Vol 3 Ed 27 » Cultura » The cultural meaning of the Palio di Siena: An historic event

The cultural meaning of the Palio di Siena: An historic event

Jose David Quinones V

For cultural heritage studies, all the tangible and intangible expressions of humanity have a very deep meaning and intrinsic value that denotes its richness in culture, history and values. In the case of Italy, we can find many tangible expressioans of its richness and culture in the streets, churches and museums, but there is specially one intangible cultural expression that exceeds the limitations of time and space. This is the Palio of Siena which guards the memory of an old tradition that represents the live of the middle age.
In the late Middle Age, around the xiv century, Siena was a very strategical point for commerce between different provinces of France, the whole Mediterranean region and Rome. Actually, the relation between these two cities was that closed that many legends attribute a common origin of them and both have the she-wolf as its symbol.
The history of Siena is full of middle age representations. It is known as one of the oldest cities in the world that well preserves its architectural structure since the middle age and its culture remain alive over the years. It is such a good example of the traditions of the Tuscan region and the city of the oldest well known bank in Europe that is still in service. (The Banca dei Monti dei Paschi di Siena 1472)


It seems like the wealthiest position of the city, the Italian history of Bank and trade and the Palio are pretty well connected. “The trade in horses, like the textile trade, was part of an international commerce that brought countries and cultures together. Equestrian culture flowered during the Renaissance, in which horses began to be seen as individuals possessing admirable, even human, qualities. The Palio horses achieved a level of fame parallel to the racing champions of the modern era, and were portrayed in paintings, prose, and verse”[1].
As it is known, Siena and Florence were competing each other in many aspects of social, economic, political and religious life. The best representation of this conflict is founded in one of the most well-known Italian literary works which is the “Divine Comedy” written by “The supreme poet” Mr, Dante Alighieri, where both societies, the Sienese and the Florentine were represented in a continual struggle for power. The memory of the battle of Montaperti, which was won by the Sienese is a good example to understand why the city and its citizens were so proud of themselves.
Nowadays, according to Wolfgang Dreschler, “Siena appears to be so much of a success story: it is the wealthiest of the Tuscan cities (in an already wealthy area), it has a particularly low crime-rate and, ostensibly, the highest social capital of any city of that size (around 50,000 inhabitants)”[2]. In addition its social organisation is a very good example of the values and tradition that remains alive from the glorious middle age.
Apart from being a very wealthy and secure city, it attracts tourist from all nationalities and it is the stage of the annual horse race which is in its essence much more than a conventional horse racing. The jockeys run bareback and it is preceded by a classical parade of about 600 people wearing in historical costumes drums and flags that can be seen all around the city since the preamble of the event.
The Palio is raced in the most famous square of the city which is Piazza del Campo. Thanks to its natural form, it offers a great panorama to enjoy this magnificent race from every single spot of this “rounded” square and in addition it has a natural depression in the middle that makes the outer part higher than the centre which provides a perfect view for the spectators.


Il Palio di Siena
Actually, the Palio is not just one. There have been many during the history of Italy and there are still some ones alive. “The Palio race was the climactic event for the feast day of a cities patron saint. In Florence, the most important Palio was that of San Giovanni Battista, held on June 24th. In Siena, the Palio of the Assumption, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, occurred each year on August 15th. Ferraraís Palio of San Giorgio, though now run in May, took place each year during the Renaissance on April 24th. Other cities, such as Pistoia, Asti, and Bologna also held palio races dedicated to their patron saints.”[3]
There are two main Palios raced in Siena. The first one is raced on the 2nd of July which is called the Palio of the Maddona of Provenzano and the second one the 16th of August to celebrate the assumption of Virgin Mary.
The first Palio raced in Siena is a tribute to the Madonna of Provenzano in Siena for its protection during the time of the war with Florence around the year 1260. “The Palio of the Madonna of Provenzano in Siena, Italy has been held annually in piazza del Campo since the seventeenth century, and is part of a longstanding tradition of Palio racing that has existed in Siena since the thirteenth century”[4].
During the middle age, the tradition was to celebrate the Palio in honor to the Saint patrons of the cities show how “Historically, Palio races marked other significant occasions, including visits by foreign dignitaries or conquerors, weddings of members of the nobility, or anniversaries of battle victories and other important events for the city.”[5]
Naturally it has had many changes through the years but it has the same spirit and preserves the same values and principles that gave live to it from the xvii century to our days. Since the 1930’s it has become very popular for tourism and it has been recognised all around the world as a historical event which has also influenced many scholars and academics that analyse the many ways in which this tradition can be understand. It has become a magnificent event from many points of view and all the interpretations given, keep its value alive.


