Siena's Palio Horse Race | Visit a contrada museum to learn the 600-year-old history of this colorful pageant

Siena's Palio Horse Race
Visit One of the 17 Contrada Museums

[Regions of Italy]
In Italy is now the only US agent for reserved seats at Il Palio. Read about the race here.
Or visit a contrada headquarters and learn all about the Palio.

Every year on July 2 and August 16, the beautiful medieval city of Siena comes alive for one of the world's most renowned folk festivals, Il Palio. If you are under the mistaken impression that this is just a one-minute race around a dirt-lined Italian square, you should probably try to include a visit to one or more of the contrada museums next time you're in town.

The Palio won by
Bruco in July, 2005
The backbone of Il Palio are Siena's 17 contrade, which we would liken to city wards or administrative districts. These well-defined neighborhoods were designated in the Middle Ages, basically to provide funds and manpower for the many military companies hired to defend Siena's fiercely-earned independence from Florence and other nearby city states. Wave, for instance, got its name because its military companies were responsible for protecting Siena's stretch of seacoast. Over the centuries, the contrada has lost its administrative function and become an area held together by its residents' common emotions and devotions. Its role has broadened, so that every important event - baptisms, deaths, marriages, church holidays, victories, even wine or food festivals - is celebrated by, and only by, the contrada. Even today it is not considered a good idea to marry out of the contrada, and if you do, it's probably wise to sleep at your parents' house the night before the race.

If you ever attend Il Palio or watch it on television, you'll see what is just about every citizen of Siena in the square, waving multicolored handkerchiefs. The horses that tear around the Piazza del Campo at breakneck speed, with or without jockeys on board, also wear the colors and designs of the contrade. The actual race is achingly brief, barely a minute and a half, give or take ten seconds. But serious, frenetic, life-or-death activity surrounds the event of Il Palio all year long, including constant fundraisers, weekly rehearsals to practice for the two-hour medieval pageant that precedes the race, "summit meetings" where elected leaders carefully decide the contrada's strategy, sewing sessions where hundreds of costumes are renewed and perfected.

A zucchino
A 'zucchino'
At the heart of all this activity are the parish church and museum, which are usually next door to each other. Each is a repository of its residents most fervent hopes and dreams. Over the centuries, these "living" museums have been enriched yearly, with old letters, eyewitness accounts, minutes of meetings, statues, paintings, every kind of church vestment, donations from grateful residents, weapons, costumes, military uniforms and coats-of-arms, jockey silks, photographs of meaningful moments in the daily life of the community, bridles, 17th- or 18th-century zucchini (as the jockeys' caps are called), busts of contrada glitterati, even relics dug up underneath its soil.

As small as Siena is, its seventeen neighborhoods are as distinct as fingerprints.
The Tortoise helps vanquish the Spaniards
The Tortoise helps vanquish the Spaniards
Tortoise comprises the oldest part of the city, site of the first cathedral. In its museum is a depiction of its leading role in Siena's defeat of the Spaniards on July 27, 1552. Spend a while here and you'll understand why a Sienese schoolchild might have a better grasp of history than, say, his counterpart in Cleveland. The oldest extant palio (or "banner," painted each year by a leading artist and given to the winning contrada) dates from 1719. It is in the museum of Eagle, one of only four "noble" contrade: its title was bestowed by the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V in gratitude for the warm reception he received in 1536. The present cathedral is in Eagle territory.

The Goose, another contrada nobile, has won the most number of cenci (or "rags," as the Sienese commonly call the banners). Its parish church is Santa Caterina, dedicated to the patron saint of Italy, who was born a Goose. Uniquely, this contrada has no historic allies.

The third contrada nobile is Caterpillar, a working class neighborhood whose title was earned in 1369, because of its great bravery in helping to defeat Charles IV of Bohemia, and solidified in 1371, when they led the revolt to replace the city leaders with a people's government. Perhaps this is why their otherwise inexplicable motto is, "My name sounds like a revolution." You'll see a fresco of the uprising in their museum. Caterpillar is one of only three contrade with no declared enemies. The others are Forest, which traditionally supplied the city's best archers, and Dragon, whose territory includes the basilica of San Domenico, as well as a dead end street called Palla a Corda. If you're in town on the contrada's feast day, the last Sunday in May, you can witness this narrow alley become a lively mall, and you might be invited to join the festivities.

