My Siena Palio Experience Part Two

We returned to Siena the day before the Palio, excited to take part in the upcoming activities after spending one day with Dario Castagno earlier in the week learning some of the history of the race and getting a better understanding of life within a contrada. At Dario’s advice, we booked a two night’s stay at Dievole, a lovely Chianti wine estate not far from Siena. We met up with Dario at Dievole where he took us on a tour of the estate that included a wine tasting and I think I learned more about Chianti wines on that one hour long tour than have in all the years we’ve lived in Italy. We ended our tour with a traditional Tuscan lunch in a private dining room on the estate before we prepared to return to Siena for that evening’s festivities.

While we were back home in Umbria we had been checking online to see which jockeys had been chosen by each contrada and to read the Palio updates and predictions regarding the upcoming race. There was a great deal of speculation over which contrada veteran jockey Gigi Bruschelli would ride for as he had just claimed his twelth victory riding for the Tartuca in July and needed one more win to tie as the winningest jockey in Siena history. Gigi in fact chose to ride for the contrada of the wave on Magic Tiglio, one of the horses favored to win. Sadly however, Gigi was thrown from his horse and never finished the race.

Once the horses are assigned and the jockeys chosen, they take part in six trial races, or runs, before the actual Palio, with the last one taking place the morning of the true race. These races are really not taken too seriously, and are more for the jockeys to get to know the horse, and for the horses to feel comfortable on the track. The fifth trial, the one run the evening prior to the official Palio, is called the prova generale or general trial while the last which takes place the morning of the race, is called provaccia or bad trial referring to the minimal effort the jockeys put into it in order to avoid tiring the horses too much before the real race. After the fifth trial or prova generale, all the contrade that are taking place in the Palio the following day host a dinner to celebrate.

We headed into Siena to watch this fifth trial and stood in the packed streets outside the Campo with hundreds cheering on the ten contrade as they arrived with their horses to take part in the trial. It is a very colorful and passionate procession and after all the horses have been brought into the Campo, the center fills up quickly to watch the trial. The prova generale is preceded by the traditional carica dei carabinieri on horseback where a group of highly trained carabinieri race around the Campo on horseback with swords drawn. Unfortunately, one poor fellow fell off his horse though he managed to escape injury. I found it quite claustrophobic packed into that small space with so many people, but the trial was over quickly and everyone headed out to the celebration dinners throughout the city. Since the Bruco were not racing the next day, they were not hosting a dinner that evening, so Dario got us tickets to attend the dinner of the porcupines, one of the caterpillars allies. This party is a very loud, boisterous affair with much singing and drinking of wine. At the celebration dinner, the contradaioli, (Captain of the contrada), the jockey, contrada members, and even tourists if they are very lucky, all party together and have a great time and though we headed back to our hotel by midnight, we are told this party can last to the wee hours of the night. After the dinner, the captain of the contrada goes meet the captains of the allied contrade to form alliances against the enemy contrade although all the agreements are verbal. These alliances are taken very seriously, because in Siena, as much as you want your contrada to win, at all costs, you do NOT want your enemy to win. See the list of the Siena Contrade & Their Alliances & Enemies from Part One.

On the day of the Palio in the chapel next to the Town Hall, the Archbishop of Siena celebrates the Messa del Fantino, or the mass for the jockeys, which is followed by the sixth trial, or provaccia. After the provaccia, the jockeys and the captains go to the town hall to register the jockey and the jacket with which he will ride. At some point before the Palio, each contrade will take their horse and jockey into their chapel to be blessed, with the priest stating vai e torna vincitore! (Go and return a winner!) After the blessing ceremony, the contrade’s comparse, or group of costumed men who represent their contrada, walk through the city center stopping in Piazza Salimbeni in front of the Casino dei Nobili, in front of Palazzo Chigi Saraceni, and in front of the Duomo to perform their flag-waving show much to the delight of the crowded throngs of tourists.

The city of Siena was buzzing the day of the Palio and you could truly feel the excitement in the air. We were told to be at our seats by 4:30 as the parade, or Corteo Storico begins exactly at 5pm. Although I was told ahead of time that some folks arrive many hours ahead to get good viewing spots in the center of the Campo, it really did not begin to fill until about 4pm. We were very lucky that our seats were in the shade, as the day was a warm one, but at exactly 5pm the parade began and lasted for about an hour and a half. The parade has always occurred before the Palio since the race originated and it is a formally choreographed march that commemorates the ancient institutions, customs and greatness of the Republic of Siena. It is taken very seriously, and in fact a prize is awarded to the contrada who performs most elegantly, called a Masgalano. The flag-bearers of each contrada stop at the various points in the Piazza and in time with the drum roll perform a spectacular flag-waving exhibition ending with the throwing of the flag at the end. Having Dario sit beside us was priceless as he explained every element of the Corteo Storico making it all the more meaningful.

Shortly after the parade, the explosion of a firecracker signals the entrance of the horses into the piazza. As the jockeys come out, each one receives a whip made out of ox sinew which they can use to prod their horse. The race starts off in the Mossa, an area set up on the piazza marked off by two long pieces of thick rope. The Mossiere then calls the horses and jockeys in the order in which they were drawn and checks that the assigned positions are taken. While we were watching and waiting for the Palio to begin, we saw many of the jockeys walk out to speak with the tenth position jockey attempting to negotiate with him when to start the race. Once the first nine jockeys are all lined up in their assigned spaces, the tenth jockey decides when the race is to start by galloping into place. If the start is not considered clean, a shot goes out to signal the jockeys to get back into place. Rivalries run deep within the contrade and competition is high. The worst result is to see your enemy win the race! The wait for the start of the race can be extremely long and last past dusk, causing the race to be postponed until the next day because they just couldn’t get a clean start.

