Written by Jessica Graybill

The Palio di Siena (known locally as Il Palio) is a horse race that’s held twice a year, July and August, in Siena, Italy. Ten horses and their riders represent ten of the seventeen total contrade (city wards) of Italy. The event draws spectators from around the world, and the race itself, in which the jockeys ride bareback, circles the Piazza del Campo which has been filled in with dirt for the race. The entire race usually lasts no more than a minute and a half and it’s common to see jockeys flung from their steeds while making the treacherous sharp turns in the Piazza, so sometimes the unmounted horses finish the race sans jockey!

This tradition, in its earliest incarnations, is medieval in origin and included many public games such as boxing or jousting, and in the 16th century, also featured bullfights. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in 1590, the contrade began to organize the races in the Piazza del Campo. The first races of Il Palio actually were on buffalo-back, which then gave way to donkeys, and now horses run the races as they have since 1633.

The July race, Il Palio di Provenzano, is held on July 2 each year, which corresponds with the date of a local festival in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano (which refers to a painting that was reported to have miraculous powers, once owned by Provenzano Salvani, leader of Siena). The second race is held on August 16 each year, which corresponds with the Feast of the Assumption and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Occasionally, there will be a third Palio, sometimes run as a celebration of special events or on important national anniversaries. One such special event was the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the most recent was in the year 2000 to celebrate the new millennium.

Since the race only consists of ten participants, the seven who did not run in the previous year’s Palio get to run, in addition to three others who are chosen by a lottery. The winning horse is awarded a handpainted silk banner (the palio!), which is painted by a different artist specially for each race.

The seventeen contrade are as follows:

*Please take the translations with a grain of salt; they’ve been translated from Latin to Italian to English.*

Aquila (the Eagle)

Palio Plates at Italian Pottery Outlet

L’Aquila; a black, double-headed eagle holding a sceptre, a sword and an imperial globe. Contrade motto: “Da l’aquila, il becco, artigli, l’ala.” – “From the eagle, the beak, the claws, the wing.”

Bruco (the Caterpillar)

Palio Plates at Italian Pottery Outlet - The Caterpillar

Bruco; a crowned caterpillar crawling on a twig with leaves. Contrade motto: “Come la rivoluzione suona il mio nome.” – “Like revolution sounds my name.”

Chiocciola (the Snail)

Palio Plates at Italian Pottery Outlet

Chiocciola; a snail and the initials of the Kings Umberto and Margherita. Contrade motto: “Con un passo lento e importante la chiocciola lascia il campo trionfare” – “With a slow and important step the snail leaves the field triumphing”

Civetta (the Little Owl)

Palio Plates at Italian Pottery Outlet - Civetta

Civetta; a crowned owl sitting on a branch and the initials of the Kings Umberto and Margherita. Contrade motto: “Vedo nella notte” – “I see during the night”

Drago (the Dragon)

Palio Plates at Italian Pottery Outlet

Drago; a flying dragon bearing a banner with the letter U. Contrade motto: “Il cuore che mi brucia becoms una fiamma in bocca” – “The heart that burns me becoms a flame in my mouth”

Giraffa (the Giraffe)