As we have mentioned before, the Palio has been a very popular event in the History of Italy. It is also known that first the jockeys used to ride Buffalos and Donkeys and in our days it is still a demonstration of power and bravery which gives this event its fundamental attraction. In addition, the Palio has a broader sense than just a horse race. It involves everyone in the city and its preparation takes a lot of time and different tasks which are a sort of religious tradition with military performance.
The Palio of Siena is also a representation of the 17 different “contrades” (Contradas) in a race for victory and honour. The contradas are the main neighbourhoods in which the city is divided and it includes territory, symbols and influence over the others. This is what makes this event a very rich and representative event for the city and also for the history of Italy so we will explain it in deep further on in this essay.
Actually, the Palio of Siena as an event takes place over 4 main days and the race is done on the last day. The first day is for the "Tratta", or the drawing of the lots and assignment of the horses to each Contrade. After this procedure, each of the Contrade picks their jockey who can even win about one million Euros by this days.
Before the race, apart from many celebrations and special practices and organizations for the main event during the whole year, the selection of the ten Contrades that will race is taking place. Seven of them are the ones that didn’t participated the year before and the other 3 are chosen by draw.
The Palio of Siena as an event takes place over 4 main days and the race is done on the last day. The first day is for the "Tratta", or the drawing of the lots and assignment of the horses to each Contrada. After this procedure, each of the Contrada picks their jockey who can even win about one million Euros by this days if he wins the race.
After choosing the horses, there are 6 trial runs: one in the morning and one in the afternoon of the previous days of the race. Then there is one the evening before the race which is called the "prova generale" or general trial, and the last one takes place the morning of the main race and it’s called "provaccia" or bad trial given the little effort of the jockeys in running their horses.
The day of the race, before it starts, the city offers a custom parade which is called the “Corteo Historico”. This main spectacle, looks like a procession in which the members of the Contrada exhibit their best middle age customs and show their emblems and coats of arms in a very organized and symbolic way. After that, the Jockeys appear with their horses and start to take their positions in order.
The Corteo Historico is also followed by drummers and trumpeters with other musicians of the palace that play a highly, organized rhythm like in a war, which includes an elaborated display of flag twirling. All this parade is followed by a chariot, called the Carroccio, which bears the silk Palio banner and is the parade's highlight. Finally, it delivers the flag to the judges stand that is accompanied by six knights and eight armed soldiers. The “Carroccio” is pulled by four oxen, carries the winners flag, six trumpeters, a valet playing the Martinella, and the flag bearer.

The race lasts three laps of more or less 30 seconds each so it’s a race of 90 seconds in which jockeys may fall or even push other jockeys to fall so their best interests get protected. However a horse without a jockey may win the race and in that case the Contrade of the winner horse also wins. This is also an example of the passion that involves the race and also show how, many interests of the city are at stake.
In fact, there is a previous negotiation between the members of the Contradas and its allies to decide which strategy and furthermore which result is the best for their own pacts. Naturally in this negotiations, are also Contradas that represent the opposite values and interest so there might be a fair and secret alliance between them that can actually let them compete in a very realistic and dynamic way.


