Il Palio di Siena, a four-day cultural sporting extravaganza, culminates in the world’s most thrilling horse race. Lasting a mere 75-90 seconds, it is the climax of a fiercely competitive all-consuming year-round rivalry between the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena. In Siena, your contrada is a part of your DNA. It courses through your veins. There’s a saying in Siena: you first belong to your contrada, then to Siena and then to Italy. You are baptized into it, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And, it’s best not to marry outside of it! Each contrada comes complete with its own symbol (e.g., Eagle, Giraffe, Unicorn, Turtle, Dragon), motto, church, traditions, and flag.
Leading up to the race, sweating crowds mob the Piazza del Campo as processions of the Contrade bedecked in armor and silk transform the city into a spectacle right out of the Cinquecento. Flag bearers perform extravagant displays of waving, throwing and twirling to the sound of military drums and trumpets.
The race begins as the sun drops low. The anticipation and tension is palpable. Consisting of three laps around the one-third of a mile track that outlines the Piazza del Campo, the course is treacherous and steep, with tight corners that the jockeys must navigate at full speed bareback. The thunderous sound of hooves is barely audible over the roar of the crowd. Like Garfunkel arriving without Simon, a horse can triumph without a rider (and this happens as spills come hard, fast and heavy). The contrade pay their jockeys handsomely to ride for them, yet these jockeys are hired guns from outside Siena . . . and fundamentally unfaithful. Everyone is a potential double agent. Secret negotiations abound.
Last July’s winner was Giraffe; they wept with happiness and celebrated as is tradition by sucking on pacifiers or drinking cheap wine from baby bottles to symbolize rebirth. Meals commenced at huge tables set up in the streets. The festivities ran all night. The prize, not the race, is technically the palio — a large painted banner specially designed for each year’s races (there are two, one July 2nd and the other August 16th) by different artists. Contrade proudly display their winning palio banners in their museums with the real prize being a year’s worth of bragging rights!
These incredible images of the July 2019 Palio (cancelled this year due to COVID-19) are courtesy of Biordi Art Imports of San Francisco. Biordi’s exclusive line of Palio Contrade dinnerware is hand-painted by a father and his two daughters living in Siena who carry on their family’s artisanal tradition. Browse Biordi’s exclusive line of Contrade Dinnerware here. Receive a !0% discount using the Promo Code Contrade10, good thru 7/31/20. I LOVE this line and collect dessert plates and espresso cups & saucers which are fun to mix and match.