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Siena’s Palio Contrade: 17 Historic Neighborhoods & a Medieval Horse Race




Valdimontone Contrada || creative commons photo by Dimitry B.

Valdimontone Contrada || creative commons photo by Dimitry B.

Many Italy visitors (and plenty of people who haven’t yet been to Italy) have heard about the Palio of Siena, that centuries-old bareback horse race that occurs in the Piazza del Campo of one of Tuscany‘s most popular tourist towns twice every year. What’s not necessarily self-evident, however, are the allegiances of the competitors in the event. It’s not just that the riders represent rival teams, they each actually represent one of Siena’s historic neighborhoods.

Read more about what to do in Siena and check out my Italy festivals and holidays calendar

Siena Contrade flagbearers before the Palio || creative commons photo by Janus Kinase

Siena Contrade flagbearers before the Palio || creative commons photo by Janus Kinase

There are 17 neighborhoods in the historic center of Siena that participate in the Palio (a neighborhood is a “contrada,” and the plural is “contrade”). During the running of each Palio in Siena, 10 of the participating contrade send a horse and rider to the race. Each contrada is represented by a symbol – most are animals, but there are also mythical creatures, architectural symbols, and icons taken from nature – and certain color combinations, just like any other team in a sporting event.

Torre Contrada || creative commons photo by Janus Kinase

Torre Contrada || creative commons photo by Janus Kinase

The contrade support their rider with medieval marches, complete with flag-throwers and musicians, all wearing the symbol and colors of the neighborhood. Residents of the contrada fall in behind the marchers, typically wearing or waving a scarf with the contrada colors. There are historic allies between contrade, as well as historic enemies, though animosity is usually limited to trash talking these days.

Contrade flags || creative commons photo by Daniele Marcucci

Contrade flags || creative commons photo by Daniele Marcucci

The different contrade each have historic professions associated with them, but of course those don’t carry through to present-day. Each one also has its own museum, and many families will even baptize children born into a contrada at the contrada own baptismal font. While the original reasons for dividing the city into contrade are no longer significant, the contrade have remained integral to life in Siena.

As mentioned, in any given Palio – there are two each summer – 10 of the 17 contrade will appear in the race. The list below of the names, symbols, and colors of each contrada to help you determine what contrada you’re wandering through or staying in, so you can root for the “home team” in the race.

It’s also fun to identify different contrada symbols as you wander around Siena, whether you’re there for the Palio or not. On my first visit to Siena, I stayed in the Leocorno contrada and I still have the tiny ceramic tile I bought – with a painted prancing unicorn – perched on my bookshelf. Get your kids involved in spotting the symbols – they’re even worked into the mosaic floor of Siena’s cathedral! – and you’ve got a ready-made scavenger hunt.

Guided Tours in Siena

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Siena’s 17 “Contrade” (Neighborhoods)

  • Caterpillar (Bruco) – The Bruco contrada symbol has a caterpillar wearing a crown and sitting on a rose. The colors are green, yellow, and blue.
  • Crested Porcupine (Istrice) – The Istrice contrada has a porcupine as its symbol, and its colors are red, white, blue, and black.
  • Dragon (Drago) – The Drago contrada symbol is a dragon in flight holding a banner. The colors are red, green, and yellow.
  • Eagle (Aquila) – The Aquila contrada contains the Duomo, and the symbol is a two-headed black eagle. The colors are yellow, blue, and black. Aquila has the fewest victories over the centuries.
  • Forest (Selva) – The Selva contrada has a rhino and an oak tree, which is decorated with hunting weaponry. The colors are green and orange with a bit of white.
  • Giraffe (Giraffa) – The Giraffa contrada has a giraffe on its symbol, and its colors are white and red.
  • Goose (Oca) – The Oca contrada goose symbol is wearing a crown and a blue ribbon, and the contrada colors are green, white, and a bit of red. Oca has the most victories over the centuries.
  • Little Owl (Civetta) – The Civetta contrada symbol has a small owl wearing a crown, and the colors are red, black, and white.
  • Panther (Pantera) – The Pantera contrada is a rearing panther, and its colors are red, blue, and white.
  • Seashell (Nicchio) – The Nicchio contrada symbol is a scallop shell with a crown. The colors are blue, yellow, and red.
  • She-Wolf (Lupa) – The Lupa contrada symbol is the familiar she-wolf nursing twins (it’s also the symbol of Rome). The colors are black and white with a bit of orange.
  • Snail (Chiocciola) – The Chiocciola contrada symbol is a snail, and the colors are red, yellow, and blue.
  • Tortoise (Tartuca) – The Tartuca contrada has a tortoise with Savoy insignia as its symbol, and the colors are yellow and dark blue.
  • Tower (Torre) – The Torre contrada symbol is an elephant bearing a tower on its back. the colors are dark red, white, and blue.
  • Unicorn (Leocorno) – The Leocorno contrada unicorn on its symbol is rearing, and its colors are orange and white with a bit of blue.
  • Valley of the Ram (Valdimontone) – The Valdimontone contrada symbol is a rearing ram with a blue shield. Its colors are red and yellow with a bit of white.
  • Wave (Onda) – The Onda contrada has a dolphin as its symbol, with appropriately wavy white and light blue colors in the background.

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