Today, August 16th, marks the start of one of Italy’s most famous annual sporting events for a second time this year. With the first installment of the event taking place earlier this year, Palio di Siena is set to take the Italian streets again.
Every year the events, which are held in honour of the Virgin Mary, take place twice. The first date of the festival, July 2nd, was the original date of the race and was held in memory of a shrine created for the Madonna. Named Palio of Provenzano, the race started in 1656 and ran sporadically over the course of almost sixty years. However, in 1701, a second race was added to the calendar to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption. Thus, for the last 316 years, Il Palio dell’Assunta has also taken place.
With its origins going back over 350 years, it is no wonder why it is considered a tradition for the inhabitants of Siena. Since its conception, the event has drawn in large crowds, and it is expected that this year, two-thirds of the city’s population will line the streets to watch the race, with another 20,000 visitors also aspiring to experience the traditional sport. But what makes the race so special to the Siena locals?
The Tuscan city is divided into 17 contrade, or neighbourhoods, just as patriotic as the next. In fact, it is not uncommon for couples from the city who were both born in different contrade to split up for the duration of the festival to cheer on their rider. Each district in Siena has a different background, and could easily be described as a completely different city within itself. As a result of this, the inhabitants of each district began to establish their sense of pride in their contradictions from an early age, and it is this patriotism that shines through the course of Palio di Siena.
However, despite there being 17 districts, only ten horse and jockeys will take to the temporary racecourse. The selection of contrade is a simple process – the seven jockeys that did not run in the previous race are expected to participate, with the remaining three contrade being randomly selected before the event.
The 90-second race consists of jockeys riding bareback around the Piazza del Campo three times. The paved floor of the square means that this is a dangerous feat for any experienced horse and jockey, due to the risk of injury for both involved parties. However, it is not until four days before the race that the jockeys are actually matched with their horses. The selection involves forty horses having a test run of the course, with the contrade captains being allowed to have their pick from the selection. After the top ten have been picked, each contrada will select a horse at random in a lottery.
Palio di Siena is about so much more than the horse race, though. Spectators will be sure to be mesmerised by the electric atmosphere that the crowd provides, as well as with the revelry that the Siena locals throw themselves into.
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