Did you know that the Palio is the oldest horse race in the world? Travel with us to Siena, Italy, where a twice-yearly race has been known to consume the entire region (and then some!) with its trademark passion, corruption, and competition. Whether you’re an aficionado of Italian culture or just a sucker for some good drama, the Palio is the next cultural phenomena that you’ll want to get into.
If you can't make it out to Italy anytime soon, you can see this race depicted on the big screen through Sienese director Cosima Spender’s movie Palio. It made a big splash at Tribeca Film Festival in 2015. A dramatic and captivating portrait of this age-old tradition, the film captures the very pulse of Tuscany and the people who keep this wild and cutthroat event alive year after year.
Everything about the Palio is steeped in culture, intrigue, and excitement — which means that we are already obsessed with it. Check out our Italian specialty course on the Siena Horse Race, featuring six lessons packed with history, vocabulary, and culture lessons all about the Palio. But first, let’s kick start your passion for the Palio with a quick primer on these historical races.
It’s not just about the horses
Although it’s a horse race, the horses themselves are only a small piece of the puzzle. Behind the scenes of the Palio, there are back-door deals and bargains, strategic plots, and intensive training. While the Sienese rally around their respective jockeys when the time comes, they actually have a complex relationship. The jockeys are known as i dieci assassini [the ten assassins]. There’s a general sense of distrust between the jockeys and their districts, rooted in the ultra-competitive nature of the races. There’s no guarantee that your district’s championed jockey this year won’t be riding for your enemy in a year’s time. When it comes to the Palio, trust no one.
They’re not very neighborly
Siena is divided into 17 different districts, or contrade, and let’s just say it’s complicated. Each district has its own unique identity, including individual government representation, flags, and constitutions. Interestingly, Sienese people value their contrada affiliation over all other identities — creating the potential for strong feelings about other districts. Add a twice-yearly, high-stakes horse race into the mix, and you’ve got yourself some drama. Some contrade are eternal enemies, some have alliances, others fluctuate between the two. But all of them, without fail, invest enormous time and money into winning the Palio every year — and what happens during that 90-second race can entirely redefine the districts in the year to come.
The race is really, really short
Did you catch that fun fact in the last section? The actual horse race clocks in at only 90 seconds. Taking place at the Piazza del Campo, the 10 jockeys ride their horses bareback around the dirt track three times over. The race itself, although short, is brutal and ruthless — jockeys can use their whips both for their horses and to interfere with the other racers. In fact, a district’s horse can even win the race without its jockey. So, if a jockey just so happens to be thrown from his own horse during the race, the horse can still cross the finish line without him.
Although the race is certainly a spectacle in its own right, the magic of the Palio is really in its surrounding events. From the parade of costumes and flag-wavers at Corteo Storico to the secret pacts and deals of the contrade lottery drawings, the stories and mystery of the Palio play out all year long.
Have you caught Palio fever yet? Check out our Horse Race of Siena specialty course to immerse yourself in Italian culture, history, and vocabulary. Learn to compliment costumes at Corteo Storico, root for your contrada, and understand jargon around horse racing — the perfect addition to your Italian language learning. Click below to get started. We’ll see you at the track!
Have you seen the film Palio? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments below!