The Palio: The Pageant (and Blessing) before the Race

La Piazza del Campo
La Piazza del Campo

The Palio: Getting Ready

Well, I did make it to the Palio,  To do it, I traveled to Siena three times in four days.  

The Siena Palio is the most well know Palio.  Many other Italian cities have their own Palio, but the Siena Palio is the most famous and is broadcast live from Italy throughout the world.

Siena is a beautiful and impressive Medieval City.  Its history is linked to the origin story of Rome. Rome was founded by twin brothers Romulus and Remus.  Romulus killed Remus.  The twin sons of Remus: Senius and Aschius subsequently fled Rome.  Senius founded Siena and Aschius founded nearby town Asciano.

The Palio is not just a weekend event, it is a yearlong  commitment involving participation by all in the city to make the 90 seconds of racing  a possibility twice a year.

Early in the history of Siena, the city was divided into many Contrade, or neighborhoods. In the 1800 this was contracted to just the 17 Contrade that are recognized now.  Each has taken on its own branding (if you will)  There is a flag for each of an interesting design, each has a representative from the animal kingdom and a color scheme as well.  From early in the history of Siena, military was assigned into each neighborhood for the welfare and safety of the community.  The contrade units were proud and protective of their community and became over time very competitive with the other Contrade as well.

Siena grew, as it became an important city in its area,  it had to choose a Saint to which it would align itself. All the other saints had been taken at that point, save one, the Virgin Mary.  Siena was the first city to claim the Virgin Mary as it’s patron saint. There are two yearly Holy Days associated with Mary, the first on July 2 The Feast of the Visitation and August 15, The Assumption of Mary.

View of the Duomo of Siena

Originally, the Palio was observed only once a year, but in the 1800’s the race began to be held twice a year.

Early Sienese celebrations of the Virgin Mary were observed with Bull Fights,  However this was eventually considered inhumane and the practice was stopped.  Races were instituted the celebrate, bull races and then donkey races, however neither caught on. Finally in the 1644 the horse race was adopted and has been the practice ever since.

Membership in a Contrada is by birth.  A Sienese baby two baptisms, the first at the church, the second is at the Contrada center where there is a fountain.  Marriages can be with someone from another Contrada, but they must separate for the few days prior to the Palio.  Children are automatically included in their fathers Contrada.

I was able to get a ticket for a balcony overlooking the race.  But because of the crowds on the day of the race, it was better for me to pick it up in advance, so I went up on Friday.

The narrow streets become crowded with tourists, they arrive several days in advance to observe the pageantry in advance of the race..  There are many shops along the way for traditional tourist retail therapy.

After I picked up my ticket Friday afternoon, I decided to look around since there would be too many people on race day.  Soon I heard the sound of a beating drum.  I followed it to the Campo.  A drummer entered drumming the Palio beat followed by two flag bearers in Medieval costumes accompanied by others from the contrada committee. Soon another  drummer and Flags from another contrada joined from another side street. I thought it had ended and stepped up a side street on the other side of the Campo.  Soon came the sound of another drummer and flags. Then more and more, one after another.  There are 17 contrade, and each has their part. See the Civetta Contrada drum and flags pass by here. The drummer plays the Stamburata and is followed by the Sbandierata flag waving ceremony:

Finally, it seemed that all the contrade had made their way into the Campo. I decided to head for the Duomo, the main church in Siena and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  I was below the church, literally many steps below the plaza level when the campanile began to sound.  I thought the bells would ring for their cycle and then stop, however after one cycle, they immediately began again, and then another cycle.  What was this for?  I noticed much excitement in the people climbing the stairs, so I followed up. 

The Contrade drummers and flags were marching to the Duomo for a blessing. A throng filled the square to watch the Contrade march into the Church.  At this point, the entire community of each contrade had joined the parade, especially the children, some who had the priveledge to carry a case bearing their Holy (devotional) Candle some 3 feet in length. All wore the Fazzoletto with their contrada colors and design.

Fazzoletto do Torre The Fazzoletto of Torre Contrade
Fazzoletto di Torre
The Fazzoletto of Torre Contrade

The campanile continued to ring continuously, the drummers were drumming and the flags were waved in time as they proceeded up a narrow street to enter the plaza and into the church. Watch as the Contrade Alfiere (flag wavers) follow the drummer in the procession to the church:

The air was full of sound,  the Flags and  Drums and Bells were mesmerizing, the moment will always be memorable. Wonderful moment of unexpected surprise and discovery!


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I am a single dad with a very active teenager now off to college. Residing on Mercer Island and working in Seattle, Washington. I have recently retired and entered Elderhood (or second Childhood) and well into my adventure.

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