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PIAZZA DEL CAMPO IN SIENA, a sunny fan-shaped plaza, is inconspicuous most of the year. Tourists and laid-back locals mostly occupy this open, empty, quiet place to have coffee in the sun. But two days each year, the opposite is true, because Piazza del Campo becomes one of the world’s most vibrant places. Then the square is covered with sand and converted into a racetrack for Palio di Siena – a horserace that constitute one of Italy’s most famous – and perhaps one of the world’s most myth-ridden sports events.
On another level, Palio di Siena is something completely different and really has nothing to do with sports. While the race form the foundation of Palio di Siena, the events are equally about passion, tradition, and emotional outburst – as residents settle centuries-old neighborhood feuds within a few intense minutes.
Excitement builds over several hours in the hot sun as thousands of spectators slowly fill the plaza; they’re crowded and sweaty. And the edgy, anxious atmosphere simmers with high expectations. Three hours before starting, the gates are closed. Those who are not on the plaza or the surrounding grandstands miss the races.
It’s difficult to describe the sheer power that’s released when the starting shot goes off and 10 bareback-riding jockeys (fantinos) gallop three laps as fast as they can around the plaza. The explosive noise level is deafening when 40,000 spectators (about two-thirds of all Siena residents) cheer for the jockey they selected to lead their neighborhood to victory. Those who compete in Palio di Siena represent Siena’s 17 districts (contrades). Siena residents hold the events close to their hearts because they’ve been arranged annually since the early 1600s. During all those years of feuding, residents in the various districts have developed very strong feelings – for and against each other.
Most neighborhoods have rival quarters that must be defeated at all costs. And it’s not uncommon for two jockeys to collaborate to defeat a third. Palio di Siena races are unique in that their preparation takes an unbelievable amount of time – and then they end in no time. The neighborhoods prepare for an entire year – down to the smallest details. Then during the approximately one-minute race, all their work is met with triumph or defeat.
For the riders, the race can mean everything between heaven and hell – and they must be prepared to encounter love or hatred. A poorly performing jockey can be labeled as an enemy and meet a hard fate. While a successful jockey, such as Andrea “Aceto” Degortes (14 wins between 1964 and 1996), is declared an all-time hero. A classic example of his strong position was when Pavarotti, the Italian icon, was going to attend Palio di Siena and unfortunately couldn’t sit in the place of honor because Degortes was already in it.
Emotions that arise when the first horse crosses the finish line are equally difficult to describe. The moment everyone waited for an entire year is over, and it will certainly be celebrated. In the same moment, the crowd’s roar rises even higher and the crowd runs into the plaza before the last horse crosses the finish line. The winners cheer. And the losers express anger with harsh words, wild gestures, and sometimes fights.
Tables are brought into the plaza, the celebration begins, and the plaza quickly transforms into a big party venue. The race is discussed, and the heroes are celebrated. The winners celebrate, and the losers mourn. The next morning, the city slowly awakens, and calm settles in Siena. Yesterday’s race has just finished, but most residents have already begun to look forward to next year. So have we.
The Palio di Siena competitions started in the Middle Ages. They occur in Siena twice a year. Palio di Siena consists of two races: Palio della Madonna di Provenzano, held on 2 July and Palio dell’Assunta, held on 16 August.
Ten riders compete in Palio di Siena. Each one represents some of Siena’s 17 districts. Each district has a name (e.g., the Giraffe, Dragon, and Goose) and its own colors displayed on flags and the rider’s clothes.
Ten districts compete in each race. Those who compete are always the seven districts that were not allowed to compete the previous year and three more districts that are added via lottery. The riders gallop three laps around Piazza del Campo as quickly as possible; this usually takes about 75 seconds.

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