Siena’s Palio Contrade – 17 Historic Neighborhoods and a Medieval Horse Race

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Many people visiting Italy (and many others who haven’t been there yet) are familiar with the Palio de Siena, a centuries-old bareback horse race held in the Piazza del Campo in one of Tuscany’s most touristic towns twice a year. The allegiances of competitors in this event are not always obvious. The riders are not only competing teams; they also represent one of Siena’s historic neighborhoods.

Learn more about things to do in Siena, and see my Italy holidays and festivals calendar

The Palio is open to 17 neighborhoods located in the historical center of Siena. 10 contrades send a horse or rider to each Palio in Siena during the course of each race. Each contrada has a symbol that represents it – the majority are animals but there are mythical creatures and architectural symbols as well as icons from nature. Also, certain colors can be used to represent other teams in sporting events.

With medieval marches complete with musicians and flag-throwers, the contrade supports their rider. Contrada residents follow the marchers and often wear or wave a scarf featuring the contrada colors. Although there are historical allies and enemies of contrade, animosity these days is limited to trash talk.

Each contrade has its own history, but those professions don’t always carry over to the present. Each contrada has its own museum. Many families will even baptize their children at the contrada’s baptismal font. Although the original reasons for divising the city into contrade no longer hold any significance, contrade remain an integral part of life in Siena.

There are only two Palios each summer, so 10 of the 17 contrades will be in the race. Below is a list of the names, symbols and colors for each contrada. This will help you to identify which contrada you are in or out, so that you can support the “home team”.

You can also identify contrada symbols while you are walking around Siena, regardless of whether you are there for the Palio. My first time in Siena I stayed at the Leocorno contrada. I still have the ceramic tile that I purchased – which has a painted unicorn prancing about it – on my bookshelf. You can get your children involved in the identification of the symbols. They are even included in the mosaic floor at Siena’s cathedral. You now have a prepared-made scavenger hunting.

Guided Tours in Siena

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Siena’s 17 “Contrade” (Neighborhoods)

  • Caterpillar Bruco – The Bruco contrada symbol shows a caterpillar sitting on a rose and wearing a crown. The colors are blue, yellow, and green.
  • Crested Porcupine – The Istrice Contrada uses a porcupine symbol and its colors are black, white, blue and blue.
  • Dragon (Drago). The Drago contrada symbol depicts a flying dragon holding a banner. These colors are yellow, green, and red.
  • Eagle – Aquila contrada includes the Duomo and the symbol of a two-headed black-eagle is the . The colors are black, yellow, and blue. Aquila has had the fewest victories in the past centuries.
  • Forest (Selva). The Selva contrada features a rhinoceros and an oak tree. It is also decorated with hunting weapons. The colors are green, orange, and a little bit of white.
  • Giraffe – The Giraffa contrada’s symbol is a Giraffe, and its colors include red and white.
  • Goose (Oca). The Oca contrada goose emblem is wearing a crown with a blue ribbon and a crown. Contrada colors are green and white with a little bit of red. Oca has had the most victories throughout the centuries.
  • Little Owl, Civetta Contrada – This symbol is a small owl with a crown and its colors are red, white, and black.
  • Panther (Pantera) – The Pantera contrada, a rearing panther with three colors, is red, white, and blue.
  • Seashell (Nicchio). The Nicchio contrada sign is a scallop with a crown. These colors are red, yellow, and blue.
  • Shewolf (Lupa). The Lupa contrada sign is the familiar Lupa she-wolf nursing twins. It’s also the symbol for Rome. The colors are black, white, and a little bit of orange.
  • Snail – Chiocciola contrada symbol is a snail. The colors are red, yellow and blue.
  • Tortoise – The Tartuca contrada features a tortoise bearing the Savoy insignia and its colors being yellow and darkblue.
  • Tower (Torre). The Torre contrada symbol shows an elephant with a tower on its rear. The colors are dark red and blue.
  • Unicorn (Leocorno). – The Leocorno contrada Unicorn on its symbol is rearing. Its colors are orange, white with a little bit of blue.
  • Valley of the Ram, Valdimontone – A rearing ram wearing a blue shield is the Valdimontone contrada sign. Its colors include red, yellow and a little bit of white.
  • Wave (Onda). The Onda contrada uses a dolphin symbol with appropriate wavy white background and light blue colors.
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