What is a Palio?

Photo of a siena palio
by Martha Bakerjian

Many people believe the palio is a horserace. A palio is actually a banner or cloth cherished by the winner of a competition. A palio is usually won in a race or contest, often a horse race, as in the famous Palio of Siena.

The Most Famous Race

Siena's palio competition is held July 2 and August 16 each year. In the first race, 10 of the 17 contrade, districts, compete. Each district has their own jockey and a horse assigned at random.

In August the other 7 contrade race along with 3 from the first race. Riders race around the inside of Siena's central square, Piazza del Campo. The actual race lasts only about 90 seconds but it's very dangerous and exciting.

Although Siena's race may be the most famous, many towns in Italy hold races or contests amongst their districts. The winning district keeps the palio until the next contest. One of the oldest palio horse races takes place in Ferrara and includes parades and flag throwing contests over several weekends, culminating in the horse race for the palio. Another of the oldest is the Palio di San Rocco in Figline Valdarno, said to be one of the first palio competitions in Tuscany. Palio contests include five days of medieval competitions with jousting, archery, and a horse race during the first week of September.

Horse races are common but the race might also be a foot race, donkey race, boat race, or cart race.

Some palio races and contests are even more unusual, such as the palio della rana, or frog race, held in Fermignano in central Italy's Marche region in April. Near the sea you'll find rowing contests such as the Palio del Golfo, a rowing race between the 13 maritime villages that border the Bay of La Spezia, held the first Sunday in August in La Spezia.