It is drawing near the date of August 16th, when the Palio di Siena (Palio dell’Assunta) will take place, the most ancient horse race in the world. The Palio is one of the most famous and popular Italian manifestations and it takes place every year on July 2nd (Palio di Provenzano) and August 16th (Palio dell’Assunta). The Palio is an historical secular tradition closely connected with the origin of the “Contrade” of Siena (districts into which the town is divided): ten horses and riders represent ten of the seventeen “Contrade” in a spectacular horse race around Piazza del Campo, which attracts visitors and spectators from around the world. The districts (“Contrade”) are characteristical agonistic institutions each having their own government, oratory, coat of arms, appellations, sometimes titles of nobility, emblems and colours, official representatives, festivities and patron Saints; they have a delimited territory and its population consists of all those people who were born or are living within the topographic limits of the district.
The history of the Palio needs to be searched in medieval traditions, and in the games that
took place in the Middle-Ages throughout the city of Siena. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in 1590, the “Districts” began to organize races and games in Piazza del Campo. So the first modern Palio (called Palio alla tonda to distinguish it from the earlier Palii alla lunga) took place in 1644.
The Palio of Provenzano is run to celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani. The holy apparition was therefore called “Madonna di Provenzano” in to who’s honour the very first Palio was run on July 2nd, 1651. Instead in honour of the patroness of Siena (Madonna dell’Assunta) the Palio of the 16th of August is run (for the first time in 1701), in memory of the historical battle of Monteaperti on September 4th, 1260; when Siena destroyed the powerful Florentine army, thanks to the protection of the patron saint.
At 7.30 p.m. (July) / 7 p.m. (August), the detonation of an explosive charge echoes across the piazza, signaling to the thousands of onlookers that the race is about to begin. The race is preceded by a spectacular pageant, the “Corteo Storico“, which includes (among many others) Alfieri and flag-wavers in medieval costumes and the horses have to run three laps around the square. Nine horses, in an order only decided by draw immediately before the race starts, enter the space. The tenth, the “rincorsa“, waits outside. When the Rincorsa finally enters the space between the ropes the starter (“Mossiere“) activates a mechanism that instantly drops the canapo (the front rope). This process (the “Mossa“) can take a very long time. the riders are allowed to use their whips (Nerba – a stretched, dried bull’s penis) not only for their own horse, but also for disturbing other horses and riders. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line with its head ornaments intact – and a horse can win without its rider (a condition known as “Scossa“). The loser in the race is considered to be the Contrada whose horse came second, not last.
The winner receives a banner of painted silk, called “Palio“, which is newly created by a different artist for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the Palio is quite instantaneous.
There have also been complaints about mistreatment of horses, injuries and even deaths, especially from animal rights associations and even from some veterinarians. In the Palio held on August 16th, 2004, the horse for the Contrada of the Bruco (Caterpillar) fell and was badly trampled as the race was not stopped, despite possible additional safety risks for other horses. The horse died of its injuries, raising further complaints from animal rights organizations.
The official site of the Palio di Siena is: http://www.ilpalio.org/