'Il Palio di Siena', or simply 'Il Palio', meaning 'The Prize', is the name of the famous horserace held twice a year in Siena, Tuscany. Like many of these events, its origins are medieval, with the first race recorded in 1581. The 'Palio di Provenzano', the first of the two races, is held on July 2nd and named after 'The Madonna of Provenzano', a famous painting once owned by an important Sienese general called Provenzano Salvani, which was said to have miraculous healing powers. The second race, the Palio dell'Assunta, is held on August 16th, the day after the Feast of the Assumption, and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The council of Siena occassionally allow a third race to celebrate exceptional world events. Such races have taken place after the Apollo moon landings and to celebrate the Millenium.
The races are contested by horses and riders representing the seventeen different 'Contradas', or areas of the city. In 1729, the mayor of Siena, attempting to control the general chaos and resulting danger of the races, reduced the number of participating 'Contradas' to ten. Those excluded from one year are automatically included in the next.
The different teams are fiercely competitive, and traditional techniques of bribery, doping and violence are not unknown.
The races take place in the beautiful 'Piazza del Campo' of Siena, on a track of specially imported dirt. On race days, the piazza is invariably packed with people, including virtually the whole population of Siena. It is introduced by the 'Corteo Storico', a spectacular procession of people in historic costumes waving colourful banners and flags, as well as a contingent of mounted Carabinieri, who draw their swords and demonstrate a full cavalry charge to whet the appetite of the crowd.
The race itself is extremely fast, and totally chaotic. After a cannon signals the start of the race, the riders ride bareback for three laps of the track, using their traditional bullwhips to encourage their horses... and discourage other riders. The race lasts about 75 seconds. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line, with or without its rider, and the loser is the horse who comes second, not last! Competitors seem to derive as much pleasure when their traditional rivals lose the race, as they do when they win themselves!
The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, the 'Palio', which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race and the award ceremony initiates a month long period of celebration.
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