Of all of the amazing events in Italy that celebrate Italian wine and the culture that surrounds the country, the Palio di Siena may not immediately spring to mind. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise us if there are a fair few people reading this who have never even heard of the event.
That’s a shame, because it’s actually one of the most important events on the Italian cultural calendar.
Held in Siena twice a year during the summer, the Palio di Siena is a horserace with a twist. It has a deep history that’s rooted in early Italian culture, and it has deep links with the Italian wine industry.
Today, we’re going to take a look at this great even in more detail. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself booking a ticket to this year’s event by the time you’ve finished reading.
Nobody is exactly sure when the Palio di Siena started, but the event finds its roots in medieval history. It all comes down to the piazza in the centre of Siena. For hundreds of years, it has been used as the centre of the town’s public games and sporting events. There are records of combat sports, such as boxing, taking place in the piazza from as far back as the 16th century. However, public races have an even longer history. From the 14th century onwards, the town held the palii all lunga, which you could consider an early ancestor of the Palio di Siena.
Bullfights were also held in the piazza, until the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed them in 1590. That’s when the town’s contrade got together to start putting together new races that featured rides on beast-back. The first raves took place in buffalos, with later races taking place on donkeys.
However, the first Palio di Siena that resembled its modern incarnation took place in 1633.
Originally, and to this day, the race took place in 2nd July each year. However, a second race on the 16th August was added in 1701. This second race coincides with the Feast of the Assumption, which is where the link to Italian wine and food really comes into play.
Originally, the funding for this second race was carried out by the winning contrada of the first race. However, responsibility for paying for the event fell to the town in 1802, and it has been this way ever since. Incidentally, this also ensures that the second race takes place.
What is a Contrada?
We’ve mentioned contrada a couple of times already, but many of you may not know what this means.
The city of Siena contains 17 contrade, which are essentially districts of the city. For each race, ten contrades can enter one of their racers, known as a contrada.
The race cycles through the contrade each year. The seven that did not take part in the previous year’s race will take part in the next years, alongside three contrada from the ten who took part in the previous year’s race.
So you can think of a contrada as a representative of a city district. The rest of the contrade will then support this rider in their efforts to win the race, and thus add prestige, to their district.
The Race Itself
So, what about the actual race. What makes it so different from any other horse race around?
We’ve already mentioned the 10-rider limit, and the fact that participation is limited to the city’s 17 contrades. Nobody from outside of the city can take part in the race, making it an event with a truly regional flavour.
However, the race itself is also a sight to behold. The first thing you’ll notice is that all of the racers ride bareback. There are no saddles or stirrups to help them stay stable on their horses. It’s down to the rider and their own ability to balance.
What makes this more difficult is the twisting and turning track that the race takes place on. Riders make three laps of the piazza, during which time they try to get ahead of the other nine riders to come out on top. Typically, the race lasts for less than two minutes, making it an intense race that has its share of thrills and spills. It’s certainly not uncommon to see riders fall from their steeds as they attempt to overtake their opponents.
The race itself also places as much significance on the rivalry between different contrades as it does on winning. If one contrade finishes above its rival contrade, the former will celebrate their “victory” as though they’ve won the race themselves.
It’s all done in good fun, and it serves as a timely reminder of the cultures and traditions that have led to city, and the people who live there, become what they are today.
The race itself is only a short part of the Palio di Siena, though it is perhaps the most important part. Each race begins with an elaborate pageant, in which parades take place where people dress in medieval clothing to signal the start of the event.
The festivities continue after the race as well, with banquets and celebrations in honour of the winner. This is also when you’ll have the chance to experience some wonderful Italian wines that call the city their home.
The Final Word
So, that’s the Palio di Siena. It’s fair to say that there is nothing else quite like it in the entire world. With its rich history, unique stipulations, and brave riders, it’s a race that stands well apart from any professional race. It has its own flair and style that make it a distinctly Italian endeavour.
As a result, it’s one of those unique experiences that you can only attend and appreciate if you decide to visit Italy yourself. Booking yourself a hotel for the entire weekend allows you to enjoy the full festivities, alongside all of the Italian wine and food that comes with it. However, it’s the race itself that will truly take your breath away.