Mario Batali once said that “nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the main piazza in Siena, nothing”. That is assuredly so and yet on August 16th Siena’s shell-shaped concave piazza (Piazza del Campo) becomes even more breathtaking with the pageantry of il Palio, the most unique and colorful horse race in history. The piazza’s sunburst pattern of nine strips of travertine (in memory of the Government of the Nine, who ruled over the city from 1292 to 1355) are the stage for a 4 day festival of pomp, circumstance and neighborhood pride that culminates in a 90 second bareback horse race at breakneck speed around the central piazza. The winning horse and or rider (horses have been known to cross the finish line scosso -riderless) are awarded a painted silk cloth/banner (il palio). The oldest still existing palio dates back to 1719 and can be seen at the museum of the Aquila neighborhood, one of Siena’s 17 districts (contrade) that participate in the race.
Siena’s contrade are singular in their efforts, strategizing all year on how to distinguish their neighborhood as the winner of Italy’s most famous horse race. A horse race that is more an allegorical contest with rites and rituals that date back to the middle ages when then as now the winning contrada proudly display the prized palio as a symbol of their competitive spirit and local power.
Each contrade is defined district with its own identity and regional rivalries. Each has its own regional government, church, patron saint and representative animal as an emblem of community loyalty. A giraffe, snail, dragon, porcupine, she-wolf, eagle, caterpillar, owl, panther and a goose are some of the animals colorfully displayed on standards and horses as drummers, flag bearers and thousands of people gather in Siena’s Piazza del Campo to participate in the pageantry of il Palio.