Undoubtedly one of the best known traditional folkloristic events in the world, the Palio of Siena is a religious festival as well as a secular celebration. Some historians believe the origins of the Palio could date back to the Etruscans, who organised games with horses that are quite similar to the earlier editions of the Palio. A terracotta tile with decorations in relief depicting three horses mounted bareback by jockeys wearing protective helmets has in fact been unearthed at the archaeological site of Murlo, very close to Siena.
The earliest historical mention of a Palio similar to the one we know today appears in documents as early as the 12th century, when the event was referred to as Palio alla lunga and constituted a race through the city streets to the Duomo Vecchio (dedicated to St Boniface). As from the 13th century the finishing line was moved to the Duomo Nuovo (dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, the city’s patron saint). The race was in fact part of the celebrations dedicated to the Virgin and was held along with offerings of candles and incense. The winners of these Palios received a pallium (which explains the origin of the word Palio), a richly decorated banner. The last to cross the finishing line received a pig as prize. Exclusive to the aristocracy, the alla lunga Palios were considered less dangerous than the games reserved for the proletariat, which included the so-called pugna – a kind of hands-on battle that frequently resulted in many being wounded or killed.
With the advent of the city’s factions, entire districts known as contrade, a new form of popular entertainment known as cacce was invented. Each Contrada would enter Piazza del Campo and parade around the square with an allegorical cart usually depicting an exotic animal. This would then be followed by a kind of ‘hunt’ throughout the square. With the fall of Siena to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1555 the ‘cacce’ grew less and less frequent until they were finally banned by the Council of Trent in 1590. The last was held in 1597. But the end of the century marked also the beginning of new games, held independently by each of the city’s districts as a means of consolidating their identity.
The first Palio to be held in Piazza del Campo probably on July 2nd 1652. The Palio alla lunga had been abolished for safety reasons and because it was impossible to see properly from beginning to end. The new Palio was named Palio della fonda. Another novelty was to make the race a race between Contrade and no longer a contest between nobles. In 1656 the Piazza del Campo Palio took on a more definite form when it was dedicated to the miracle of the Madonna of Provenzano, which is celebrated on July 2nd. The second Palio, which is raced on the day of the Assumption, was not introduced until the 18th century. Having emerged victorious from the Palio of July 2nd 1701, the Contrada dell’Oca offered its adversaries a second chance by offering to race another Palio on the Feast of the Assumption. In 1774 the city of Siena therefore proclaimed that two Palios were to be held each year, one on July 2nd and the other on the Feast of the Assumption. A document known as the Bando del Collegio di Balìa laid down the definite rules for the race. An earlier edict dated 1729 and signed by the governor of the city, Beatrice Violante of Bavaria, had already marked out the precise boundaries of each Contrada, which were considerably prone to quarrelling.
Many tourists who come to see the Palio each year fail to grasp just how important this event is to the inhabitants of Siena and its Contrade, which literally live for the crucial dates of July 2nd and August 16th.