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The Palio di Siena is a horse race, which takes place around Piazza del Campo in Siena on 2 July and 16 August. Rarely is an extraordinary palio held on the decision of the Municipality of Siena, based on commemorations or exceptional events. Sometimes, in case of adverse weather conditions, it may be decided to postpone the race to the following day, in order to preserve the safety of the horses and jockeys.
This tradition is very old, centuries old. However, it must not be considered only a tradition, but also a very lively and heartfelt competition in the city. In fact, the contenders are the"districts", or subdivisions of the city, which form living communities all year round and the Palio represents the most important moment where they compete in competition.
Of a total of 17 districts that make up the territory of Siena, the palio is played by only 10 of them by right or by drawing, on the basis of the regulations in force on the palio.
The draw of the districts that will participate in the palio takes place about a month before the race in Piazza del Campo and participation will take place based on the arrangement of the flags in front of the Palazzo Pubblico.
Subsequently, a few days before the Palio, the horses are drawn. From this moment on, the trials of the palio begin, the negotiations of the captains, the dinners in the district and the tension for the race. The most important test is obviously the last one, called the"general test". The following dinner is also the most important, where the jockey, presented by the"captain" of the district, will make his speech to the people of the district, or"contradaioli". Another important authority in the district is the"prior", who can be considered as a sort of mayor of the district.
Finally, an interesting ritual is the blessing of the horse, which takes place on the day of the palio, just before the horse's departure from the district to reach the Palazzo Pubblico.
The race starts just before sunset, but, in order to see the race in Piazza del Campo, it is necessary to enter in the middle of the afternoon.
Before the race, in fact, there is the historical parade, a parade around the square with the costumes of the time. In this procession the municipality and all the districts are represented, even those not participating in the race. Obviously, transported on a cart, there is also the trophy, or the Palio, a large original painting on fabric, which the winning district will show off in the square and in the city streets in the days following the victory.
Also interesting is the parade of"standard bearers" and"drummers" of the individual districts, who will compete for an additional prize on the best appearance.
The entry of the horses will take place from the Palazzo Pubblico at the"canape", that is the starting line. After the draw for the starting order, the horses will be ready. One district is running up, while the others are waiting.
Once the start is judged valid by the"mossiere", that is the judge of the race, the horses will make three laps of the square, corresponding to about one kilometer, to be able to win the victory. The jockey will be used to guide the horse, but it is the horse that will lead the contrada to victory, even if the jockey has fallen during the competition. In the history of the Palio di Siena there have been numerous victories of"shaken horses", or horses without a jockey.
One reason why the Palio di Siena cannot be seen as a simple tradition is the celebrations, which are alive and animated, supported by songs of joy.
The Palio of 2 July is dedicated to Santa Maria di Provenzano. Then the contradaioli, to pay homage, will bring the won prize to the Basilica of Santa Maria di Provenzano. Instead the Palio of 16 August, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, will be brought to the cathedral. Subsequently, on the same evening, the Contrada will enter their district with the conquered Palio.
Despite the evening and the night in celebration, the following morning the contradaioli will show off the palio for the whole city, until the evening. The following days will also be festive and it will be easy to meet the parade of contradaioli who will bring the palio to the square.
Each contrada has a room used as a museum, where a new won prize will be added to the collection.