Siena: Palio Participation

It was during the never-ending drying phase in the Siena laundromat that all the hoop-la started outside in the form of several marching drum and trumpet groups echoing down the narrow stone-walled street, accompanied by their followers chanting what sounded like aggressive European soccer fight songs.

View toward Il Campo from laundromat. You can feel the anticipation.

This was back in my Category 2 days. I was in the third week of a month-long stay in Italy, and I was ecstatic to finally be in a town with a laundromat. The other American (and believe me – only Americans are desperate enough to waste valuable vacation time in a laundromat) and I followed the chanters the 25 feet to the edge of Il Campo, Siena’s rightfully famous clam-shell shaped main piazza. We couldn’t walk in the Campo because every single inch was taken up with expectant Senesi (what people from Siena are called), all looking up at the Palazzo Pubblico.

Palazzo Pubblico on a normal day.

They were staring at 7 banners waving just below a high row of windows. At a few minutes past 7:00, one of the windows opened and an 8th banner was held out. One section of the crowd, along with its drums and trumpets, went wild. A few minutes later a 9th banner appeared, and a different section of the crowd went wild. At this point, even two Americans worrying about their half-dry T-shirts could feel that the anticipation was at absolute fever pitch. And then the next window was opened for the 10th banner, and the section that went wild made the first two sections look like they had taken a vow of silence.

However, the balance of the throng was obviously devastated, as demonstrated by the young woman right in front of us who became hysterical — crying and sobbing as if her boyfriend had dumped her the day of the prom. I said to my laundromat buddy that in order to generate this much passion, the whole thing had to be involved with the Palio – Siena’s rightfully infamous horse race — and which of the town’s 17 contrade (plural of contrada) was going to be included.

A contrada is basically an organized neighborhood, and the best way to explain its importance to the Senesi is to give you the social hierarchy in their lives in order of importance: family, contrada, town, region, and far at the end, country. Your particular contrada is based on where you were born, and it never changes. It is not unheard-of for couples to separate, returning to their home contrade during the Palio season.  I have also heard tales of soil from the home contrada being placed under an infant’s bed if the baby should be born outside of Siena.  We’re talking serious here.

But back to the Palio itself. For some reason, I had mistakenly thought that there would be some kind of qualifying procedure involving the horses in order to determine who would participate in the race. How silly of me! This is Italy; of course it would be random! The story is this: There are 2 races a year – July 2nd and August 16th (except for any year deemed extraordinary, such as 2000, when there can be another in September — but we’re not even going think about that). Only 10 of the 17 contrade can be in the race, leaving 7 out each time. Those 7 are automatically in the next year’s race on that date.

The 7 original banners on the Palazzo Pubblico represented the automatic contrade who did not make the previous July 2nd race. The method for choosing the other 3 has been in place since the race’s origins way back in the 1300’s. The “responsible authorities” use what is described as a flask with a long neck, into which pieces representing each contrada are placed. It’s turned over and the first 3 pieces that come out are the lucky participants. This flask is also used to determine the order of the horses at the start of the race. It’s sort of like a lottery drawing, except that — call me cynical — I’d be quite surprised to find there aren’t a few bundles of euros pressed discreetly into a hand or 2 somewhere along the way for the honor of a particular contrada.

Of course it would be nice if your contrada could be in every race, and it is possible to be locked out of both races in a year. But if that’s the case, they’d be assured of participating in both the following year, no matter what happened. So it was difficult for me to empathize with the hysterical young woman in front of me. Disappointment would have been appropriate, but hysteria seemed a bit dramatic. However, that is the degree of emotion the Senesi feel for their spectacle. All Senesi that I’ve ever met have appeared to be quite rational and refined in every other respect, but I warn you: just don’t get them started on their contrada!!

Each winning team gets marching rights through the streets, as demonstrated by the Istrice (porcupine) contrada in 2008. The prized Palio, by the way, is the banner in front.


1)  I’d like to thank those of you who sent along photos of your furry companions.  It’s great to see there are so many well-loved friends.  And for those of you who were thinking about sending a photo but just didn’t get around to it — there’s no time limit on this.  Just send them whenever you can.

2)  Holiday time is busy for everyone, and I’d rather have you scurrying around shopping and boosting our suffering economy, than reading blogs about Italy every week.  Therefore, I’m going to cut back to every other week until 2012.  Thanksgiving is an American holiday, but I think its message applies everywhere.  So I wish all of you, no matter where you’re from, a great Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you in 2 weeks….


2 thoughts on “Siena: Palio Participation

  1. Gaudenzia Pride of the Palio by Marguerite Henry gives a very romantic view of the race . . . but I have to admit, I don’t remember as much about the selection process in the book. Although she was a great storyteller, she always focused more on the horses. Thanks for filling in an important gap with this nicely detailed post. And have a very happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Every time I read your Half Year Italian columns, you seem to capture something I have wondered about or experienced when visiting Italy, but you have the amazing ability to put these thoughts and feelings into clever words and anecdotes! I will continue to look forward to receiving them….Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful experiences.
    How will you celebrate Thanksgiving? Enjoy!

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