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  • Angela Louie and Allan de la Plante

The Palio: a little history

The Palio has a history as long as Siena itself about 1000 years ago. In Medieval Europe, the Palio was run through the streets as a culmination of a religious festival ending at the old Cathedral. The race took its name from Pallium, a prize given to the winner of precious cloth stuffed with hundreds of fur pelts. Today, the race is run inside the Piazza del Campo, a change that was made in the 15th century and rules laid out in the 18th century still stand today.

Each Palio race includes 10 contradas. The Contrade is both a territorial and administrative association. It originated from the territories of Siena during Medieval times. Today, there are 17 contradas roughly defined by geography in Siena but also by lineage and close association with contrada members. They are like family, clans that support and contribute to the community and social well being of Siena. They each have a flag, an emblem, usually representing an animal, which speaks to mythology, history and identity.

Pageantry has always been a large part of the Palio. It is not a one-day race. It is a weeks long event with parades, songs and feasts. The Historical Procession is a splendid display of the expressive costumes inspired by the late 1400’s. It runs through the streets of Siena and is part of the opening of the practices and the Palio itself. Streets are lined with flags of different contradas and singing can be heard from different ends of the city.

The Palio is not only a sporting event, it is a community event. It is a time when contradas compete, celebrate and renew their history. The winning contrada celebrates with feasts long after the race is won. Unlike many other sporting events, the Palio is a strictly Sienese occasion, one that ties their past with their future.

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