You’ve probably heard of the Palio in Siena, that bareback horse race staged in the Piazza del Campo in the historic center. It’s one of Tuscany’s most famous festivals, and was even featured in the 2008 James Bond film, “Quantam of Solace.” But what you may not realize is that there is not one but two palios run each summer in Siena.
The first running of the Siena Palio dates back to the late 16th century, when each neighborhood in Siena’s historic center — each one called a “contrada” — would be represented by one rider. The winning rider took home bragging rights for his contrada until next year. The first regular races were held each July 2, and in the beginning riders mounted buffalo — not horses. By the mid-17th century, the Palio looked much as it does to us today — bareback riders on horses, each one representing his contrada, and the winner needs only have his horse cross the line first (no matter where the rider ends up).
By the early 1700s, a second Palio was added to the summer calendar on August 16. One of Italy’s most important religious holidays, Assumption Day, is on August 15, and there is some speculation that this second race was added as part of the existing festivities. The August Palio wasn’t its own separate annual event until the early 1800s, however, when the city started organizing two official Palios.
There’s no difference between the two races, so one could argue that it’s better to win the August Palio to maintain bragging rights for longer, but that doesn’t stop riders from giving it all they’ve got in July. The Palio is certainly one of the main things to see in Siena, but keep in mind that it started out as and remains primarily a festival for the residents. It’s a lot of noise and crowds, with medieval flag bearers and horse racing thrown in for good measure.