The July and August Palio
The Palio of Siena takes place twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th. On very special occasions a third Palio is held, termed straordinario, the first of which took place on June 2nd 1861 to celebrate the newly proclaimed unified Kingdom of Italy.
Although essentially a horse race, the many rules that govern the Palio set it apart from any other mere sporting event of its kind.
Both Palios are preceded by a lengthy and highly colourful procession, in which each competing Contrada – or faction – marches in costume preceded by flag throwers until all the city’s areas have paraded into Piazza del Campo, which is covered in earth.
Once the start has been validated by a shot from the mortaretto, the ten contenders race around the square to the deafening sound of the cheering crowds. The winning Contrada gets the Palio, a richly decorated banner.
Since 1656 the July 2nd Palio has been dedicated to the miracle of the Madonna di Provengano, which took place on July 2nd 1594 when a man named Provenzano Salvani discovered an image of the Virgin in a house in the Contrada della Giraffa area. A church was built on the spot and the image is still venerated today.
The July 2nd Palio was the first to be run in Piazza del Campo and is referred to as the tonda version of the race as opposed to the lunga version that took place lengthwise along the streets on August 15th, with the finishing line in Piazza Duomo.
A second Palio delle Contrade was introduced later, at the beginning of the 18th century, and dedicated to the Assumption, or Assunta, because it takes place on August 16th – the Feast of the Assumption. Following the controversial victory of the Contrada dell’Oca in the July Palio of 1701, the Contrada dell’Oca itself requested that a second Palio should be raced as a means for the other Contrade to win back the title. In 1774 the city of Siena made it official that each year there were to be two Palios, one on July 2nd and the other on August 16th.
Although a secular event, the Palio nonetheless has a strong religious element. To begin with, both races are dedicated to the Virgin. Before the race each Contrada performs a special blessing ritual for jockey and horse in the Contrada Chapel. After the race, the members of the Contrada whose horse has won the race go to give thanks in the Basilica of Provenzano for the July Palio and in the Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta for the August Palio.