico. As the day continues, seemingly impossible numbers of people are squeezed into the centre of the piazza as a spectacular pageant unfolds that works the crowd into a frenzy.


Palio, Siena, Tuscany, Italy (photo), . / © Animas Riverrun Images / Bridgeman Images


Groups of people in medieval costume, each representing the different contrade, circle the piazza performing impressive feats of acrobatic flag waving and throwing, accompanied by the pounding of drums and the ringing of trumpets.


 A flag-waver of the Tartuca Contrada performs before the race of the Palio, Siena, Italy (photo), . / Maurizio Fraschetti / Alinari Archives / Bridgeman Images


Just before the race begins, a triumphal cart pulled by four oxen enters the festivities carrying the Palio banner, a vibrant hand-painted piece of silk that is given to the contrada that wins the race. At 7.00pm a gunshot echoes across the piazza, signalling to the assembled crowd that the race is about to begin. To the clamour of countless enthusiastic cries, the jockeys enter on horseback…


The Parade of the Contrade in Piazza del Campo in Siena, by Vincenzo Rustici / De Agostini Picture Library / G. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images


Not all seventeen contrade can enter (with only ten chosen through a complex system) and, as the jockeys ride into the piazza, spectators from each competing contrade hammer the wooden barriers and seats around them whilst shouting in support of the jockey who will represent them. Tension builds as the riders and horses prepare for the race, following an elaborate, often lengthy, ritual in which the horses line up.


The Palio, Siena / Alinari / Bridgeman Images


When it suddenly begins, a wave of noise rolls across the piazza. Standing by the barrier, the hooves of the horses thundering past shake the very earth beneath one’s feet, adding to the infectious atmosphere. With attacks against other jockeys allowed, and with some jockeys usually falling off their horses, the race is dangerous, intense, and short. After 90 seconds or so, or three laps of the piazza, the horse (even if riderless) who crosses the finish line first wins.


The Horse-Race, or “Palio,” at Sienna, the Race in the Piazza (engraving), English School, (19th century) / Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Illustrated Papers Collection / Bridgeman Images


At that point the enthusiasm is far from over. Crowds spill over the barriers, rushing towards the winning jockey or horse and this is typically followed by an eruption of violence. The rivalry between contrade that has built up in the months leading up to the race suddenly explodes amid merriment, despair, and tears of joy and anguish.


The Palio Race, 1931 (oil on canvas), Brayer, Yves (1907-1990) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images


It is a truly unforgettable experience. If you cannot make it to Siena for the next race, browse Bridgeman’s selection of Palio images capturing the excitement of this unique event.

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