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Palio dell’Assunta in Siena

Rivalry, drama, danger, medieval traditions, sweat and joy: those are the hallmarks of the Palio di Siena, Italy’s most famous horse race. On Wednesday, August 16, the Palio comes back for the second time in 2023 to Piazza del Campo, the beating heart of the medieval Tuscan city of Siena, and emotions will be running high. The winner will receive the Palio (banner), an original artwork painted on a large silk canvas, created on this occasion by Tuscan painter Marco Lodola.

The Palio may be Italy’s oldest horse race and is surely the most heartfelt, with the cities’ many districts vying for the prize as they have for centuries. The race continues to be an opportunity to proudly feel part of one's own district, challenging the others in an epic event. In those circles, passions and old rivalries that were dormant during the year are rekindled. The event comprises two races: The Palio della Madonna di Provenzano—which ran on July 2, 2023—and the race in honor of the Madonna dell'Assunta that will take place on August 16. The rules for both are the same.

The city consists of 17 contrade, or districts. Each year, on the last Sunday of May, the 10 contrade that will participate in the Palio of July 2 are revealed. They are chosen by the following process: according to a rule established in 1720, the seven contrade that did not take part the previous year are entitled to participate, and the other three are drawn by lot to make up the final participants in the 10-horse race. The selections for the August race were made on July 9.

The names of the districts running the race on August 16 are: Torre, Drago, Bruco, Pantera, Aquila, Istrice, Tartuca, Chiocciola, Giraffa, and Oca (since 1900 the Oca district has been the most winning ever, capturing 23 out of 128 races).

Here are interesting points worth knowing before experiencing the Palio in person, live on La7 TV, or in an Italian restaurant that streams live the event on its screens:

The race takes place on the breathtaking stage of Piazza del Campo, Siena’s shell-shaped medieval square divided into 9 segments that signify the nine Lords who ruled the city at the end of the year 1200.

The Palio includes an “urban” feast made by the people, for the people. During the evenings before the race, each district organizes outdoor dinners on long tables for anyone, for a fee, to enjoy. On the day of the race, you can watch the historic medieval parade with its bright costumes and the procession of flag-wavers.

On the race’s eve, each horse sleeps in its district church where it is also officially blessed by a priest.

The horses, ridden bareback by professional jockeys wearing little protection, compete in a crazy, anything-goes, three-lap race around the cramped perimeter of the Piazza del Campo square. The entire race only lasts about 90 seconds.

The contradaioli (residents of each contrada/district) take great care of the horses assigned to them for the race: they entrust the barbero (horse) to the barbaresco (horse’s guardian), who watches it carefully until the time of the horse race.

Each district’s life, especially during race days, is devoted to the Palio’s scrupulous organization.

The square is covered in tuff, soft sand that allows an agile race for the horses.

Watching the Palio from the central part of the Piazza del Campo is free for everyone. 

A Palio ticket is required to access Siena's balconies, grandstands, and windows, which are all private property. Your Palio experience will vary very much according to the viewpoint selected in the Piazza del Campo. Many travel agencies will help in getting the tickets.

You should consider if you prefer more comfort (windows), more action (the grandstands), or maybe a specific viewpoint such as the Mossa (starting line) or the San Martino bend. Just a heads up: A window view in the Mossa area able to host up to 3 people costs an average of $5,000.

The starting point (Mossa) is formed by two ropes where the 10 participating horses and jockeys must wait in an order determined by drawing lots. The winning district is the one whose horse, with or without a jockey still on its back, completes the three laps first.

The winner is awarded the Palio banner, which is brought to the church of his district to hang as a trophy.

Even the 007 James Bond film Quantum of Solace couldn’t resist the Palio’s pomp and excitement: as Daniel Craig makes a breathtaking chase on the city’s rooftops, the horses thunder around the square beneath.

Barbara Benzoni

 Barbara Benzoni was born in Milan and lives between Rome and Tuscany. She is devoted to USA, the land of courage and innovation. She’s Peter's super-lucky mum and Ale's wife. Cinema, art, good food and only beautiful things are the themes of her existence. With a degree in Italian literature and a Masters in Sports Management she can both enjoys books and basketball matches. In 25 years she has been organizing sport events all over the world and she’s been lucky enough to meet the greatest champs ever. Curiosity in everyday life and people are her drivers. Her personal icon is Mohammed Ali : "It's not bragging if you can back it up".