Last Updated on December 1, 2023 by Laura Teso
The Siena Palio is famous worldwide as an ancient horse race. But to Senese people it is way more than that. It is a way of life, something pervading their daily life during the whole year, and their entire life. I have already published a post regarding my visit to the Tartuca contrada. There you will find out what’s behind the scenes of a Siena district.
Here I will simply list some curious or quirk facts regarding this amazing and unique event.
Siena Palio facts
- Siena has 17 contrade: Aquila (eagle), Bruco (caterpillar), Chiocciola (snail), Civetta (owl), Drago (dragon), Giraffa (giraffe), Istrice (porcupine), Leocorno. (unicorn), Lupa (female wolf), Nicchio (shell), Oca (goose), Onda (wave), Pantera (panther), Selva (wood), Tartuca (turtle), Torre (tower), Valdimontone (ram).
- The contradaioli cannot describe what they feel for their contrada. It’s a sense of belonging, pride and love.
- You are a member of a contrada by birth right. Or by bloodline. Or by choice, when you have social relationship with the members of a contrada.
- Each year, during the feast of a contrada, the contradaiolo baptism take place. Each contrada has its ritual.
- There are allies and rivals contrade. Citizens of rival contrade have frequently come to blows. Once it was more frequent and tolerated. Now law enforcements are less forgiving.
- Only 10 out of 17 contrade participate to a Palio.
- Every year contrade dispute the Siena Palio on two dates: July 2 and August 16.
- Palio means drape, and it’s the prize for the winners. A drape painted by a famous artist. People of Siena call the palio cencio (rag).
- Even a horse without its jockey can win. It is called cavallo scosso, shaken horse.
- Rivalries are so intense that people of a contrada not only try to win, but also to prevent the victory of the enemies. If a contrada does not participate to a palio, nevertheless its members will possibly excogitate something to hinder the rivals or help the allies. For example bribing the jockeys.
- The rivalries are: Aquila – Pantera, Chiocciola – Tartuca, Civetta – Leocorno, Istrice – Lupa, Nicchio – Valdimontone, Oca – Torre. Plus the odd one Onda vs Torre (explained below in the Onda fact).
- There are of course weddings among people of different contrade. During the days of the Palio, one member of the couple goes back to his/her parents’ house, in order to live the Palio in his/her contrada of origin and avoid problems.
- When two members of a different contrada have a child, they negotiate the child’s membership, evaluating ascendancies on both sides and the relevance of the two contrade on the life of both parents.
- Each contrada has its symbols, its anthem and its motto. For example: Owl I see in the night, Dragon My burning hearts becomes flame in my mouth, Wave The colour of the sky, the strength of the sea, Turtle Strength and perseverance harbour.
- Years ago Matteo and I infiltrated in the Nicchio contrada feast. They were very kind. No one asked us nothing, even if it was obvious we were strangers to them. There I found out the existence of a fascinating game, which is a representation of the Siena Palio: the Palio dei Barberi. 17 balls are unlatched at the same moment and roll down a track. There was one contradaiolo serving as a frenzied commentator: O’a, Tartu’a! Vai Vai! (Goose! Turtle! Go! Go!). Wonderful!
- Before 1600s there was another kind of horse race, not in Piazza del Campo, but across the city.
- The contrade borders were established in 1729.
- Once there were six more contrade: Gallo (rooster), Leone (lion), Orso (bear), Quercia (oak), Spadaforte (strongsword) and Vipera (viper).
- Each contrada refers to a different guild once in Siena (for example Onda = wood workers, Bruco = silk corporation)
- Nonna (grandmother) is the nickname of the contrada that has been the longest without victories. The current nonna is the Aquila.
- Barbaresco is horse’s assistant (I would say guardian). He lives with the horse during the Palio days and never leaves it alone, not even for a minute. In fact, he sleeps in the stable together with the horse.
- The starting zone of the race is the mossa, movement.
- To arrive second is an ignominy, called purga, purgative. Under the same name is also the victory of the rival contrada.
- Masgalano, from the Spanish words mas galàn, more elegant, is the prize awarded to the contrada which stands out for its elegance during the parade.
- Quattrogiornista, fourdayer, is the tourist who comes to Siena just to see the Palio.
One fact for each contrada
- Aquila, it’s the only contrada that had a woman as a jockey. It was 1957. Her actual name was Rosanna, but she had two nicknames: Diavola (She devil) and also Rompicollo (neck-breaker).
- Bruco, caterpillar, contrada was the first to use a foreign jockey.
- The nickname of the Chiocciola contrada is affogasanti, saints-drowner. At the end of 1800 this contrada was very unlucky at the Palio. One contradaiolo, tired of the situation, took an image of Saint Anthony Abbot from the stable and threw it into the well. A series of resounding defeats began. Until 1910, when the women of the contrada decided to retrieve the image from the well and restore it. The following year the Chiocciola finally won again.
- The Civetta contrada is well represented in the documentary The Last Victory. I warmly suggest you to watch it if you understand Italian or Dutch (there are Dutch subs).
- The Drago is the only contrada with no official rivals. Bravo!
- The Giraffa won the Palio in 1967. They received no palio but just the skecth. The palio was missing. At some point the thieves, some goliardi from Bologna, called to confess their prank and to return the loot. The contradaioli suggested them to place the Palio at an established place and to disappear immediately after for their own safety.
- Istrice’s motto is Only as a defence I sting
- The church of the Leocorno stands on the ruins of an ancient temple in honour of Zeus.
- Lupa is the last contrada that made a cappotto (double victory, in July and in August of the same year, 2016 in this case).
- Nicchio was the first contrada to publish its magazine, with photos, description of the race and mockeries about the other contrade.
- Oca is the contrada with the greatest number of wins in the history of the Palio.
- Onda considers Torre a rival, but the Tower does not acknowledge this rivalry.
- The name of Pantera‘s periodical is Grattapassere – better not translate it 😉 – in honour of a beloved (even if unsuccessful) jockey.
- Selva has no rivals at the moment
- Tartuca‘s Saint patron is Saint Anthony of Padua, that’s why I decided to visit this particular contrada.
- Torre‘s crest is an elephant with a tower on its back
- Valdimontone was the first contrada to be disqualified during a Palio (in 1966)
I leave you with the words by sweet Egidio from the Civetta contrada (as recorder in The last Victory documentary)
The contrada is the second family of every Senese. If there are troubles, we cry as we would cry if it were a family tragedy.
In conclusion, if you want to learn more and see gorgeous photos, I strongly recommend you to read this fantastic post and www.theguardian.com/palio-photo-essay. Moreover, it includes a lot of wonderful photos.
Another useful website is www.ilpalio.org/palioenglish.htm