The origins of the Palio are not known exactly, the myth tells that the first Palio dates back to the founding of the city of Siena itself, when Aschio and Senio, sons of Romulus, reached Siena after a long horse race on the run from Rome. Simplified, the Palio di Siena could actually be defined as a horse race in which ten of the seventeen districts compete twice a year, running three laps around the famous Piazza del Campo.

However, the Palio has a much deeper history and meaning. The essence of the city of Siena, in the region of Tuscany, is expressed through this horse race, the life of the city and every citizen revolves around the Palio. There is no Siena without the Palio and there is no Palio without Siena.
The oldest document about the Palio dates back to 1238 and deals with the Palio justice, it establishes a penalty of 40 grossi (the Sienese coin) for a certain Ristoro di Bruno Cinguale who, arriving last, refused to accept the pig, a mockery price assigned to the loser. The Palio is not static, it evolves and changes over the centuries: it was only in 1656 that the Palio “alla tonda” was achieved, that is, a circular race in Piazza del Campo, where jockeys on horseback, rather than nobles, competed.

Panoramic view of Piazza del Campo, during the famous Palio di Siena, Tuscany, Italy. (Photo ©

The districts into which the city of Siena is divided are seventeen, each corresponding to a part of the territory whose boundaries have remained unchanged since 1729. Each district has its own church, fountain, seat, coat of arms and pizza. A woman, the governor Violante Beatrice of Bavaria, sanctioned the boundaries of the districts with the “Bando sui Confini”.

What are the districts of the city of Siena?

The names of the districts, called contrade, which may seem unusual, derive from the ancient military companies that defended the city in case of attacks. Here are the names: Eagle, Caterpillar, Snail, Owl, Dragon, Giraffa, Leocorno, Nicchio, Onda, Valdimontone, Torre, Tartuca, Selva, Pantera, Goose, She-Wolf and Porcupine. Traditionally, each district has its own rival (with the exception of Bruco, Drago, Giraffa and Selva), that is, a district with which relations are not very friendly for very old and often forgotten reasons. These rivalries can lead to real clashes between Contradaioli, especially when during a Palio one rival district has damaged the other.
It would be very complicated to describe what it means to be a contradaiolo. Contradaioli are born or become rare.

The life of the Sienese revolves entirely around the Palio, it is lived all year round and not only on the two days, July 2 and August 16, when it is actually held. Suffice it to say that during the days of the Palio (during the allocation of horses to the contrade, the reconciliation dinners, the processions and the various events that each district promotes) the husbands and wives of the various districts return home to their parents to be physically within the boundaries of the district to which he belongs.

For the tourists who flock to Piazza del Campo every year, there is nothing left to do but respectfully enjoy this fantastic event, the concrete expression of a city.

I would like to leave you with the words of one of the most important Sienese poets: Mario Luzi “The Palio is the Palio. No sociological, historical, anthropological interpretation could explain it. Sublimation and damnation along with the fate of each Sienese and its citizens. Fire. Angry at senesity, in any case incomparable confirmation of the same”.

Text: ©

Horse Racing-Palio-di-Siena-Tuscany-Italy

Jockeys in the colors of the Contrade, at the horse race “Palio di Siena” in the medieval square “Piazza del Campo” in Siena, Tuscany, Italy. The race takes place twice a year. (Photos © M. Rohana /

Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany

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