The Days of the Palio
Any visitor to Piazza del Campo during the days preceding a Palio will see the square completely transformed. The entire square is paved with blocks of tufa rock and the track around which the Palio is run is covered with brown earth. Wooden stalls are arranged around the square to seat the authorities and those who have walked in the ceremonial processions. The centre of the square is fenced in to contain the vast crowd that assembles to watch the race.
Preparations begin three days before each of the annual Palios. Since the track around the perimeter of the square is only able to contain ten horses, a system of lots governs which of the Contrade will actually be able to take part in the race. The lots are drawn at least three weeks before the race. The seven Contrade who do not race on one year are guaranteed to race the next and the remaining three lots are assigned to Contrade who did race the previous year.
The first official act concerning the Palio is the 1721 Bando del Collegio di Balia, which lays down the sixteen rules governing the race, from the times of the trials on the day before to the assignation of horses, the processions, the rules for the jockeys and the money awarded to the winning Contrada.
On June 29th (for the July 2nd Palio) and on August 13th (for the August 16th Palio), the horse breeders bring about thirty horses to the Entrone (the courtyard of the Podestà within the Palazzo Pubblico), where they are examined by veterinary doctors, registered and selected. The horses are then arranged in batteries and tested round the track for three days to see if they are suitable, after which the Capitani of each Contrada meet in the presence of the mayor to decide which ten horses will be included in the race.
The Contrade then draw lots to decide which horse will be assigned to which Contrada. Once the horses have been assigned they are tested with the jockey each successive day from 9am to 7pm. After the fifth trial, known as the prova generale, each of the Contrade included in the race organises a large propitiatory dinner.
On the morning of the Palio, at about 7am, the archbishop celebrates the Messa del Fantino Mass in the chapel adjacent to the Palazzo Pubblico, which is followed by the final trial run known as the provaccia. At this point the jockeys are registered, after which on no account – not even death – is the Contrada permitted to substitute its jockey. The horses then go to be blessed in the chapels of each single Contrada.
At 3pm the sunto, the great bell of the Torre del Mangia, begins to toll.
The ceremonial procession wends its way through the city streets and enters Piazza del Campo from the Curva del Casato, preceded by mounted Carabinieri.
At the shot of the mortaretto, the horses come out of the Entrone and line up at the starting line, known as the mossa. As soon as the last horse reaches the starting line the race begins and lasts for three rounds of the square (about 1 kilometre in total). The first horse to cross the finishing line is the winner, regardless of whether it is still mounted.
Towards the end of September or beginning of October it is tradition for the winning Contrada holds a victory dinner.