This is how the famous Sienese tradition originated
The word palio derives from the Latin ‘pallium’ meaning drape. In the Middle Ages, the prize for the winner of a race – of horses, but not only – was a drape of precious fabric called a ‘pallium’: Palio. The horse race in Siena in honour of the Assumption of the Virgin – worshipped as queen of the city – was the ‘national holiday’ of the Republic. The Palio was the highlight of the Assumption celebrations and was held on 15 Augustat the end of the ceremony during which the towns, lands and castles subjected to the Republic of Siena offered candles to Our Lady. This race took place on a linear course starting inside Porta Romana and finishing in front of the cathedral, which is why it was called the ‘Palio alla lunga’ or long Palio. The oldest record of the Palio alla lunga in Siena dates back to 1239.
The horses used were the so-called ‘barberi’ (i.e. Berber horses), pure bred horses that belonged to eminent lords and nobles throughout Italy, particularly in the 15th century. The berber horses were ridden by jockeys (known as ‘ragatii’) with colourful nicknames, who also participated in various races in central and northern Italy. The Palio alla lunga continued to be organised even after the end of the Sienese Republic in 1559, but declined over the centuries, and continued to lose interest until it was finally abolished in 1874.
In the second half of the 16th century,the bull hunts that had until then been the main event in the Contrade were declining, and the Contrade of Siena began to compete in a series of races,generally held on the occasion of their respective religious festivals. These competitions are called ‘Palii rionali’ (neighbourhood races) because the route ran through the streets of the Contrada organising the race. They competed with horses, mares, donkeys, mules, buffaloes, and quickly established themselves among the Sienese. In 1581, almost every Contrada organised its own neighbourhood race. For the Feast of the Assumption, Aquila organised a Palio alla lunga with seven Contrade taking part and it was won by Onda.
On 26 June 1605, the Contrade organised a race in the Piazza del Campo for the first time. To celebrate the election as pope of Paul V, who belonged to the Sienese Borghesi family, the Bailiff organised a buffalo race, in which the Bruco, Chiocciola, Lupa and Torre contrade participated, and it was won by the Bruco. The spectacle was so popular because, unlike the long race, at last all the spectators could follow the entire race around the square, so the Contrade continued to organise buffalo races until at least 1650.
The race was preceded by a sumptuous procession circling the square, in which the ‘comparse’ (performers in costume) from the participating Contrade paraded. These included standard-bearers waving a flag, figures wearing the colours of their neighbourhood,and an allegoric carriage with an ‘invenzione’ , either a scene usually inspired by classical mythology or the symbolic animal of the contrada. The buffaloes were ridden by a herder, but they were also pushed by a group of prodders armed with metal-tip rods, who often brawled with their opponents. The race lasted three laps, but it seems it was run anti-clockwise, unlike the current Palio. In addition to the trophy awarded to the Contrada that won the race, it became customary to award prizes for the best ‘invenzione’ and best costume performer, which would turn into today’s Masgalano, i.e. the trophy that is awarded to the best costume performer (traditionally a finely wrought silver basin, but not always).
In 1633, because of the plague raging in the Peninsula, the Italian lords didn’t send their horses to Siena for the traditional Palio dell’Assunta alla lunga, as was customary. Therefore the Bailiff decided to have a Palio alla tonda (a circular Palio) on 15 August in Piazza del Campo, run by the Contrade with horses, inspired by what was already being done with buffaloes. The prize was a brocade cloth. Five Contrade took part and it was won by the Tartuca. Therefore, this was the first real Palio run by the Contrade in Piazza del Campo with horses.
After the first edition, it wasn’t until in 1659 that the Biccherna accounting office accepted the proposal of the Deputies of the Festival of Provenzano to make the Palio a yearly event in honour of the Visitation of Mary to St Elizabeth on 2 July. The miracle of Our Lady of Provenzano was also celebrated on this date, to whom a magnificent basilica had been erected and the race was dedicated. In that year, the Palio of 2 July was institutionalised and began to be run annually.
Until then, the fundamental rule of the Palio had been that the horse wins, not the jockey.
In 1701, the Contrada dell’Oca decided to hold a Palio to celebrate their victory in the Palio on 2 July. Having obtained permission, the race was held on 16 August because on the previous day – the Assumption of the Virgin Mary – the old Palio alla lunga was still taking place. The Oca was immediately followed by the other Contrade.
In the re-race of 16 August 1713, we witness the exceptional, and still unique, case of a ‘half-way’ victory between two Contrade of the Onda and the Tartuca, who solemnly shared the prize.
The first Regulation of the Palio written in 16 articles was issued by the Biccherna on 7 May 1721. Previously, a proclamation was posted at each Palio, consisting of five or six points dictating the rules to be observed each time. The regulations became necessary mainly to set the number of participating Contrade to 10 at a time, since it was deemed impractical for 17 Contrade to race at a time, as had been the case the previous year. Thus, it became necessary to determine the participating Contrade by means of a draw, which started being held for each Palio. The ones that weren’t drawn would be entitled to participate in the next Palio, whether it was July, August or any other possible date. This was done until 1747, when all 10 Contrade participating in the August Palio were drawn. The mechanism of the non-drawn Contrade running the next Palio by right only concerned the July Palio, while the draw of all 10 participants continued in the August Palio.
Finally, in 1802, the August Palio was also institutionalised, and with the Municipality also organising the second annual race, there was no longer a risk of the winning Contrada in July organising another race. From the August Palio of 1805 it was then established that the method of drawing the participating Contrade would follow the same method as in July, and from that date onwards it has remained the same until today. The basic rules of the Palio are no longer changed, except in certain external aspects or in the way they are implemented.