Race to the Table for Palio di Siena

March 30 2022 – Epic Web Studios

Palio di Siena themed Italian ceramic dishware

Palio di Siena themed Italian ceramic dishware

The Palio di Siena — a centuries-old bareback horse race held twice annually in Siena, Italy — is a spectacle that is difficult to fully capture with words. You might hear it described as glorious, passionate, chaotic, and/or perhaps even a little bit ridiculous. To the outsider, it’s an incredible event; to the Sienese, it’s an unmistakable part of identity and culture.

Although the races themselves only last about a minute each, the surrounding festivities span four days, which include plenty of gatherings, pageantry, artistry, music, and — of course — food and drink. Enough horsing around — let’s get on track with the details.

Origins of Palio di Siena

Although there are records of horse races dating all the way back to the 6th century, the official history of Palio di Siena begins in the 1600s. Although it is a secular tradition, the timing of the races and some of the surrounding rituals are deeply intertwined with Catholicism.

The first race, the Palio della Madonna di Provenzano, occurs annually from June 29 to July 2. It’s dedicated to visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary that appeared near old houses that had once belonged to Provenzano Salvani, a prominent Sienese general who had led his troops to victory over the Florentines in the Battle of Montaperti in September of 1260. The race was first run on July 2, 1652.

The second race, the Palio dell'Assunta, occurs annually from August 13-16 in honor of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption, in reverence of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s ascent into heaven. The Virgin Mother is the patroness of Siena and is credited with protecting the Sienese militia during the Battle of Montaperti mentioned previously. The first running of Palio dell’Assunta transpired on August 16, 1701.

The Sienese contrade

palio di siena themed italian ceramic mugs with contrada emblems

Success in the Palio is a huge point of pride for each of the Sienese contrade, or districts, who compete in the race. Historically, each contrada had its own government, titles of nobility, officials, festivities, patron saints and protectors, and territories. There were originally nearly 60 of them, but today there are just 17. Should you visit Siena, it will be evident which contrada you are in by the flags and banners hanging along the streets, each with their unique colors and emblems, harkening back to heraldic traditions. The modern-day contrade are as follows:

  • Aquila (Eagle)
  • Bruco (Caterpillar)
  • Chiocciola (Snail)
  • Civetta (Owl)
  • Drago (Dragon)
  • Giraffa (Giraffe)
  • Istrice (Porcupine)
  • Leocorno (Unicorn)
  • Lupa (She-Wolf)
  • Montone (Ram)
  • Nicchio (Seashell)
  • Oca (Goose)
  • Onda (Wave)
  • Pantera (Pantheress)
  • Selva (Forest)
  • Tartuca (Turtle)
  • Torre (Tower)

The rich detailing and colors present in each coat of arms provide quite the inspirational palette for local artisans to draw from — each contrada actually has its own museum! The grand prize in each Palio, the Drappellone (aka “the rag”), is a large drape bearing the winning contrada’s unique iconography as interpreted by a commissioned artist and hung in their museum. The oldest Palio prize that still survives belongs to the Aquila contrada and is over 300 years old (awarded in 1719)!

The running of the Palio di Siena

There are many curiosities inherent in the way the Palio di Siena is contested, such as:

  • Only 10 out of the 17 contrade ever compete in any race, all drawn by lots. The first pool of seven are pulled from contrade who did not participate in the Palio previous, while the remaining three slots are open to anybody. Therefore, in any given year, it’s possible that some contrade may run both races, a single race, or neither race.

  • While each contrada gets to select its jockey, they do not get to choose their horse. The horses are assigned during the Tratta on the morning of Day 1. From there jockeys have less than four days to get acquainted with their steeds, with six trial runs or heats held between the evening of Day 1 and the morning of Day 4.

  • At the starting line, nine of the 10 competing contrade are tightly and tensely packed into an area between two lengths of thick rope called the Mossa according to assigned positions — the race begins when the 10th and final contrada’s horse and rider gallop up from behind those amassed in the Mossa, a process that can linger into twilight.

  • Each jockey is given an oxhide whip before the race which they are at full liberty to use to goad their own horse onward or to annoy their opponents.

  • The jockey need not be present at the end of the race to win; the Drappellone goes to the first horse to cross the finish line, even if it is riderless (actually quite common, as the race is ruthless)!

The race consists of three 330-meter laps on an earthen track ringing the Piazza del Campo, and takes an average of about 70 seconds to complete, with some perilous stretches to overcome — in particular the notoriously narrow Curve of San Martino, the culprit of many a crash throughout the centuries. Although it’s now customary to line the walls of the curve with mattresses and pile the turf higher to cushion colliding horses and jockeys, many animal rights activists are still not too keen about the seeming free-for-all that is Palio di Siena.

Still, the contrade will insist that a time-honored (although unrecorded) code of conduct is adhered to steadfastly, and tens of thousands of onlookers continue to cluster around the piazza on race day, some arriving at first light.

Meals in the contrade

palio di siena oca contrada italian ceramic plate

As with many grand occasions in Italy, food and drink play a major role. Each contrada in Siena holds several communal meals and gatherings throughout the year, not just during Palio. But the meals held during these times — especially the contrada dinner the night before the race — are most certainly something to behold.

At the contrada dinner, torches and lanterns illuminate the street, and dinner tables nearly 50 feet long are set up under the open sky (with limited seating available for lucky visitors!) Preparation of all the meat, pasta, and vegetables is handled by home chefs within the contrada, not professional caterers. Much wine is consumed, and many stories are shared.

Palio di Siena Aquila contrada Italian ceramic plate

For the winning contrada, the feast goes on — sometimes for several months — with a sequence of cenini leading up to the “Cena della Vittoria,” or victory supper, attended by the winning horse as a guest of honor.

Bellezza’s Palio di Siena collection

Bellezza Home’s Palio di Siena Italian ceramic dishware collection pays homage to both the magnificent imagery of the contrade and the deep-seated bonds within them, where tradition, sport, community, and family intersect. Beautifully and meticulously handcrafted, each dish is a work of art few would say neigh to.


Tagged: contrada dinner siena, palio di siena, palio di siena history