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The Palio di Siena dedicated to the Madonna di Provenzano: July 2nd 2017

A medieval tradition still alive today

The first records that speak of a horse race held in Siena date back to 1238, but it is well known that in the twelfth century a Palio was dedicated to San Bonifazio, the ancient protector of the city. The race was held during the celebration of the Virgin Mary of the Assumption in August and only members of the aristocracy were allowed to participate. The great change took place in the seventeenth century when the Palio race was transferred to the scenic Piazza del Campo and, besides August 16th, the date of July 2 in honor of the Madonna di Provenzano was added. This recurrence took great importance for the people of Siena because a statue of the Virgin preserved in the church of Provenzano had operated a very special miracle a few years before: a Spanish soldier from the army that was occupying the city had attempted to shoot at the sculpture, but the arquebus exploded, killing him and leaving the bust intact. The event was seen as a sort of payback to the foreign occupations and the Madonna of Provenzano became a destination for all the faithful.

The Palio and its rules

Only ten out of the seventeen districts in which the city is divided are allowed participate. The first seven districts involved in the race are those excluded from the previous Palio, and the other three are chosen by chance. On the day of the race, the celebration begins with the historical procession that starts from the Duomo and reaches the square with riders, knights, city institutions and costumed characters dressed with the colors of the various districts. At around 7.30 pm the jockeys go out into the square and receive the nerbo and get ready to enter the canapies, but their entry order remains secret until the last moment, until the caller summons them to take their places. The tenth district is left out since it’s a chaser, and basically decides the time of departure by joining the circuit with the horse already galloping. The actual race consists of three rounds of the square and is won by the horse that first cuts the finish line, no matter if it is “shaken”, that is, if it is without a jockey.

The palio during the year

Although the race lasts only a few minutes, the preparation of the Palio di Siena goes on throughout the year. Beginning in winter, managers of the various contests take contact with horse owners and jockeys and, in the spring, some test runs are held so that they can be selected. The berberi, that is, the horses, are however assigned at random on June 29, the first day of the Celebration of the Madonna di Provenzano. The Tratta (the raffle) takes place in Piazza del Campo, and then every jockey performs six rounds of the circuit to get acquainted better with the animal. Also very impressive is the delivery of the nerbo and the blessing of the horse and the jockey, a ceremony that takes place in the churches of every district. After the race, then, the celebration does not involve just the winners, but also all the other districts with the organization of outdoor dinners along the streets of their district.