We luckily watched the race get off to a clean start fairly quickly, and the crowd was going crazy jumping up and down and shouting around us. Unfortunately, there was a monumental crash of horses and riders at the first turn which is always a very precarious point in the race, and six of the ten jockeys were thrown off their horses. The other four horses with jockeys raced on, and even the fallen horses all got up and bravely tried to continue the race. Before the first horse even crossed the finish line the members of the contrada of the ram (Val di Montone) were jumping from the stands in excitement and emotion. This contrada had not won for twenty two years so everyone was unable to contain themselves and were crying and hugging each other in disbelief and utter joy. We watched the winning contrada carry their jockey Jonatan Bartoletti (“Scompiglio”) to grab the banner, or il cencio (rag) and joyously march to the Duomo chanting and singing along the way. At the Duomo there was more jubilation as the entire contrada pushed their way into the Duomo carrying the banner. When the trainer brought the horse into the piazza in front of the Duomo many rushed over to kiss it in thanks, and Dario explained that for this contrada, this win was monumental as most of the young people had never experienced a win in their lives.

It was the most intense ninety seconds I have ever experienced and I found that after seeing the collision of horses and riders that I was truly shaking, though I continued to try and get a few photos of the race. Luckily, we learned later that only one horse ended up with injuries and was rushed to a veterinary hospital for treatment. We were also told, and I hope it is true, that the injured horse would not be put down as they often do to injured race horses in the US, but would be moved to a horse farm outside of Siena and live out the rest of its life in comfort.

Obviously, this is an event that is considered very controversial and animal rights protestors continually demand that the Palio be stopped, particularly after a race such as the one we watched take place where six horses fell. I personally have very mixed feelings about it myself, as though I detest seeing any animal injured, I cannot help but be enthralled by the history and passion involved in the Palio. Attending the Palio with someone as knowledgable as Dario really helped us understand how important this event is to the Sienese people, and for me it was a very moving and emotional experience. Though I am truly sorry a horse was injured, I am happy I was able to experience the Palio as completely as we did thanks to Dario with his vast knowledge of, and passion for the Palio. Thank you Dario for an extremely memorable experience!

See My Sieno Palio Experience Part One

Wine Tasting @ Dievole With Dario Castagno

The Gorgeous Grounds @ Dievole in Chianti

Siena Landscape

Preparations For Celebration Dinner At Contrada Of The Porcupine

Procession Of The Contrade Into The Campo For The Prova Generale

Trainer Leading His Horse Into The Campo

Party With The Contrada Of The Porcupine

Packed Campo Just Before The Start Of The Palio

Second Lap And Only Four Horses Left With Riders

Jubilant Contrada Of The Rams Jump From The Stands Before The Race Even Finishes!

Carrying The Winning Banner The Contrada of The Rams Express Their Joy Of First Win In 22 Years

Waiting At The Duomo For The Winning Contrada To Arrive With The Banner, Horse & Jockey

Sheer Joy! Congratulations To The Contrada Of The Rams & Jockey Jonatan Bartoletti (“Scompiglio”)


Azienda Agricola DIEVOLE SPA
Località Dievole 53010 VAGLIAGLI (Siena) – P.Iva 00800530529

Books by Dario Castagno
Great Book On Siena & The Palio – Seven Seasons in Siena

Article Sources

A Guide to the Palio – Betti Editrice 2008

The Palio of Siena Through The Centuries – Text by Serena Bindi 2002 Edimond srl

Palio The Race Of The Soul – Mauro Civai, Enrico Toti 2002

Palio Passion

Deborah Mele
September 2012


  1. My daughter and I attended Palio in June 2011. It was on my bucket list, as well. The actual event exceeded even my highest expectations: thrill, pageantry and a glimpse into antiquity. I’ll never forget the pulse in the air as the crowd, shoulder to shoulder and completely filling the Campo, exploded as the winning horse crossed the line. It was an experience I’ll never forget and you describe it so well, the memories are flooding back.

  2. I’m with you and Pam – this is a thrill. There is just no describing the visceral feeling of being swept up in the communal excitement. This is not play acting for the consumption of tourists, and you did a wonderful job of explaining that. This is an event like no other, an event for which we here in America have absolutely no equal.

    I, too must separate my feelings for animal rights and welfare vis a vis this event. Thank you for sharing your feelings on this topic. I found that I had to remind myself that the city and its culture are steeped in the tradition of this race, and although I am disquieted by the suffering sometimes undergone by the animals, I must respect the people and their customs. I am sure that they too are faced with the same dilemma.”Compartmentalization” is the name of the game for me.

    From the build-up, to the selection through to the Benediction , the races and celebrations, the Palio di Siena is unmatched for a genuine walk back in time. It sounds like you had a ball. Thanks for sharing your Palio Experience. It was a positively wonderful read!

  3. I enjoyed reading your Palio report. I did not have the experience of see the Palio because the first time I went to Siena, I didn’t know enough to try for tickets really early. However, I was able to see one of the practice runs from stands in the Campo. And on the day of the race, I luckily had found out to go early to the steps of the Duomo. I saw the horse being led into the chapel in the hospital/museum across from the Duomo. The the best experience there was having a great view of all the contrade march in and perform their flag and drum routines for the Archbishop who was watching from his window.
    I believe the winner that year was the Oca Contrada, whose chpel is the chapel in the house of St. Catherine. The next day I walked down the steep hill to the front of that chapel. Couldn’t get in, but I could see the Contrada flag tied around the neck of the Saint’s statue.
    Even without the main race, it was a great experience.

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