Excerpt adapted from my book, Living the Palio (It’s already written, so I’m happy to share it here.)
Through centuries of successive governments and external influences, Siena’s prized annual horse race, the Palio, has continued largely uninterrupted. This ferocious ninety-second race seems to flow through the blood of the Siena faithful, providing the central theme for their city and for this narrative.
The Palio attracts many thousands of people to Siena twice each year for the aforementioned days of the Palio. These include the races on July 2 and August 16 and the three days leading up to each race. Despite the ever-larger hordes of visitors like us, the Palio is not directly promoted for outside consumption. Instead, the event and its associated rituals are found at the center of Siena’s own identity and sense of place, both of which run incredibly deep in Senese culture. The excitement of the Palio race forms the most visible tip of a very complex social system. More understanding of this system will shed light on the safest-city question and why the Palio is run in the first place. To understand the Palio race, one should become acquainted to some extent with Siena’s seventeen distinct neighborhoods, known as contrade (plural form of contrada). Without the contrade, the Palio would simply vanish or, perhaps even more horrific, devolve into a mere reenactment for outsiders. The Palio and contrade operate hand in hand, each mutually dependent upon the other. (Please see Understanding Siena’s 17 Contrade.)