Finally, the one who wins the Palio receives all the honour of the victory, the pride of its Contrade and the silk banner of the Palio painted by a local artist. This banner is called "Drappellone" or large drape, which is a large painted canvas designed and created by a different artist each year and which remains in the winner’s Contrade museum.
The Contradas
At the beginning, it is known that there were 87 Contradas that represented an important social organization in the Renaissance and the Modern Siena. The importance of the Contrada for the Palio is very meaningful because thanks to its participation and support in the organization of palio races, the palio tradition in Siena has survived, in contrast to so many other Italian cities where the tradition is dead.
Nowadays there are 17 Contradas (quarters, wards or neighbourhoods) within the city walls that represent the old division and tradition of the city. Each Contrada has its specific totemic symbol – usually an animal –, a coat of arms, colours, motto, patron saint or holy event, feast days and some of them have their own church to celebrate their religious ceremonies.
The Contradas are also very deep related with certain occupations that were done in an specific area or in the whole neighbourhood and perhaps this is the most accurate meaning of the Contrade that since 1729 have their present organization and number through and edict signed by the Princess of Siena in which all the government of the city were in accord.
Actually, for the Palio purposes they are mainly financed by donations and contributions of rich people. They have their own way of administration but still interconnected with the main city government and a special government and organization in the head of a Capitan that is just encharged of winning the palio or making the best deal for it. According to Silverman, the “Palio race is essentially a competition among the Contrade carried out through a politics of alliance, negotiation, and quasi-military tactics” (1979:415).
Each Contrada has a social organization called societa which owns a very big club house both for celebrations and for meetings which also serves to arrange new ceremonies or social events. “It is important that not only the società, but already the contrada as such, is actually a social organization – it can be said that the società is the everyday arm of the Contrada”[6].
In this sense, it is important to mention that the Contrada and the Palio are always related. There is no Palio without the Contrada and the Contrada without the Palio has no very deep meaning, because all its efforts and daily practices are to perform a very good Palio that can reinforce their identity and stimulate their continuity in time. Basically each other complement in such a very harmonious way.
According to Dundes and Falassi “It is not enough to say that the Palio represents a dramatic enactment of Contrada life. Rather, the Palio provides an emotional outlet for all the love and hate relationships bound up in the Contrada system” Dundes and Falassi 2005:49. So it is fair to say that the Contrades serve the purpose of mutual aid and defense between them and that all the emotions and passions of their members are somehow canalised by the Palio and its social organization which is represented in the Contrade.
The cultural Meaning
Culture is the vehicle in which human beings and most specifically individuals interact. It is also a sum of knowledge that can be achieved by men and women of all races and colours in the daily experience and relation with life. It is for sure the result of, and the sum of every single representation of humanity in all its passions, wills, motivations and realities in a constant and deep interrelation.
The most relevant cultural meaning of the Palio remains to be a sacred and religious tradition mixed with a secular and military way of organization that has its influence in the social life that allows a cultural and social institution to be preserved in Time. Its deepest meaning therefore, is found in the Contrade as the representation of a social institution that remains in time since the Middle Ages and all its traditions and practices that are performed to realize the event of the Palio.
For those occasional celebrations of the Palio in which there was a special celebration, the Palio represents the higher principles and values of the city ingrown in its saints, its celebrities or most appreciated characters. The Palio is the most representative event of the past and all the values and principles that were forged in the souls of the Sienese since the 17 Contradas were stablished as their own identity and cultural heritage.


The cultural meaning of the Palio remains intact thanks to the Sienese identity with it and it is becoming stronger with time thanks to the great spectacle that is given to the public during the 4 days of the event which means that it is recognized by people from all over the world and even the scholars of all fields including psychology and anthropology who are studying the deepest meanings of the Palio in terms of social organization and the modern urban Sienese way of thinking which is in complete relation with the Past. It is finally a representation of the old traditions of man in the middle ages and an example of the sacred and secular way of being in modern times. 


The Palio of Siena has a very profound meaning for the history and culture of Siena from many perspectives. First of all, it reveal the deep connection of the Sienese with the past and also with the sacred and secular way of living. It also shows how the world has been interconnected by commerce and also by traditions. And finally, it shows how a social organization from the past remains in time with all its traditions and customs. It involves knowledge, cultural heritage and old fashion. It is a great spectacle for the world and a way of living for the inhabitants of the city.
Nowadays, we can say that the Palio is a cultural performance in which the Sienese and the city of Siena is represented by the Contradas which are the groups that hold their identity and all their cultural heritage. It is a high representation of all their values, principles, traditions, and ways of being in a race that has a lot to do with honour, brave, and all the issues of warriors of old times when they were struggling to achieve a better position in society.
The city of Siena, the Contrada, the Palio and the Sienese are all part of a common identity that express the spirit of the Middle Ages in a way that the religious traditions, the secular way of living and the military organization share a common field that performs a historical event in which all the people of the city participate. Since the youngest one till the oldest one with a clear role and a common sense that makes this race a very interesting spectacle to experience for all those interested on the Italian culture, the middle ages and the horse races.


[1] see: MacKenzie Tobey, Elizabeth, “The Palio in Italian Renaissance art, thought, and culture”, p. 2

[2] See: Drechsier, Wolfgang, “The contrade, the Palio and the Ben Comune: Lessons from Siena” p. 100

[3] MacKenzie Tobey, Elizabeth, “The Palio in Italian Renaissance art, thought, and culture” p.49

[4] Ibid p. 2

[5] Ibid p.3

[6] See: Drechsier, Wolfgang, “The contrade, the Palio and the Ben Comune: Lessons from Siena” p. 106

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