The Snail's banner
The Snail's banner
Every baby born in Siena is dunked into his or her contrada's baptismal font. Snail's is in front of the church of San Paolo, and whenever the contrada is victorious, the tiny fountain pours forth wine instead of water. Snail has been using its name, Chiocciola, since the early 1200s, and it has a particularly rich museum. Another prized collection is the antique costume display in Tower's museum. Originally called Elephant, Tower encompasses the Jewish quarter and synagogue, and boasts a Sodoma tablet of the Passion of Christ in its church, San Giacomo. This is probably one of the most priceless art works possessed by the contrade, along with a wooden statue of Our Lady by Jacopo della Quercia in Dragon's museum.

Only Owl bears the title priora, because it hosted the first meeting of the contrada heads (priore). Centered around the charming Palazzo Ugurgieri, a fortified complex completed in the 1200s, it also includes the church of San Cristoforo, where Siena declared war on Florence in 1260. A small bell, prized possession of Unicorn's museum, is believed to have been taken from Florence's war chariot in the ensuing battle of Montaperti. The Shell contrada received its noble title because it supposedly attacked first during that battle. Shell's enemy, Ram, has the same colors as Snail (red and yellow), so its jockey races in pink silks. Parts of its museum were designed by the world-renowned modern architect Giovanni Michelucci.

She Wolf's parish church
She Wolf's parish church
Each of the contrada has a sister city. For obvious reasons, She-Wolf, which celebrates its feast day on August 16, is twinned with Rome. Its museum's prize is a photograph of Giuseppe Garibaldi, which he dedicated to the jockey riding Lupa's horse when it won Il Palio in August of 1867. Ironically, this was perhaps the only time the year's second race was not run on August 16th, which is the She-Wolf's feast day. It was scheduled a day early to accommodate the heroic General's busy schedule.

There are two "imperial" contrade. Giraffe, whose motto is, "The higher the head the greater the glory," got its title from King Vittorio Emanuele when it won Il Palio in 1936, the year the race was dedicated to Italy's "empire" in East Africa. Encompassing Piazza Provenzano and Piazza San Francesco, this is an affluent neighborhood with a richly endowed museum. The other contrada imperiale, Hedgehog, dates back to Etruscan times. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta had its headquarters here in the 14th century, hence the royal title. Siena's oldest extant fresco is to be found in its church, SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio, where Pinturicchio is buried. Nearby is the Camollia Gate, whose Latin inscription tells foreigners, "Cor magis tibi Sena pandit" (More than its doors, Siena opens its heart to you).

If you'd like to visit a contrada museum, contact the Azienda Provinciale di Turismo, Via di Città 43, 53100 Siena, tel. 011-39-0577-42209, fax 281041 at least two weeks in advance, or show up at the addresses listed below and hope you're lucky. After all, Il Palio is all about luck!

by Kristin Jarratt

  • Aquila (Eagle), Casato di Sotto
  • Bruco (Caterpillar), Via del Comune 48
  • Chiocciola (Snail), Via S. Marco 37
  • Civetta (Owl), Piazzetta del Castellare
  • Drago (Dragon), Piazza Matteotti 19
  • Giraffa (Giraffe), Via delle Vergine 18
  • Istrice (Hedgehog), Via Camollia 87
  • Leocorno (Unicorn), Via di Follonica 15
  • Lupa (She-Wolf), Via Vallerozzi 71/73
  • Nicchio (Shell), Via dei Pispini 68
  • Oca (Goose), Vicolo del Tiratoio 13
  • Onda (Wave), Via G. Duprè 111
  • Pantera (Panther), Via S. Quirico
  • Selva (Forest), Piazzetta della Selva
  • Tartuca (Tortoise), Via T. Pendola 21/25
  • Torre (Tower), Via Salicotto 76
  • Valdimontone (Ram), Via di Valdimontone 6
In Italy is now the only US agent for reserved seats at Il Palio. Click here to read about the race.

[Regions of Italy]