Excerpt adapted from my book, Living the Palio. (It’s already written, so I’m happy to share it here.)
A few traditions are quite different from US sporting events. The only payout for a victorious contrada is a cloth banner known as the drappellone or palio. The word palio actually holds a dual meaning here—for the entire race event itself, and as another name for the victory banner or drappellone. Palio is actually derived from the Latin word pallium or piece of cloth. The Palio banner is designed and hand-painted for each new race by a carefully selected artist. The current practice is to commission a local Senese artist to design the July banner, whereas the August version is designed by someone from outside the city. Its very design remains a mystery until about a week prior to the race when it is presented at a public press conference in the cortile, or inner courtyard of Palazzo Pubblico (see below).
There are only two requirements for what must be included on the banner: an image of the Madonna (Virgin Mary) and symbols of the ten contrade that are racing in that particular Palio. As for the Madonna, the keen observer can tell the difference between July and August banners. Those of July will display a “half” Virgin (her top half, that is), while the August banners display a nearly “full” Virgin (mostly head to toe).
Winning the Palio
For some contrade, the odds of winning have not been in their favor as of late. The Caterpillar went without a win for forty-one years (between 1955 and 1996). This scrappy contrada is making up for lost time, however, bringing home the drappellone three times so far in the twenty-first century. The Panther, in contrast, has won only once since 1994, and the Shell hasn’t pulled off a win since August 1998. In such cases, an entire generation of young people might not experience a victory in their memorable lifetimes.
Winning is a big deal, make no mistake. On the flip side, a victory is incredibly expensive for the contrada that wins, necessitating numerous celebrations throughout the year and, of course, the handsome payoff for the jockey and to other contrade that agreed to assist. Each win is strictly a cultural and emotional victory based on the community’s strong attachment to place. It is, therefore, not economically advantageous to win. That approach would never work with American college or pro football, for instance. The team would simply be out of business. I can imagine contrada leaders secretly cringing when they win almost back to back, wondering how they will dig out thousands of euros once again to pay for it all—and, likely, to pay off their allies as well. The Wave, for instance, won the July 2 Palio in 2012 and would win the August 16 race a year later. The contrade encourage pledges from their own citizens in advance of each race, in the rare chance that they pull off a victory and need to pay out. Some of these pledges can run upwards of €5,000 or more from the most devoted contradaioli. (End of Excerpt)