Il Palio, Siena, Italy

Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

Piazza del Campo (aka Il Campo), Siena, Italy.

What is Il Palio di Siena?

This is Italy’s best known horse race, held twice each year on July 2 and August 16 in the city’s Piazza del Campo square, pictured above on a normal summer’s day and below on race day.

Ten horses and their colourfully clad riders represent ten of Siena’s 17 districts, but before the race – which is just three brutal laps – there is a lengthy ceremony and procession celebrating Siena’s medieval past.

Il Palio day, Siena, Italy

The same piazza in Siena on the Palio race day.

The Race

Spectators for the Palio start to arrive in the morning, taking positions standing in the centre, paying for seats in the stands (bleachers) or buying extravagant box seats. Paid seating sells out way in advance so tourists must book beforehand or be prepared to stand most of the day in one overheated location.

Before the race locals put on a spectacular pageant, including flag-wavers in medieval costumes and mounted horse police charging around the dirt track.

Siena, Il Palio starts, Italy

Il Palio’s starting line, and they’re off (colloquially). . .

At around 7pm the race starts, three times around the dirt covered Piazza del Campo.

Riders not only use their whips – which are made of dried bull’s penises – on their own mounts, but also on other horses. In consequence, taken together with bareback seating, a slippery track surface that slopes in places, a tight circuit and testosterone overload, there are many accidents to both riders and horses. A riderless horse can win the race so long as it’s head ornament is still in place.

Siena, Il Palio accident, Italy

And they’re off (literally). . . .

The winner of the race gets a hand-painted silk banner (a palio), and the crowd goes wild – particularly citizens of the winning district, but rival punch-ups are not uncommon.

Comparisons between Il Palio and Canada’s Calgary Stampede

It’s an F2 experience (fun with frustration) living in the Thirst World (a developed country with many undeveloped characteristics).

Italy is First World and very attractive in many respects – culture in general, food and drink, autostrade, design, friendliness of the people, history, geographic beauty and so on – but Third World in many areas that are essential to life in the 21st century – among others the political system, judicial system, financial system, and communications systems without touching on the mule track roads away from the central highways and restrictive retail practices which require careful planning for shopping expeditions. It’s a bi-polar life in Italy for travellers and foreign residents.

Calgary stampede, Alberta, Canada

Rodeos and chuck-wagon races are not at all safe but perhaps not quite as ferocious as Il Palio.

An interesting contrast between the two worlds and their respective organisation, for example, is Il Palio in Italy’s Siena vs. Canada’s Calgary Stampede.

Both are annual events in which the respective towns become intimately involved (in Siena the main square is taken over for Il Palio, in Calgary the whole city dresses up for the rodeo and the main streets are closed for the kick-off parade) with a long tradition (the first going back centuries, the second about a hundred years), a festive atmosphere, intense rivalry and bare back riders on horses who may fall off (four out of ten at Il Palio this year). Both have television coverage and a dedicated following and considerable skills.

So, what are the differences?


Siena uses existing premises (the square) and is redolent of the past, Calgary has purpose built facilities (with transportation to/from the site as well as extensive vehicle parking) and reflects the present


Il Palio (the race) lasts a little over a minute, the Stampede covers a week with an intense programme of activities from bull riding through bronco busting to wagon races every day


The cowboys and cowgirls are mainly North American professionals who ply the rodeo circuit (with Calgary, Houston and Las Vegas being the star attractions), while riders in Siena represent their local villages.


Cowboys dress much alike and bring their own kit, Il Palio riders wear their respective medieval village colours with body armour and are given their whips as they enter the square (presumably to avoid unfair advantage)

(the horses/teams are named after animals such as Ostrich or things such as Tower so the commentators make remarks like “Giraffe has the advantage over Panther”).


Il Palio is a tourist/local attraction not driven by pecuniary interest, the Stampede is a very commercial enterprise though admittedly with a community oriented end.


The Stampede is a slick, finely tuned event with precise timing barring major accidents (such as a chuck wagon turning over and seriously hurting its driver or its horses) and 21st century razzmattazz (e. g. fireworks).

The start of Il Palio is in the lap of the gods as ten highly strung horses have to enter a restricted space between two ropes; when at least the head of the last rider has entered the starter drops one rope to begin the race.

Incidentally, this means that the final rider can play a hugely tactical game by going to the line when all the other horses are at sixes and sevens but it also delays the start in an unpredictable manner, 45 minutes in 2008.


At the end of a week of the Stampede the winning cowboys can walk away with $100, 000; at the end of Il Palio the winner is lucky to retain his whip as hat, shirt etc. are frequently ripped off by the souvenir hunting crowd.

The inhabitants from the winning Italian village then go off to church to give thanks for their victory – after scuffling with rivals, of course.


The audience at the Stampede is kept at a safe distance from all proceedings; the public at Il Palio climb over the laughably low railings during the second lap of the race and some are inevitably knocked down and trampled.


If you’re really bored, you watch the Stampede on TV; unless you like waiting in a mob you’re better off watching Il Palio on TV, getting repeats of the action from countless different angles, in slow motion etc.


Siena’s Il Palio is an amateur event steeped in history and local factionalism, brief in execution but long in build up, uncomfortable and dangerous for (some) spectators, hazardous for all riders and deeply dissatisfying for all but the winner (there are no runner up prizes), and typically European in organisation and purpose (regional pride).

The Calgary Stampede is a modern day version of a traditional past-time with a multiplicity of attractions, activities, and participants from many countries, customised for a mobile world seeking instant gratification and motivated by moolah, comfort and convenience. All arrangements are unabashedly north American, carefully choreographed and run with Swiss-like precision.

Local Italian dignitaries and the heads of the village teams take place of honour at Il Palio, Canadian corporate entertainment suites have pole position at the Stampede.

Also by Daniel Nash Secondo: Italian Cuisine

Siena Il Palio Photos © Ikuko Koga, Mubadda Rohanna.

Calgary Photos © Jennifer Oehler, Steve Estvanik.