The European Renaissance might have began in Tuscany but Siena didn’t care to keep up with it. The Tuscan town got stuck in the Middle Ages. And why would it bother? After all it was in the Middle Ages that Siena reached the height of its splendor, becoming an independent commune after a century of the bishop’s ruling.
The city’s life is deep rooted in tradition. Siena is divided into contrade or wards, each having its own emblem and colors, its own unique mascot and its own flag. But it doesn’t stop there: each contrada has its own church, its own museum, its own motto, and a host of traditions. While walking around Siena it’s easy to know which contrada you’re in because most homes display one of the 17 flags representing the distinct districts. An interesting fact is that you cannot become a contrada member, you have to be born into it. Residents are extremely loyal to their own contrada and celebrate holidays, victories, marriages, baptisms, or funerals only with their contrada. It is advised that you do not marry out of your contrada, but if that happens the wedding will be celebrated in a neutral ward. The rivalry between the wards becomes visible and important during the Palio or the horse race. Married couples from different contrade will often split up during the race.
The Palio is the soul of Siena, the true essence of belonging to the city. Historic documents reveal that this long tradition goes back to the 6th century. The horse race takes place on July 2 and August 16 every year, at the Piazza del Campo. The rule says that only ten out of the seventeen contrade can participate in each race, so the first seven are those that did not participate in the previous race and the other three are drawn by lots. The Palio prize is called “Drappellone”, which is a large painted canvas designed each year by a different artist. The winning contrada displays the prize in their own museum.
Despite the fierce rivalries and tensions between the contrade, there’s virtually no crime, violence or disorder associated with it. Apparently, other than traffic and crowd control, the police in Siena seems to have little to do.
The Palio festivity lasts for four days each time, from the the drawing of the lots and assignment of the horses, to the warm-ups and the victory parties. Each Contrada has its own jockey but not its own horse. The horses are being assigned at the beginning of the four days. Trying to get into the city with 60,000 people to watch the Palio may be difficult and overwhelming. But if you want to get a feel of the atmosphere that animates Siena during this crazy horse race you could take a day-trip in from Florence to see horse-race trials on any of the three days before the actual event.