Siena Students Experience The Palio —An 800 Year-Old Tradition

This person does not have a headshot photo
Kiah Zellner-Smith
July 30, 2015

Photo by Taylor Penny (Siena, Summer 2015)

IES Abroad Siena students engage with Siena’s medieval history and rich culture not only through the classroom, but also by living alongside historic cathedrals and by being active participants in the city’s cultural traditions. For students on our Siena Summer program, one of these traditions is the Palio, and they quickly learn that it is much more than just a horse race.

First mention of the “Palio di Siena” stems back to 1238, which gives one an idea how enduring this tradition and the loyalties tied to it truly are.  Shortly after students arrive in Siena, they begin to understand the pride that the Sienese have in the contradas (distinct districts defined by geographical boundaries). Students visit a contrada museum, which highlights the complexities of this unique social system and gives them a feel for how deep the Palio tradition runs in Siena. They learn about the historical development of Siena’s 17 contrada, which span to medieval times and whom the Sienese people are fiercely loyal to. Each contrada even has its own flag and constitution, and relationships between the contrada range from allies to adversaries. The contrada are incredibly competitive with one another, and their rivalry culminates in two annual events—one being the Palio horse race.

Students are advised to view the extreme emotions shown during the Palio from the perspective of the people. “The moments after the victory are tremendously serious for the Sienese people. The four days of Palio are the end of a ‘journey’ which lasts one entire year,” says IES Abroad Siena Center Director Veronica Semeraro.

Students often ask if a contrada can be compared to a sorority or fraternity. Semeraro tells her students “no,” and goes on to explain “[b]elonging to the contrada is a lifelong process, from birth to death. Babies are baptized into the contrada, often before they are baptized into the church. Contrada flags wave at Sienese weddings, men fight their enemy contradas during the Palio, and funeral caskets are draped with the honorary banner.” She says, “It’s hard to explain because these deeply entrenched traditions going back hundreds of years are felt just as genuinely as they were in the past, and this kind of history doesn’t exist anywhere in the United States.”

After their time in Siena, students come away with a deeper understanding of what Palio means and represents for the Sienese people, who identify strongly with their contrada and their heritage. The race, although only 90 seconds long, is a deeply engrained tradition and passion-fueled event for the Sienese.  “I really had no idea about how big of a deal the Palio is for the Sienese people,” said Ian Schaefer (Siena, Summer 2015), “what is clear to me now is that the Palio and the contrada for Siena is a lifestyle.”

Read student blogger Taylor Penny’s post about the summer 2015 Palio in Siena. Learn more about our programs in Italy to begin planning your own immersive, global educational experience!


This person does not have a headshot photo

Kiah Zellner-Smith

IES Abroad News

Read More

IES Abroad regularly publishes news stories, articles, student stories, and other helpful study abroad content. Stay up to date on the latest from IES Abroad by reading our recent posts.

View All IES Abroad News