Visitors who are fortunate enough to be in Siena during the days of the Palio (by sheer accident or otherwise) are often unaware of all the preparation well prior to the event. One of the more emotional rituals takes place about six weeks prior to each summer Palio. This is known as the extraction (estrazione) of the contrade, which takes place in Siena’s most precious public space, Piazza del Campo. This event is necessary because only ten of Siena’s 17 contrade (neighborhoods) are allowed to race in each Palio. So, how is this done fairly so that all contrade are treated equally? It’s a pretty ingenious system that has evolved over the centuries along with the Palio itself. We have to keep in mind that the July 2 and August 16 Palios (Palii) are considered separate events that do not influence each other. Therefore, the seven contrade not included in a July Palio will automatically be guaranteed to race the following July, and likewise for the August events. Since these seven contrade know they will race the following year, three more are needed to round out the final ten competitors.
This is where the extraction comes in. During a Sunday night in late May (or the weekend following the July Palio), determined members from all contrade will gather in Piazza del Campo for a vitally important lottery, or “extraction”. Everyone—even members of contrade already slated to run—are eager to finalize the three additional competitors. Allies or rivals of certain contrade may be chosen through this lottery process, so it can seriously affect strategy. The short story is this: As hopeful Sienese arrive in the Campo for the evening event, seven flags are already hanging on poles outside of Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall). These flags represent the seven contrade guaranteed to run. The aim, therefore, is to add three more flags on the façade to complete the set.
The following description of this ritualistic event is based on my opportunity to see the extraction in person, in preparation for the July, 2017 Palio (abridged from my book, Living the Palio).
As several thousand Sienese trickle into the Campo on the last Sunday of May, patience is ultimately rewarded. One of the triple windows on the second floor of Palazzo Pubblico opens to briefly reveal six or seven impressively long, shiny bells of Siena’s official trumpets, or horns. This is the visual cue that the extraction ritual is about to proceed. These horns are known affectionately as the chiarine (singular: chiarina) while it is the trombettiere who play them. Everyone’s eyes are momentarily glued to this small contingent in their regal, blue costumes. The melody and accompanying harmony of the Palio fanfare then reverberates throughout the Campo, one which I have caught myself humming and whistling on any given day since 2013. After retreating back inside temporarily, the set of windows opens yet again. The background noise around the Campo is quieting down, certainly guided by local Sienesi who know the drill here. It’s time to follow the lead of the crowd.
The same wonderful fanfare is played, signifying the first drawing (extraction) of a contrada. Immediately following the fanfare, a modest flagpole suddenly emerges with its banner unfurling outside the window. I quickly recognize the blue and yellow insignia. “It’s the Turtle!” I yell excitedly to my companion. Suddenly, the whole crowd is abuzz with excited conversation, not the least being those contradaioli representing the Turtle, or Tortoise. A group of maybe a hundred of them converges to our right, and fists are now punching the air in unison. They quickly ramp up into their own version of the Song of Verbena and are now the impromptu star performers within the Campo. With the subtle emergence and placement of the contrada flag, everyone immediately knows that the Turtle will now run in the upcoming Palio. That’s all there is to it; not one verbal announcement is made during the entire event.
The fanfare plays for a second time, and out comes another flagpole. “Giraffe!” I yell. The Giraffe contradaioli proceed to go nuts as expected. There’s still one more chance for a lucky contrada tonight. However, the flag holders outside that particular window are all now occupied, so another window opens immediately to our right. The fanfare plays, and we all wait anxiously. Out it comes, and I try to identify the colors quickly, as if testing my own contrada knowledge. “Caterpillar!” I yell, over the top of the instant celebration emanating from another part of the Campo. With the final three flags now joining the other ten on Palazzo Pubblico, the ten Palio competitors have now been set for the next iteration of Sienese history. The event is not yet concluded, however, as the final seven non-selected contrade also need to be drawn, which will determine the order in which they march in the corteo storico (historical procession) and other Palio events. These final seven have their own flags placed outside the third floor of Palazzo Pubblico, above the ten that will run in this Palio.
How the Contrade are Drawn by Lottery
I would later learn more about the process for selecting the final three contenders. From the perspective of those standing in the Campo, it is impossible to tell what is happening behind those windows. Here’s how it works: First, the mayor summons all 17 contrada captains to Palazzo Pubblico. From an urn, the mayor then randomly picks the names of three contrade. These are not necessarily the final three that will run in the Palio, however. That would be too easy. Instead, it is the captains of these three selected contrade who will pull the names from a second urn to determine which will run the Palio. The first of the three selected captains pulls a contrada name from the urn, determining the first contrada to run. This is followed by the second and the third captains doing the same in turn. It is even possible for captains to pick their own contrada! Of course, they could also end up choosing that of their rival. As each of the three captains pulls a name from the urn, the flag of the chosen contrada is placed outside the windows for all of us to see.Thus, while it may appear that the selection occurs behind closed doors, all seventeen captains and the mayor are up there overseeing the process. I suppose that’s enough eyes behind the scenes for me!
Want to learn more about Siena and the Palio? You are invited to consider my two books, Living the Palio and its follow-up, Unbridled Spirit. Available as print and ebook versions on Amazon and numerous global online retailers.