The Palio of Siena is a 500-year-old horse race famous for tales of danger, emotions and unbridled passion. But it’s also the reason why Siena is one of the most harmonious places to live in all of Europe. All thanks to 17 rival “families”—or contrade—whose traditions have both fiercely divided, and deeply united the citizens for centuries.

The Historic Heart of Siena

The beautiful Piazza del Campo was first built in 1359. But this is no ordinary Italian piazza. This is the birthplace of the Palio. Every year—in July and August—this place becomes a kind of time machine into the past. A dirt track appears underfoot and crowds pour inside to take part in traditions that date back nearly 500 years.

Sienna, Italy by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

The Origins of the Contrade

The first contrade formed way back in the Middle Ages as military companies. There were 59 contrade back then, but only 17 still remain. The only battle they fight today is the Palio—where twice each year 10 contrade compete for the ultimate prize. Honour.

Il Palio di SienaConsorzio Per La Tutela Del Palio Di Siena

The 17 Families of Siena

Life inside a contrada isn’t just about loyalty or rivalry. It’s also about identity. Each contrada has its own symbol, such as the Unicorn, the Goose or the Dragon (as seen here). They subscribe to their own motto, worship in their own church, and have their own traditions and culture.

A Reward Greater Than Victory

Believe it or not, the Palio isn’t fought for money. The "palio" is actually the name of the silk flag—also called the drappellone—that the contrada receives for winning the race. Here you can see just a few palios the Contrada of the Dragon have won since the 17th century, hanging proudly in their museum.

Baptised into the ContradaConsorzio Per La Tutela Del Palio Di Siena

Baptised into the Contrade

There’s a saying in Siena: you first belong to your contrada, then to Siena and then to Italy. From the moment you are baptised into the contrade you are expected to always serve it. In return you become part of a family for life.

By Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

Preparing for the Palio

The Palio is actually a four day event—despite the race lasting just 90 seconds. Six rehearsal races, or trials, happen in this time. This is a chance for the jockeys to get their horses used to the thrilling atmosphere of the Campo.  

Siena (1946-12) by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

Go, and Return Victorious

At last, race day has arrived! But before the horses can be led to the starting line, a very important ritual must take place at the churches of the contrade: the blessing of the horse.

Inside the church of the Contrada of the Unicorn (Chiesa di San Giovannino della Staffa).

Sienna, Italy by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

A March for the Ages

The Corteo Storico, the historical parade, happens on the day of the Palio. Over 700 people take part—proudly wearing the traditional medieval costumes of their contrada, playing the Palio march on drums and trumpets, and performing elaborate flag throwing routines for an incredible 2-hour pageant.

Sienna, Italy by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

The Flag Bearers of the Palio

One of the most loved traditions of the Corteo Storico is the flag waving event. All 17 contrade take part in this event (including the ones who are not competing).
Each contrada has its own “alfiere” team—made up of two flag bearers—who roll and toss their traditional flags in the air in a rousing display of pride that leads to the Palio

Modern Alfiere Practice 360º

An inside look into the Contrade of the Owl (Civetta) from August 2016.

After the Palio, a Prayer

If you find yourself at the Duomo on the 16th of August, it’s because your contrada has just won the Palio! This is where the winning contrada gathers to give thanks to the Virgin Mary—waving flags and singing the hymn “Maria Mater Gratiae”.

The Palio is Life

The Palio has now ended. But for the people of the contrade, the Palio is a way of life that lasts all year. It the powerful glue that has held this society together throughout the ages, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

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